Science Careers: Now offering advice for privileged men from 30 years ago

On Friday, Science published an essay under the heading “Working Life.” The essay is a first-person account of one path to success in a research career. Problematically, the path that Science chose to feature is one that it is inaccessible to most people today – as I’ll discuss below. When Science showcases such paths, they demonstrate that they are either out of touch with or don’t care about the reality of the majority of young scientists who are not white, het-, cis-, able-bodied and slavishly devoted to their work. I’m sure that some people will argue that this first-person essay is not Science saying that this is the way to succeed in a career, it’s simply one author’s advice. But Science gave it the page space and ink, rather than choosing to print a more inclusive (and probably more useful) career section. Much like Nature’s “Womanspace” fail a few years ago, Science gave Diamandis’s dated, privileged, and out of touch essay its stamp approval when it published it in the magazine. Coming just a few weeks after Science published a column advising women scientists to put up with sexual harassment “with good humor”, it is starting to seem like the journal published by an association dedicated to the advancement of science would like to take science back to the Mad Men era. If that’s not the legacy Dr. Marcia McNutt (who is about to become head of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences) wants to leave from her tenure as Science’s editor-in-chief, I hope she’ll take a deep look at the sort of advice her Careers section keeps offering up.

Here’s my take on the many levels of fail in this week’s Science Careers section.

The essay “Getting noticed is half the battle” is by Eleftherios Diamandis at the University of Toronto, and you can read it here: Diamandis starts by asserting that faculty and administrators have a shortlist of candidates “they consider most promising”, “well before a faculty position even opens.” Diamandis argues then that “ensuring your visibility” to those who hire “can be the deciding factor.” My experience with both sides of the hiring process at two universities has been very different. When I’ve been involved in searches, maybe a few individuals had a few people they’d like to see apply, but there has been no discussed shortlist prior to reviewing all of the applications. We’ve hired the candidates who were strongest at all stages of the process (initial application, phone/Skype, campus interview), regardless of whether they were known to us ahead of time. Both places where I’ve taken jobs, I was a complete unknown to the faculty prior to applying. My experience then suggests that being known ahead of time is hardly the deciding factor in tenure-track faculty searches in my field. This is as it should be – because the people most likely to be visible and known ahead of time are the ones who are benefitting from the “old boys club” of connections from famous advisors and labs. Women and people of color are less likely to be trained in such settings.  Maybe it’s different in Diamandis’s field (or era) or for senior positions, but that’s never caveated in the essay. Students and post-docs reading the essay might think that they are overwhelmingly handicapped if they don’t know someone on the search committee. That’s certainly what the headline and first paragraph suggest.

In the second paragraph, Diamandis describes his educational journey in Greece and Canada. Pertinently, he got his PhD and medical degree 30 years ago. Immediately, this makes me question how germane his experiences are to being able to provide advice for today’s students and post-docs. Career expectations have shifted pretty substantially in the last few decades and I’ve had more than one high-profile late-career scientist tell me that they wouldn’t have gotten a faculty position (or tenure) in today’s system. Thirty-year-old experiences are germane though in one respect. People like Diamandis sit on hiring committees, so it behooves us younger folks to learn how senior faculty got to where they are so that we can understand and respect the differences between their early career era and ours.

Next, Diamandis describes what he learned from his first job working in a biotech start-up spun-off from the university while he served as an adjunct faculty member. I actually quite liked this section because it shows that academia is not the be-all-end-all of scientific careers and that skills developed in industry are useful for academic careers (and vice versa).

After this, though, Diamandis’s essay really goes off the rails. This is the section that got lots of raised eyebrows on Twitter and really made me question why Science decided to publish this essay. Not happy with his industry job, Diamandis wanted to get back into academia. Here’s how he described his strategy:

I worked 16 to 17 hours a day, not just to make progress on the technology but also to publish our results in high-impact journals. How did I manage it? My wife—also a Ph.D. scientist—worked far less than I did; she took on the bulk of the domestic responsibilities. Our children spent many Saturdays and some Sundays playing in the company lobby. We made lunch in the break room microwave.

Whoa…wait a minute…this is what it takes to move from industry to academia? Let’s break this down further.

Sixteen to seventeen hour work days leave just 7-8 hours for sleeping, eating, exercising, spending time with family and friends, commuting, and doing anything else with your life. That’s not enough time. Most people function best with at least 7-8 hours of sleep per day, so here Diamandis is asserting that his path to success would require significant, chronic, unhealthy sleep deprivation. That’s even before we think about people with disabilities or illness that limit the number of hours or days that they can work. Even with only 4-5 hours of sleep per night, there’s barely enough time left to eat and commute. Forget seeing your partner, helping raise your children, going for a run, or even going to the dentist. This sort of work schedule is unhealthy, inefficient (productivity decreases when workweeks exceed 50 hours), and simply impossible for those who cannot eschew all responsibility other than their job. Anyone with health limitations or child- or elder-care obligations can’t work 16-17 hour days. Anyone who wants to do more than tiptoe through a hallway so as not to disturb their sleeping family can’t either.

Never fear though, Diamandis could count on his wife – talented, hard-working, and ambitious enough to earn a PhD despite an often chilly climate for women – to single-handedly manage raising their children and running their household, on top of her own professional career. She didn’t work less than Diamandis, it’s just that much of her work was unpaid and under-valued. Here then we have the root explanation for how Diamandis could work those 16-17 hour days. He had a helpmeet to take care of his domestic life. Even though the wife didn’t forgo a career entirely, their marriage was neo-traditional with strongly gendered division of responsibility. Most heterosexual marriages today are neo-traditional, with two working parents, but with the woman taking on more childcare and housework and therefore working fewer hours and earning less income. According to Diamandis’s account, this arrangement worked fine for them, but what are those without such a helpmeet supposed to do? What Diamandis is describing is inaccessible to large swaths of the STEM workforce. Having a partner to take on “the bulk of the domestic responsibilities” shouldn’t be a requirement for success in a scientific career.

The Diamandis children spent weekends in the lab’s lobby and frequently ate microwave lunches. In this we see that pursuit of career success for the man then, requires not only a helpmeet wife but also certain sacrifices on the part of the children. No weekend soccer games, free time outdoors, or playing with friends in this scenario. Instead, the children are expected to occupy themselves in an adult space for at least half of every weekend. I’ve occasionally brought my children into work (e.g., when school closures fall on teaching days), and in all cases the initial excitement of being at mommy’s work is quickly replaced by boredom. I can’t imagine expecting my children to entertain themselves at my office for a full day every week. I think that some exposure of children to their parents’ workplaces is probably educational and good, but using the company lobby as a weekend playpen seems extreme. Surely this is not the model of parenting that most people aspire to, and to tout such radical prioritization of work above family is off-putting to say the least.

Whatever we may think of Diamandis’s time management arrangements, he made time to be visible to the department where he was an adjunct faculty member:

I made myself visible by participating in every research seminar—not easy, considering the hour-long drive and how busy I was at the company. Each time I entered the lecture room, I made a point of passing in front of the department chair before sitting down. At the end of every seminar, I made sure to ask a carefully crafted question or two.

When I read that, I had two thoughts. I’ve known people who make a show of entering the seminar room and ask a question after every talk. Yes, people notice them. But we also roll our eyes at such obvious displays of self-importance and preening. Beyond that, maybe some weeks those 3 hours (two driving, one in the seminar) could have been spent more efficiently, so that he could work shorter days and spend more time with his family (or sleeping). Seminars are important, sure, but they are not trump cards over everything else in our lives.

The long work days, familial help, and preening paid off though. Diamandis published as much as the regular faculty (making sure to draw the chair’s attention to that fact) and …

After 18 months of this, the chair paid me an unexpected visit at the company and invited me to become his deputy in the department and at the teaching hospital. Ten years later, I succeeded him.

Wow! Now that’s an accomplishment you don’t hear about much. Diamandis actually managed to convert an adjunct position into a regular faculty line, apparently without even going through a search process. But let me dispel any readers who may have gotten up hope at the prospect that they too will convince their university to pony up a faculty line if they are a stellar adjunct or research scientist. In today’s academic world, where more than half of teaching positions are off the tenure track, there’s little incentive for a university to move someone who is already in a (lower paid) adjunct or research scientist position onto the tenure-track. Far, far more often than stories like Diamandis’s, I hear stories of adjuncts passed over when a full-time faculty line is opened.  While I’m happy for Diamandis and his family that it worked out for them, to suggest that hard work and attention-seeking behavior will turn an adjunct or research scientist position into a tenure-line faculty position is out of touch with the reality of modern universities.

Continuing with the happy endings for the Diamandis family, his two children (boy and girl) are both now biomedical scientists and his wife is a “senior scientist at a major teaching hospital.” I think hearing from any of them would be a far more interesting story. How did Diamandis compulsive work habits shape the way the children have plotted their careers and lives? Does the daughter expect to shoulder the vast majority of household tasks and childcare if she’s in a heterosexual partnership? Does the son expect his partner too? How did Dr. Mrs. Diamandis manage to become a successful senior scientist while raising children and running a household? For many of us early in our careers in academic science, she seems in a better position to be offering advice.

Diamandis concludes his essay: “Making sure you are noticed can give you the edge you need over your silent competition.” That’s hardly the lesson I’d take away from his narrative. I’d sum it up like this: “If you were a man 30 years ago and ignored your family in favor of work, you might have been privileged enough to get a faculty position without an open search.” Not as pithy, but more truthful.

22 thoughts on “Science Careers: Now offering advice for privileged men from 30 years ago

  1. Pingback: sciwo on that ridiculous Science Careers advice | Drugmonkey

  2. Always good (read:frightening) to be reminded that the sciences are entrenched in the same damaging patriarchal power structures as everything else.

  3. In my experience, people who claim to work 17 hour days for a prolonged period are usually telling porkie pies. I’m sure he is exaggerating his story for the audience, and that appears to have worked quite well

    • Either porkie pies or he spent a lot of inefficient time at work – he was *there* for 16 hours, but really only worked for 8-10 of those. But yeah, 16-17 hour days for 18 months straight sounds impossible without some kind of breakdown.

  4. Zing! Thanks for calling this out in such great detail and such a thorough analysis. Early career scientists need to know that this is not typical behaviour or realistic in academic science today.

  5. What Dave said. 17 hour-days for years on end are bullshit. He might have spent that much at work, perhaps avoiding family, but he wasn’t productive for 17 hours per day.

  6. I’ve often heard senior PIs who give career advice claim that they used to work over 16 hours a day as post docs. I usually attribute that to bad memory and wanting to guilt their own post docs into working longer days.

  7. So the bottom line is that Science magazine advises young scientists to find a partner who will sacrifice their career on the alter of yours. Fabulous.

    • The amazing thing seems to be that the partner’s career also blossomed – presumably despite the fact that she couldn’t be so visible either at seminars by curtseying to the important people or by working such long hours. Hmm I wonder why. Maybe she had success because of the excellent quality of her work. Maybe that should be part II of the article in Science.

      • Well, blossomed in the sense that it would be considered a win in today’s climate, sure.

        I do have to wonder about the editorial process behind such essays. That the board solicits it (?) and publishes it sans critique or counterpoint does leave them open to the suggestion that this is “approved” in some way…. or frankly that they’re trolling us.

  8. It’s true that I had to work long hours 30 years ago, but that’s because I had to build equipment and make reagents myself before I could begin the real work. Purifying Ig sub-classes from rabbit serum, conjugating them to enzymes or nanogold particles, trying to pour SDS PAGE gels that didn’t leak, home made equipment for pouring gradient gels, trying to transfer proteins from said gels onto nitrocellulose sheets hand cut from a brittle roll of the stuff, and using blotting paper and heavy weights to effect the transfer. Stripping down fraction collectors blocked with years of accumulated crystallized salts, praying that the peristaltic pumps of the day would function and not let your columns dry up overnight, making up large volumes of pentabarbitol buffer for immunoelectrophoresis sans gloves, very few disposables (all pipettes were made of heavy gauge glass and were recycled for years). There were literally no kits for anything. Made lots of mistakes doing all this (a favourite was borrowing the glassware to make a freeze dryer from a grumpy senior scientist and accidentally assembling it with silicon rubber instead of silicon grease. I had to soak that sucker in concentrated nitric acid for weeks before I could disassemble it). Of course, none of this is what we’d call science these days, but I think I learned a great deal from doing all of this myself rather than simply ordering the stuff (which we couldn’t because it didn’t exist). It was actually pretty fun, and was the source of a great deal of nostalgic anecdotes. It also gave you time to think about what you were doing and why. OTOH, we didn’t have anywhere near the levels of regulations as exist today which probably consumes as much time as making and repairing equipment and reagents, but far less enjoyable.

  9. The thing I hate about those stories as well is the idea that your career is one linear, perfectly calculated series of steps in a meritocracy with 100% correlation between effort, intelligence and success. It makes it seem like your best chance in science is to put all your effort into scheming instead of genuine science and being open to opportunity. Maybe you could do that 30 years ago but I think now that’s actually a recipe for failure.

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