On being a scientist: is it a lifestyle or a 9-5-job?

On being a scientist: is it a lifestyle or a 9-5-job?

28-01-2021

“Whenever I read young scientists complaining about long working hours or stress or not having a permanent position, my advice is ‘leave science’. Science is creative, an art form. No artist, singer, writer would ever complain about long working hours or lack of a permanent job. It’s not a normal job but it can be the best job in the world.”

This is wat Harald Schmidt, professor of Pharmacology and Personalised Medicine, wrote on his LinkedIn-page a few weeks ago. With it he posted a video of 2014 Chemistry Nobel Prize Laureate Stefan Hell sharing his career advice for young scientists and researchers. Underneath the post a discussion began, especially between Schmidt and Katherine Bassil, a PhD student at the faculty of Psychology and Neurosciences.

Bassil, who also took offense with the tone Schmidt used in his replies, feels encouraging young scientists to work long hours creates an unhealthy environment. “We should slowly abandon the narrative that it is expected of early-career scientists to put their personal lives aside in order to succeed in science. It is not only unhealthy, it is wrong.”

For Schmidt, research is a lifestyle. “The taxpayers believe that my work makes the world a better place, and thus finance my life. Not many people have such a privilege; a privilege that I live up to by always trying to do my best - at 7am, at noon, and at 11pm.”

A part of the exchange on LinkedIn can be read via this link.

Both agreed to write an opinion article, going more in depth into their original statements. 

 

The future of academia in the eyes of not just a PhD student

“Presently your four reviews/papers seem to have been referenced 8 times. So you speak more theoretically about being a scientist” replied the UM professor to my comment where I argue that we should not encourage scientists to overwork if they want to stay in science.

A few weeks ago, I was confronted with a rather controversial topic in a LinkedIn post. A UM professor wrote that he advices students “to leave science” if they are not pleased with working after working hours and on weekends. I found that very discouraging, as a student but also as someone that is looking to pursue a career in science and still maintain a good work-life balance.

But according to that professor, I was in no place to give my opinion on how medical research (or any job as a matter of fact) should be or has to be because of my lack of experience, achievements in the field, and the handful of publications that I’ve published so far.

I will start by saying that this mentality in academia should change.

First, as PhD students, we equally have a say and a voice on the environment that we would like to work in and develop as scientists just as much as any post-doc, assistant professor, or highest esteemed professor. We may differ in the amount of experience and expertise we have but when it comes to healthy work ethics, we are equal. We should slowly abandon the narrative that it is expected of early-career scientists to put their personal lives aside in order to succeed in science. It is not only unhealthy, it is wrong.

Second, my number of publications do not define me as a scientist, the number of hours I work do not reflect the outcome I produce. Working hard does not necessarily equate to working long hours. If we want to promote working hard, we should promote working effectively.

Academia has become an environment that encourages quantity over quality, hence publication pressure. But let’s not forget how the recent past years the fields of biomedical sciences and psychology have been facing one of the biggest criticism and that is the lack of reproducibility but also the increase in number of retractions due to numerous breaches of research integrity, even from professors with the highest h-index. What is being a scientist after all? The number of publications and citations that you have or the impact (even the smallest) that you are trying to make?

Third, there is a big association between overworked PhD students and mental illness or burnouts. How can we, as scientists, investigate mental illnesses (and diseases) in the general population and disregard the mental well-being of our own students? It is of my belief that supervisors have a responsibility to ensure that their students are not feeling overwhelmed with work and associated stress. Supervisors should be role models/motivators and not break your aspirations and dreams because you have a different perspective on work-life balance.

I personally do not believe we should encourage students and aspiring scientists to consider a career only if they overwork and don’t have weekends. You can most definitely be a scientist and work from 9 to 5 or skip weekends. That doesn’t mean you are a lazy scientist or a bad one or lack dedication. This means you also value your personal life, your family, your mental well-being. This means your priorities are not only your work and that should be normal and not criticised. This narrative of an overworked scientist working day and night should be abandoned. This is not what science is about. We should encourage students and scientists to manage both, to know when to say no, and still be successful.

Working from 9-5 is healthy, this does not mean you are not allowed to spend an evening working on a grant or finalizing the analysis of your data, or in my case feeding your cell cultures on weekends. But this does not mean that this should be imposed on students and expected from early-career scholars de facto. If you value work above all other things in life, that is your choice but not that of everyone else.

I won’t be discouraged. Yes, I am an early-career scientist, yes I only have 4 publications that have only been cited 8 times, but that doesn’t make me any less of a scientist. What also counts is my voice as a PhD student, and my vision on how I would like to see the future of academia, and the environment that I would like to work in. And this can not be censored because of my experience level.

Because what being a scientist to me is, does not necessarily reflect what being a scientist to you is.

A few days after responding to other comments on this post, together with another UM professor from my department condemning such behaviour. We both got blocked and the comments once made by this professor were deleted. It is certainly easy to censor comments and block people out of social media when it is convenient. However, in reality we will always be there raising our voices for a better tomorrow in academia.

Katherine Bassil, PhD candidate at the Department of Psychiatry and Neuropsychology

 

Research is my lifestyle

It has never happened before that I got invited to write about my passion for science. I recently liked a LinkedIn clip from the Nobel Prize Dialogue Seoul featuring the 2014 Laureate Stefan Hell and his slightly abbreviated career advice for young scientists: „It’s not great to be a professor or a scientist, it’s great to make discoveries. Enjoy the path. If you can’t, don’t do it.” I could almost stop here. That is how I feel about science too.

Being able to work as a researcher I always perceived as a gift handed to me by society. I have been fortunate to be able to work in an area that has been fascinating to me, who else can say this from his job. Being creative like an artist but not depending on people liking or buying my work as long as it is correct has been rewarding for me, even in the early days of my career.

What for do I work? Definitely not for common surrogates such as number of (high impact) papers or funding although, traditionally, they have been necessities in a research system that considers such surrogates as measures of success (and I am glad that we now see efforts for more differentiation in rewarding academic work). For me my main driver has been to give back to society for allowing me to work as a researcher. In Medicine this is obvious: to achieve patient benefit, for example by elucidating a disease, finding a new diagnosis or — even better — a new therapy that is eventually applied in practice.

But passion is not everything. I work hard, no doubt. I need to be resilient, believe in my path. Getting a grant rejected is hard. Getting it several times rejected even harder, experiments fail, whole projects may need to be abandoned, some peers or reviewers may treat you unfairly, but one needs to keep going, often an extra mile or two. For me, it is certainly not a 9-to-5 job. I don’t have this kind of discipline. At any time of the day, I might think about science.

My work is part of my life, “research is a lifestyle” as one of my team members has phrased it for herself. That is why I personally do not like the term work-life balance at all, as there is little that requires to be balanced for me. The taxpayers believe that my work makes the world a better place, and thus finance my life. Not many people have such a privilege; a privilege that I live up to by always trying to do my best - at 7am, at noon, and at 11pm. This does not mean that I don’t do other things. In fact, I love to and need to do a lot of other stuff, simply to ventilate my brain, so that sooner or later it can think about science with joy. If I couldn’t, I wouldn’t do it.

The next level is of course to shape, refine, lead and inspire individuals into high-performing teams. It is so rewarding to see former PhD students becoming professors themselves and leading now departments and clinics. Almost nothing in medicine that has impact can nowadays be achieved by individuals. It’s all about teams. Not just teams that like each other, but teams that achieve ambitious goals and enjoy the path.

This is my personal story, of course told with the relative comfort of a tenured position. Nevertheless, I encourage everybody to find the best ways to feel content, recognized and productive for society in our jobs, at any career stage. I realise that there are many ways to deal with the challenges of academic careers and to reach fulfilment in our work without getting overwhelmed. This is not always easy, and we cannot do this alone. The role of the university, therefore, is to provide the space and support for individual and differentiated career pathways that at the same time fulfil society's expectations on us.

Harald Schmidt, professor of Pharmacology and Personalised Medicine

Recognition and rewards initiative

To mark the university’s 45th anniversary, rector Rianne Letschert will deliver a brief speech from the Sint Janskerk tomorrow at 15.30hrs, which will be streamed on the UM YouTube channel. In her speech she will also address the new recognition and rewards initiative for academics.

These two opinion articles stirred up a discussion on Twitter. In response to that Observant's editor-in-chief Riki Janssen wrote an editorial. A few staff members of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences also put their thoughts down to paper