The Frontal Cortex

Scienceblogs is abuzz with discussion over the difficulty of melding family life and an academic career in science. Having worked for several years as a tech in an ambitious neuroscience lab, I’m amazed that post-docs even contemplate a family life. Most post-docs and grad-students I knew worked 60 hours a week (or more) for piss-poor wages. They came in on the weekend, and would often find themselves in the lab at odd hours of the night, feeding cultured neurons or Aplysia spawn or monitoring some other experimental variable that doesn’t have to sleep.

I now realize that today’s post-docs are our struggling artists. They sacrifice the possibility of a normal life for the possibility of knowing The Truth. They don’t mind long hours because they know their work is meaningful.

But I’m curious why science takes so long. I know this is an incredibly naive question, but why do post-docs have to work so hard? What is it about the scientific process that forces the average researcher to come in on Saturday (and sometimes Sunday)?

My own limited experience tells me that one of the main reasons science remains so labor-intensive is failure. Perhaps I was simply inept, but an astonishing amount of my time in the lab was spent repeating failed experiments, or repeating successful experiments that failed on the second try. After awhile, I became obsessed with knowing why certain PCR’s or Western’s or whatever didn’t work, but it was all to no avail. Even when everything was fresh and sterile, I would still find myself staring at a blank gel after 10 hours of hard work.

Does the cheap labor of post-docs (and the even cheaper labor of lab technicians) stifle the drive to reduce experimental failure? Or is experimental failure just a necessary inefficiency, a side-effect of doing science? If post-docs were paid more, would their be more interest in increasing scientific productivity?

I certainly don’t have the answers to these questions, but I hope other scientists might venture a few guesses.


  1. #1 Evil Monkey
    July 25, 2006

    I’ll hazard a guess that the root cause is the severe imbalance between the number of postdoc positions and available faculty spots. Making the step from postdoc to faculty is a very unlikely hurdle to overcome, especially in this funding climate.

    As for experimental failure, part and parcel to the enterprise. Our work by definition pushes the limits of our knowledge, and often that includes pushing techological limits as well.

  2. #2 asg
    July 25, 2006

    I have to agreee with Evil Monkey on both points:
    some statistics show (is this vague enough for a professional scientist or what?) that about 20% of American PhDs end up in tenure-track positions.

    Also experimental failure is, again as EM says, part for the course.

    I must say though that the ‘struggling artists’ comparison is apt but not perfect. In my own experience, most scientific personnel are stuck in the pedestrian realities of experiments. The eureka moments and the joy of doing science is perhaps rarely experienced, if ever.

  3. #3 Jonah
    July 25, 2006

    Thanks for the feedback. While I know experimental failure is par for the course, economics tells us that increased productivity leads to higher wages. If scientists could find a way to make experimental failure less ubiquitous and commonplace, perhaps they might get paid a bit more. My own experimental failures had less to do with skirting the edge of knowledge than with simply using imperfect experimental techniques.
    As for the struggling artist analogy…Most artists don’t spend their day experiencing one eureka moment after another either. Like good science, good art is hard work. It’s a lot of tedious manual labor interrupted by the odd epiphany.

  4. #4 Barry
    July 25, 2006

    “…economics tells us that increased productivity leads to higher wages.”

    That’s actually not true; for a counter-example, see ‘The United States of America’, old Earth calendar ‘late 20th/early 21st centuries’.

  5. #5 Mouth of the Yellow River
    July 25, 2006

    Ni hao! Kannichi Wa!

    Science is one long series of small eureka moments. (Courtesy of Promega). It just depends on your point of view and expectations.


  6. #6 Dexter
    July 26, 2006

    I’m a (relatively) new to grad school, coming in from software development. Over the last few years, software developers have had something of a eureka moment: they realized that by working fewer hours they could increase net productivity (e.g., solving the correct problem, producing fewer bugs, etc. yields higher productivity).

    Watching myself and my peers race for submission deadlines or work till exhaustion reminds me a lot of “old fashion” programming. Of course, it’s only the roughest analogy, but I suspect that many of the problems mentioned (eg, experiment failure) are rooted in the lack of good management experience among professors.

  7. #7 Crusty Dem
    July 26, 2006

    I discovered in the late stages of graduate school that my extremely long hours (upwards of 80/week) were extraordinarily unproductive. I was doing cell culture and electrophysiology and while I had reams of data, it wasn’t going anywhere. Only when I switched to a lab doing slice electrophysiology, where the length of the day is limited by the survival of the slice (~6hrs after cutting, making for a 8-9 hr day), did I discover that I could get more work done in less time by increasing my productivity. I’d been fooling myself that my long hours were necessary, when they were really a hinderance (I was so drained that my productivity was poor).

    As far as the cheap labor arguments go (and technicians are nearly as expensive as many postdocs), it’s all supply and demand. Postdocs w/demonstrated productivity can command much higher wages if they’re smart (fund yourself w/an NRSA and demand extra from the boss), while others are left out in the cold… And the dearth of PI jobs will continue indefinitely..

  8. #8 Ian Findlay
    August 1, 2006

    As someone who has spent ~30 years in the “business”, it would be easy to state that it has always been like that – live with it.
    Ironically, the major problem with working the long hours at the bench is the lack of time available to spend thinking about the problem. But when you are a post-doc, there is someone somewhere sitting in an office to do that for you – in theory.

  9. #9 Tim
    August 10, 2006

    Why do postdocs/scientists work so hard? Peer pressure. Eureka moments are too rare to offer a positive Pavlovian stimulus, except for the very best whom we all desire to emulate (if not overtake).

    Why so much experimental failure? As my supervisor once said: if it were easy, it would’ve been done before. (Which in and of itself, was a peer pressure challenge.)

  10. #10 kate
    January 6, 2010

    wow!i did not no all these things

  11. #11 altın çilek
    May 7, 2011

    I was a little bitter, which only got worse when he and the neuroimaging group published the god-awful Coke vs Pepsi paper. None of this is to say that there isn’t the possibility for good fMRI-based science, I just haven’t seen much of it yet. Most of it is repeating interesting psychology experiments and looking for a differential fMRI signal. Given that they don’t know what they’re measuring, I don’t think it deserves to be called neuroscience, maybe “anatomical psychology”. Sorry. Still a little bitter….

  12. #12
    June 3, 2011

    Why_do_scientists_have_to_work.. He-he-he 🙂

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