Adventures in Ethics and Science

Via Abi, I learn that Chemistry Blog has posted an interesting letter from a PI to his postdoc dated July 27, 1996. The letter, on official Caltech Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering letterhead, suggests that not all the stories one hears about the unreasonable work hours demanded of postdocs are exaggerated. Indeed, the most surprising thing about the letter is that it puts the PI’s expectations in writing.

The letter reads:

Guido,

I would like to provide for you in written form what is expected from you as a member of the research group. In addition to the usual work-day schedule, I expect all of the members of the group to work evenings and weekends. You will find that this is the norm here at Caltech. On occasion, I understand that personal matters will make demands on your time which require you to be away from your responsibilities to the laboratory. However, it is not acceptable to me when it becomes a habit.

I have noticed that you have failed to come into lab on several weekends, and more recently failed to show up in the evenings. Moreover, in addition to such time off, you recently requested some vacation. I have no problem with vacation time that is well earned, but I do have a problem with continuous vacation and time off that interferes with the project. I find this very annoying and disruptive to your science.

I expect you to correct your work-ethic immediately.

I receive at least one post-doctoral application each day from the U.S. and around the world. If you are unable to meet the expected work-schedule, I am sure that I can find someone else as an appropriate replacement for this important project.

In addition to this letter, Chemistry Blog has some other exemplars of scientific bosses staking their claims to their underlings’ time. And, as you might imagine, there is a lively discussion in the comments thread on the post.

After Boing Boing linked the Chemistry Blog post, the author of the letter, Erick M. Carreira, spoke to the Boston Globe and suggested that this letter is possibly a subtle bit of comedy writing that is being taken out of context :

Reached by email at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, where he runs a lab, Carreira said that the letter has been circulating for a dozen years, and he expressed frustration that it has surfaced again in such a public way. It has caused him to receive “many e-mails that have been threatening and downright inhumane,” he wrote. In response to questions about the letter’s authenticity, and a request for a more general comment, he forwarded an email that he had sent to an earlier correspondent. It said, in part:

I wonder whether you would think it fair to be judged on the basis of a letter 14 years old, especially when the comments and rash judgments are made without knowledge of the context or the circumstances surrounding the individuals involved. Indeed how does anyone out who is so quick to pass judgement and who is coming to conclusions know that it is not part of a 14-year old joke (or satire as you state) that backfired? …

I am quite sure everyone has at some time or another an e-mail, photo, letter, note, or comment that when taken out of context can be used to create whatever monster one wishes to envisage. After all no one is perfect. Is it really fair to be haunted by these endlessly? I do not know how old you are, but can you really say you have done nothing you would rather forget about and not be reminded of 14 years later? I like to think people grow and change.

In this note and in a shorter one to me, Carreira said that he had been advised by a lawyer not to comment on the validity or the context of the letter. (I asked him a follow-up question about the oblique suggestions that the letter was some kind of joke, but he has not yet replied.)

A few observations:

1. Sending threatening emails to someone — even someone who may have made unreasonable demands of his lab members — is pretty rotten.

2. Maybe Carreira should hold onto his day job at Swiss Federal Institute of Technology rather than chucking it all to become a comedy writer, unless his comedy stylings are not well represented by this 14-year-old letter. (Or maybe a PI’s funny bone is tickled by a different kind of humor than postdocs and grad students find appealing.)

3. I agree that people can (and should) grow and change over the years. Some of that growth, though, may involve recognizing and acknowledging that some of the things one did in the past were knuckleheaded moves.

4. I fully expect anything and everything that I put on official letterhead with my signature will be taken very seriously. This is one reason why I do not routinely load my printer with a ream of letterhead. Choosing to put it on letterhead is choosing to be accountable for it in an official capacity. If one doesn’t want to be haunted by something endlessly, one shouldn’t print it out on letterhead and sign it — or, having inadvertently done so, one should feed it right to the shredder.

5. Even in the event that the letter was meant as a joke and that its intent was recognized as such by its recipient (and so far there’s no clear evidence to support that interpretation), I have a hard time imagining that a “joke” like this wouldn’t have at least an undertone of menace, on account of the inescapable power disparity between postdoc and PI — not to mention the explicit (even if “joking”) reminder that postdocs are easily replaced.

6. I recognize that particular scientific projects may have periods that require all-hands-on-deck labor for extended hours that don’t fit into a standard 8 hour workday (e.g., because you are working with animals that hit particular developmental marks when they hit them rather than when it is convenient, or because your lab has its block of beam-time this month and then won’t have any for another six months, etc.). However, setting forth regular workdays and evenings and weekends as the standing expectation for when one will be at work (and assuming that one could not possibly be engaged in a legitimate work-related activity if one is anywhere but the lab) is, frankly, ridiculous. The appropriate response from one’s colleagues, if one is making such demands of lab members, might be to take one aside and explain that this is unreasonable (and potentially harmful to lab members as well as lab morale). The appropriate response from anyone else is to point and laugh at the person making such unreasonable demands.

And who could have foreseen that, in the course of less than a decade and a half, the internets would make the collective activity of pointing and laughing so effective?

Comments

  1. #1 Lorax
    June 30, 2010

    Meh, in the absence of context I am unwilling to pass judgement on the evilness of this PI or victimhood of said post-doc. Clearly (IMO) there is no reason to think the original letter is a joke, and the fact the PI goes to the “it was a joke” card supports the post-doc’s position. However, we really don’t know what the expectations were. Nights and weekends could mean any number of things. For example, if the lab members are not usually in lab until late morning, evenings should be expected. As I am sure comes up over and over again, much benchwork science is not remotely amenable to 5 days of 8 hour shifts. I think the letter was poorly written (even if it is simply that the PI is an asshole, usually one might take some steps to not emphasize that in writing), but I do not think this anecdote represents a data set of anything.

  2. #2 Benjamin Franz
    June 30, 2010

    The ‘how do you know’ sounds like an attempt to muddy the water since he at no point directly claims it was a joke or otherwise even presented any actual explanation of the letter. It is also somewhat damning that he has apparently now ‘lawyered up’.

    It doesn’t sound like there is an actual ‘just an innocent mis-understanding’ explanation waiting to surface.

    That said, it was, as he said, 14 years ago and well beyond any conceivable statute of limitations. Unless something much more recent surfaces it is probably not something worth hounding this particular man over.

  3. #3 J-Dog
    June 30, 2010

    Thanks for the post. I thought things were bad, but not THIS bad! I sent a link to my daughter and son who are considering grad schools for ChemE in their future.

    And yes, the comments at The Chemistry Blog are great, and well worth the read.

  4. #4 Otto
    June 30, 2010

    “However, setting forth regular workdays and evenings and weekends as the standing expectation for when one will be at work (and assuming that one could not possibly be engaged in a legitimate work-related activity if one is anywhere but the lab) is, frankly, ridiculous.”

    Indeed! My graduate advisor only tried to make the batchelors move in with each other.

  5. #5 Anon
    July 1, 2010

    Just a thought, but if I wanted to make someone think I was ‘lawyered-up’, I’d say something along the lines of what Carreira said!

    It’s worked for me though – I’m staying anonymous.

  6. #6 GrrlScientist
    July 1, 2010

    interesting. when i was hired for my postdoc position, this was the expressed expectation from my advisor. this also is the reason i was threatened to be fired, and then not given a letter of rec for my next position when my advisor found i was writing a blog (apparently, a colleague mentioned it because i had written something he found amusing). even though i was clearly writing it during “non-work hours” (saturday evenings/nights) instead of schmoozing in bars. go figure.

  7. #7 Malcolm
    July 1, 2010

    I can’t say that the expectation is fictional. I left a research grant position as a grad student because of marital issues. When I went to my advisor to talk about the problems at home, my advisor told me that the best medicine would be to spend more hours at the lab. This was decidedly not the right answer.

  8. #8 Rob Knop
    July 1, 2010

    I have anecdotally heard about a few other circumstances that confirm what Grrl is saying– that in a nontrivial number of places, this is the general expectation in some Chemistry labs. Yes, statistics isn’t the plural of anecdote, yadda yadda yadda, but there is clear evidence that at least in some places, inhuman treatment of grad students and post-docs is considered standard operating procedure.

    Whether or not Carreira is (or was) the monster that this letter seems to make him out to be, the danger of poo-pooing it as “a joke” or “something 14 years ago” runs the danger of deflecting light away from a horrible situation that is still ongoing in some places.

  9. #9 bill
    July 1, 2010

    In this context, this is worth a read.

    Bottom line: postdocs ARE a dime a dozen.

  10. #10 Lorax
    July 2, 2010

    Well for US post-docs, post-docs aren’t a dime-a-dozen. (Unless you are only willing to go to a Nobel Laureate lab or Nobel Laureate wannabe lab.) There are many many biology related labs (cant speak about other sciences) that would love to have a US citizen post-doc, but do not get applications and hire non-citizens. We would love US citizens for completely selfish reasons, ability to get on training grants and greater ability to obtain extramural funding.

    What still surprises me is that graduate students and post-docs pretend like they don’t know that PI Dr. X has expectations for 80 hour work weeks. Unless said PI was brand new and you didnt bother to talk with her about expectations (providing she didnt lie), this problem has more to do with graduate student/post-doc stupidity. Even GrrlScientist notes the expectation was expressed. I understand GrrlScientist points out blogging was during non-work times, but based on her boss being a dictatorial bastard/bitch, Im guessing the idea of work-time used here is GrrlScientist’s not the PI’s.

    We can rail about how PI X must stick to a 40 hour work week (on average). But when PI X, is dealing with grant funding, publications, competitors, etc who have grad. students and post-docs that happily work 70 hours a week (on average), PI X can start planning for her next career.

    I am not advocating that an environment that requires a 40, 50, 60, 80 hour work week is the right one, but dammit a graduate student and especially a post-doc should do their fucking homework before choosing a lab. If you don’t like the expectations, don’t join the lab.