Dear TWiV hosts,
I’d like to throw my name in the hat for the Viruses Book giveaway. But more importantly I feel like adding to the ‘spin-off’ conversation you had about publishing and career advancement.
It’s clear from episode 468 that Dr Amy Rosenfeld is a fully qualified scientist who knows the A-Z of virology (especially Zika). Being trained by Earth’s Virology Professor clearly has made her an excellent scientist. It is also evident from her pick, that she is someone with immense compassion. We often forget the purpose of doing research, that is to alleviate world suffering (well at least it’s one of the purposes). I feel scientists have great propensity and opportunity to create change to this very dark world we are living in. Many of us got into science because we believed we could do that. But the pressures of publishing and reaching KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) sometimes grind away at that initial drive and just make us into impact factor seeking drones.
It’s obvious that Dr Rosenfeld will make an amazing PI. It saddens me that someone like her has difficulty in getting such a position. I was taught by my Ph.D supervisor not to seek for high end journals. He was of the opinion that it’s just important to get your science out. I agree with him but sadly most scientists don’t. I once met a young Assistant Professor who told me “You need to learn to play the impact factor game.” He had several Nature papers, a company and a faculty position. His words affected me quite badly. Not just because I didn’t have papers in high impact factor journals, but because that is the sad reality. No one will give you a job because you’re passionate or because you want to inch towards the solving the world’s problems.
I’m still proud of my work, despite it being very meager compared to other scientists of my age. If you check my Google Scholar page, please don’t, but if you did you’ll see that my papers are hardly cited. In fact the work that I’m most proud of was published in 2016 and has not been cited at all. But I still feel a rush each time I read and learn something new. I get all tingly inside when the data fits a nice curve or when a trend appears to prove or disprove a hypothesis. I do feel like this is the best career for me but I just don’t know how to ‘play the game’. Maybe I’m not a brilliant scientist. Maybe I’m delusional in thinking that someone like me can run my own lab. But does that mean that someone like me, needs to live contract to contract, pay-check to pay-check? This industry is tough. There are too few permanent jobs out there and I really hope not to still be a postdoc when I’m in my mid 40s.
I wish Dr Rosenfeld all the best in her research and her career. I’d like her to know that well-meaning and sincere scientists, like myself, are totally behind her. I wouldn’t give the same ‘play the game’ advice that was given to me. I’d tell her, just keep at it. Don’t let your drive and passion be replaced by wanting to seek publishing success. Let the science speak for itself and let your passion shine and maybe, just maybe, but hopefully, she will be the one to break the mold. Many of us are trying, I know I am.
this email concerns an offhand comment made in episode 463:
While mega-eV microscopes do exist, up to 3 MeV, they are generally used for materials science and physics rather than the biomolecular research for which cryo-EM is generally used.
In the early days of TEM, increasing the accelerating voltage was a brute force solution to problems such as “chromatic aberration”, in which the electrons were not all emitted with a uniform energy/wavelength and so were not focused to quite the same point. As the field matured more direct solutions were found, eg better sources with reduced eV spread, and the main reason for extreme voltages now is penetration through thicker samples. Structural biology has settled on 300 KeV as the standard source for high-resolution cryo-EM. Looking at EMDB statistics (https://www.ebi.ac.uk/pdbe/emdb/statistics_volt_source.html/) all submitted structures marked as >300 KeV seem to come from a single 400 KeV microscope which, incidentally, was destroyed by catastrophic flooding during tropical storm Allison in 2001. As an aside to that aside, lessons were learned from that flood and the replacement microscopes remained dry during Harvey’s recent deluge.
Dear Vincent and the TWiV gang,
I was really happy when Rich brought up the hours worked vs productivity plot in Jon Yewdell’s book on last week’s TWiV. I am a big fan of Yewdell and his ideas about science, but I’d seen that plot, and it bothered me.
First, the idea that you need to work insane hours to succeed in science is an assertion not backed up by data. And as scientists, shouldn’t we be making data-driven claims?
According to the plot, a scientist working 40 hours per week would produce ~2 millipapers per week, or 1 paper per _decade_. I get that the plot is meant somewhat facetiously, but that’s pretty far off.
Also, the productivity curve slopes increasingly upward as more hours are worked, but published studies support the opposite: as people work more and more their marginal productivity actually decreases. To quote this article in the Economist, “Output at 70 hours of work differed little from output at 56 hours. That extra 14 hours was a waste of time”.
[https://www.economist.com/blogs/freeexchange/2014/12/working-hours, “Proof that you should get a life”].
So working more and more hours is like the plateau phase in PCR: you’re doing more cycles but you’re not making more product.
Second, as a group, we scientists can be obsessed with status, and bragging about how much you work can come across more as a kind of posturing to demonstrate your scientific worthiness than as a way to show the path to success.
I of course agree that the more you work the more you produce, but this is only true to a point. And I disagree with the implied notion that it’s not possible to make reasonably valuable contributions to science while working relatively normal hours.
Personally, I really love science, but I love other aspects of my life just as much. I think most scientists actually fall into this category, and that’s why exceptionally productive people like Yewdell stand out.
Thanks as always for the great episodes.
Colorado State University
Jon and Ted Yewdell reply:
Thanks for the feedback, which addresses a critical question—what is a reasonable effort for a young scientist?
I love that you actually looked at the data in my plot, and I admit that the plot is somewhat inaccurate at the 40-hour mark, based on my experience. Depending of course on the scope of the paper and how much of the data the first author personally generates (I am assuming nearly all of it), probably the output at 40 hours a week would be one paper every 3 to 4 years, while at 80 hours a week, the output would be 1 to 1.5 papers a year. So, a two-fold increase in work gives a 4-fold or greater increase in productivity.
This is a rule of thumb, of course, and is based on the average individual (post-docs in my case, since I’ve had very few students in the lab). I’ve certainly seen individuals who were fully competitive for PI positions working 40 hours per week. This requires smart planning and iron discipline. Even with this, I would guess that work time is typically supplemented by an hour or two a day at home planning experiments and analyzing data, writing papers, and reading the literature, adding approx. 10 hours to the actual work week.
You are absolutely correct that I don’t have data to support this conclusion, but would very interested in the opinions of other PI’s who have been around the block.
I would argue that the data cited in the Economist, which deals with factory work, does not apply well to a creative and competitive field like biomedical research.
First, the competitive nature of science means that there is a good chance that one or more other labs are working on a similar project. We all know the costs of being scooped—depending on the exact project, the impact of the paper can drop considerably. Even if the efficiency of the low hour postdoc is higher (a la the Economist), they will still get to the finish line after the high hour postdoc.
Second, the high hour postdoc is likely to be more driven than the low hour postdoc. A critical part of solving difficult problems is obsession, which is usually essential to discovering something fundamentally new and important. And with obsession comes working long days and weekends.
There’s a fantastic talk from Richard Hamming that I came across in combing the internet for career advice: http://www.paulgraham.com/hamming.html.
Even though it is addressed to mathematicians/physicists/engineers, it applies to all creative and competitive fields. I urge TWiV listeners to read the entire essay, which I would describe as distilled wisdom: here’s two highly relevant parts for the present discussion:
Knowledge and productivity are like compound interest. Given two people of approximately the same ability and one person who works ten percent more than the other, the latter will more than twice outproduce the former. The more you know, the more you learn; the more you learn, the more you can do; the more you can do, the more the opportunity — it is very much like compound interest. I don’t want to give you a rate, but it is a very high rate. Given two people with exactly the same ability, the one person who manages day in and day out to get in one more hour of thinking will be tremendously more productive over a lifetime. I took Bode’s remark to heart; I spent a good deal more of my time for some years trying to work a bit harder and I found, in fact, I could get more work done. I don’t like to say it in front of my wife, but I did sort of neglect her sometimes; I needed to study. You have to neglect things if you intend to get what you want done. There’s no question about this.
Now again, emotional commitment is not enough. It is a necessary condition apparently. And I think I can tell you the reason why. Everybody who has studied creativity is driven finally to saying, “creativity comes out of your subconscious.” Somehow, suddenly, there it is. It just appears. Well, we know very little about the subconscious; but one thing you are pretty well aware of is that your dreams also come out of your subconscious. And you’re aware your dreams are, to a fair extent, a reworking of the experiences of the day. If you are deeply immersed and committed to a topic, day after day after day, your subconscious has nothing to do but work on your problem. And so you wake up one morning, or on some afternoon, and there’s the answer.
If my books, essays or talks come across as bragging about my effort, this is about the farthest thing from my mind. I really am just trying to provide advice to help young scientists, and have no other agenda (that I know of, anyway…who’s to say what lurks in the unconscious?) I have received feedback on the career talk from dozens of investigators around the world. The one thing they universally agree with is that many of the young scientists they see lack the drive needed for success. This might always have been the case (the song What’s the Matter with Kids Today, from Bye Bye Birdie comes to mind….it ends, Why can’t they be like we were, perfect in every way). but it doesn’t mean it’s wrong.
Finally, I want to emphasize that a career in science will be a lot easier and more fun if it doesn’t seem like work. While every minute will not be joy filled, scientists should generally feel lucky to have the opportunity spend their lives doing something so cool. This makes up for a lot of the angst and uncertainty.
That being said, it is still incumbent on older scientists to improve the working conditions for younger scientists—not just compensation issues, but the whole system of funding research, publishing papers, and the career ladder.
Jonathan Yewdell, MD, PhD
Chief, Cellular Biology Section
Laboratory of Viral Diseases
Hello Team TWiV
I was just listening to TWiV 467 which, if it were a journal article in search of a descriptive title might have been called ‘Jon and Ted’s Excellent Discussion of the Problems and Inequities in Scientific Research’.
This discussion inspired me to send you this listener’s pick
Its a bit of a romp through the troubling history of scientific publishing. I would love to hear the thoughts of the TWiV team on this article which I think covers some new territory on a subject that y’all have discussed many times.