Working hours

My kids are in school, DrMrA is out knocking everybody’s socks off at a conference, and I’ll be working in my office working on a response to a grant review. Which brings me to something I’m mulling over today- how much, or how little, actual working we expect from our laboratory staff (trainees, techs etc). Seems timely, what with it being Labor day and all.

Here is every PIs basic problem- how do we get absolutely the most (and most reliable) data out of each individual that we pay to work in our labs? I think we should get THE MAXIMUM of correctly done, well controlled work. I say this because for the most part we are spending taxpayer dollars for trainees’ salaries, and taxpayer dollars for our experiments.

Over the years I’ve seen the entire spectrum of PI personnel management techniques- from the  ‘accept-that-I-expect-you-to-be-chained-to-the-bench-during-thy-training-here’ approach all the way to the ‘however-long-it-takes-you-to-get-the-data-is fine’ approach (OK, big fat lie- I’ve never seen that second one- but some milder permutation marked by excessive patience). I’m sure you all know at least 1 PI who wants to abolish holiday breaks (and every other break) and feels that time to tend your personal life is a little luxury you can’t afford in the cutthroat world of academic science. There are those that think that if you are not working doing experiments at the bench, you are not working. For these PIs, more time = more data. This approach is only a strategy for coaching the team you have available, and I’m not sure I’ve ever seen it work very well.

In my little universe this issue isn’t about time served in data production, it is all about motivation.  I may seem like I’m kind of a softie- I don’t count people’s hours, and I don’t really think about it when someone asks me if they can take some time off to take care of this or that (unless it is a repeated pattern). I don’t want to chain trainees to the bench (figuratively). But I’m a tough-ass certain ways-  I don’t want personnel in the lab that aren’t internally motivated to be absolutely excellent.  I can’t teach a trainee to love science, and I think it would be silly to force someone to work on a problem that I find intellectually thrilling. I want personnel that are driven to know the answers to the questions we are asking. It is frigging hard to be an academic scientist right now- and I want those that step up to that challenge, by working harder, by reading more, by thinking more creatively, by writing and presenting better. I’ll go one step farther and say we shouldn’t be training any people in academic science who don’t have these qualities- and I’ve seen many who don’t. I prefer a strategy that emphasizes starting with the right players.

I’ll do my part too- I will freely give trainees in this category all my hard earned knowledge, both from life and from the academic-school-of-hard-knocks. Us PIs and our trainees have to realize that our fates are intertwined- the ability to keep the $$ rolling in for projects we care about and said trainees’ stipends, tuition and supplies, depends fairly directly on the ability of those trainees to produce data and thus, papers.


6 thoughts on “Working hours

  1. Finding the people who are driven is definitely great. Those people are going to do what needs to be done, whether it be time at the bench or creative thinking. The problem is what do you do when you’ve judged wrong? What do you do when your student who looked super-driven in year 1 turns out to not be so driven in year 4? Is there a way to reinvigorate the student? (How do you do that??) Or do you just kick him/her out of the club? (And then how do you do *that*?)

  2. C PP- Yes, my kids have school on Labor day- we are already starting week 2.
    qaz- After making it clear how very difficult academic science is and what kind of things you have to do to be successful- I think that you have to put the decision to the trainee about whether or not they REALLY want this as a career and are willing to do what is necessary to be successful. Preferably with some milestones and committee meetings in place to help support them in either decision.

  3. Kudos to drdrA! I find that what motivates me is a PI who is humble and emotionally intelligent enough to realize that family time is important and recreation is just that: re-creation. It never ceases to amaze me how “successful” old schoolers frown on days off for Labor Day, Memorial Day, and Presidents’ Day. One world class A-hole went out of his way to admonish me early in my assignment years ago: “You know, almost everyone in the lab shows up on Labor Day.” They seem oblivious to all the instances where innocent but inexperienced grad students and experienced but not-so-innocent postdocs are obtuse to some fairly distressing facts (e.g. the antibody being left on the bench over night. The stack of gels that needs to be re-ordered. The cryostat that is causing the loss of hundreds of hours of lab labor (and in multiple labs), not to mention lack of good morphology resulting from a worn out anti-roll bar. The HPLC system that is steadily building pressure, another victim of the “publish my own stuff right now and to hell with the rest of ya” mentality. These old schoolers and the A-holes they spawn forget that they didn’t build their good name by themselves. Everyone pays for it too, including the hapless taxpayer. No worries drdrA. Only the sustainable path will survive. Logic will prevail.

  4. I’ve always maintained that weekly lab meetings and monitoring progress is WAY more important than monitoring hours. You can sit in the lab 12 hrs a day but if you’re not PRODUCING that’s wasted time, energy, effort. Get your Sh*t done and move on. The harder you work the more successful you’ll be. But that also means if you, your kid, dog, mom, gekko is sick and you can’t focus in the lab then do only what you need to keep things moving (media swaps etc) and go home. Try to find ways to be productive when not in the lab, e.g. pulling papers, writing paragraphs, outlining/designing future experiments, prepping presentations. These are all essential parts of successful science. They can be done in PJs, a bath robe and a cup of tea from your living room with the TV on. This attitude allows/encourages people to work DAILY regardless of time “in lab” and acan actually lead to MORE production. It’s also good prep for a future career (at least in academia) where there is no one monitoring what you’re doing – just the output.

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