We’ve gotta stop worshipping workaholics…

I’ve been wanting to write about this for a while now, and the perfect opportunity has arisen, so it’s time to let rip. Few can have missed the shocking post in Science a few days ago titled “Getting noticed is half the battle” by Eleftherios Diamandis. What I find most shocking, beyond exploiting his wife and neglecting his kids, is that this is actually being promoted as the gold standard for getting into academia!

It’s going to be hard to beat Bryan Gaensler’s excellent counterpiece “Workaholism isn’t a valid requirement for advancing in science” in the Conversation today, but let me talk to it nonetheless…

As Bryan points out, it’s easy to fall into this trap… I fell into it the same way. People there earlier, people there later, people there on weekends, step up your game to try and keep up, before long all you do is work. I’ve been around this vicious cycle twice now — workaholism really is an addiction in many ways, with recoveries and relapses.

I was probably showing inclinations to being a future workaholic during my Ph.D., I’d say most talented students do. But during that time, I was driving myself out of enthusiasm and interest (good) and not expectation, coercion or ‘the arms race’ of academia (bad). I was massively fortunate to have great supervisors during my Ph.D.: I was left to my own hours and while encouraged to push myself also encouraged to be responsible about taking time out. The only time we put in very long hours was the 4-6 week long blocks when our fridges were running — then we worked from 8am-10pm and on weekends simply because experiments cost us about thousand dollars a day to run. We did these blocks once or twice a year, and when we did, we prepared in advance and we’d take a week or two off after it.

Otherwise, we worked pretty normal hours. During the 3rd year of my Ph.D. the group got a new postdoc from Europe — Heiner Linke, who is now a Professor at Lund University. Because of space issues, new students and me writing up, I moved out of the lab (back in those days we had desks in the lab — there’s pros to this) and shared an office with Heiner — it was a very formative experience in my career… I just couldn’t believe how much someone could get into a ~40 hour week, Heiner would come in about 8 or 9, leave about 5, and get much more productivity out of his day than I did. I was more or less writing around the clock at that stage trying to get finished, and with my 60+ hrs a week I didn’t seem to even be close to getting as much done. I was exhausted and unhappy and struggling; he’d just bounce in, get it all done, and be off for a swim at the beach. It was a real eye-opener for me because I realised how much you can get done by being smart about your day — realising this and making it a reality for your daily life are two different things though, I still don’t think I have it mastered (more on this below).

Things got crazy for me around the time I got my ARC postdoctoral fellowship (DECRA equivalent). I’d slipped into the habit of trying to win the arms race by outworking everyone else. At this stage my good role models were gone, largely replaced by people who did the same. You can operate like this for a while and it works, but you can’t do it forever. Come 2007 I had a continuing position and started lecturing, and I was falling to pieces. I was eating take out and junk all the time, I was always feeling off and I had piled on the weight, I was consuming insane amounts of caffeine to switch on after 6 hours sleep, working all day, then drinking way to much to wind down while working in the evenings. I was persistently grumpy and short tempered, hated my job, and getting little productivity our of myself. I wasn’t efficient or effective any more. I was literally ready to write a resignation letter or throw myself under a bus.

Luckily I saw what was going on and managed to turn it around. For a while I pulled the hours right back, forced myself to get daily exercise and eat healthy (I shed 19kg across the next year), got 8 hours sleep a night, dumped the crazy ‘caffeine-alcohol’ merry-go-round, and focused only on doing the work that was essential. It was either that or I walked away and never came back — I had little to lose at that point. Remarkably, by 2008 I was having one of the most productive streaks of my entire career. The ideas where flowing, I was teaching well, I was doing great outreach (all my YouTube work was in that period). I was fit and happy and going places — come mid 2009 I managed to land one of the first round of Future Fellowships, little did I know this would soon bring it all back down again…

The first few years of the fellowship were great, but by 2012 I was falling into old ways again, mostly under the pressure of achieving what’s expected on a fellowship. It’s quite easy to turn your life around when things are bad — everything is shiny and new and interesting, and feeling better drives you forward. But eventually you reach a plateau, and it’s easy to let that little devil on your shoulder, the one that says ‘oh, but you won’t get your next grant if you don’t get this paper’, to talk you into letting little bits of your healthy regime slip away. Before long, you aren’t sleeping enough, you’re working in the evenings or weekends again, etc. and your edge starts go blunt. It takes more time to get less done and the pressure to beat the competition sees you saying yes to more things you don’t want to do. You lose your creativity and your enjoyment of the job. I got here again at the start of this year, and I’m only just recovering again, mostly by being really strict on myself about living good.

The moral of the story: As Bryan’s post says, there really is an optimum here, and if you push beyond it, you start losing your productivity. You need to be disciplined about being balanced at the point that maximises your effectiveness and efficiency.

But I want to return to a point earlier before finishing this post: How do we fix this problem? I see three parts to this.

The first is that we need to change our role models for productivity in science. We should stop worshipping workaholics like Diamandis, whom I’m sure will regret his choices when he gets to later in life and realises how much he lost to his career. We need to replace them with new role models — people who do manage to be highly productive while having a great life. From my earlier discussion, some of you will say ‘Yeah, but it’s easy as a post-doc to work 9-5 and make a Ph.D. student sharing your office think life is all roses, let’s see him do that as a professor’. Funnily enough, I still collaborate with Heiner and he’s still doing it — he’s director of an institute and usually seen getting on his bicycle and heading home at 5pm. He takes his holidays, all of them, and disappears off to his summer house with his wife (who also has an academic career) and kids — people who work with him know you’ll get no email replies in this time. He runs triathlons in his spare time. It really can be done. I think we need more role models like this, and many of us need to join them and make ourselves the example as well… we should let our students see us turn up at 9am, head home at 5pm, work like dynamos for 8 hours, and have a great life in the rest of our week. They need to see that this balance is actually possible, like I was fortunate enough to see myself as a Ph.D. student.

The second is that we need to start passing this insight down. I said earlier that I don’t think I’ve mastered all the skills yet, and I think it’s mostly because I haven’t been trained in how to do it, I just don’t know all the tricks. All I know is what I’ve picked up by osmosis. In modern academia we do a great job of training our ECRs — everyone seems to love giving a course and mentoring at this level. But it seems that once you reach a certain stage, you’re entirely on your own and no one is teaching you anything any more, lest you become a threat to them competitively. I think intense competition is the enemy throughout academia, but more so than ever at the mid-career level, where you’re often left to sink or swim. It’s actually the most crucial stage for a) preventing workaholism, b) preventing the development of supervisors who bully their underlings into the same workaholic behaviour to extract productivity (e.g., the evil Prof. Erick Carriera), and c) setting up role models who can begin to fix this nightmare. I think the Academies and Universities have a serious role to play here in providing training/mentoring on this issue. I sometimes wish I could be a fly on the office wall with people like Heiner or Bryan or Tanya Monro or others who do manage to pull this off and still have a life. I wish these people were being paid to give talks to mid-career scientists about how to get more done in less time. Science Magazine should be interviewing them, and writing articles about their advice for how to get it done, not selling people like Diamandis.

The third is that we need to start actively shunning the behaviour of people like Diamandis, and more importantly, Carriera. Putting your family second to advance your career should be actively discouraged; the sort of bullying behaviour that Carreira engaged in should see people officially reprimanded or fired. This sort of thing still happens (I was shocked to recently hear about an entire lab resigning due to bullying by the lab head, and this was at an Aussie uni too, not the US where this bullying is more common). We need to put an end to it. Ph.D. & honours students should not be getting told they’re expected to work nights and weekends because it helps your arms race; it’s outrageous and people who do this deserve no respect whatsoever. It is because of these arseholes that the rest of us feel pressured to break ourselves and ruin our lives to compete with them.

Ultimately, something needs to change here or science is going to fail. Young scientists are happy to work hard when they are engaged and interested and they should be encouraged to do so in such a way that they are also happy and enjoying life. If all they see is a life of endless hours and unhappiness, they’ll go do something else, where the pay is much better and the hours are more reasonable.

So I encourage all of you: get your balance right, work to be a role model for the right behaviours, help others to get more out of their day wherever possible. Let’s turn science back into what it should be, the most awesomely fun job around.


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