Hey, Physics & Astronomy Professors? THIS IS NOT OKAY!

"It's Dr. Evil, I didn't spend six years in Evil Medical School to be called "mister," thank you very much." -Dr. Evil, from Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery

Graduate school is hard work, and Ph.D. programs in Physics and Astronomy are some of the most demanding and competitive ones out there. It's well-known that it's incredibly difficult to strike a good work/life balance while you're in graduate school, and that between classes, homework, reading, research, and any teaching or service duties you may have, you cannot expect to spend only 40 hours a week on all of your responsibilities, combined.

There is simply too much.

Reading through incredibly dense textbooks is only a small part of what must be done.

But if you are in graduate school -- for physics, astronomy, or anything else -- there's presumably one reason that everyone who does it has in common: there's something you want to learn so bad, that you're so passionate about, that you must learn it for yourself. And that means jumping through all the necessary hoops, learning how to use the tools you need to, meeting the necessary requirements, and keeping the right people happy. It means doing the things you have to do in order to be able to do the things you want to do.

For me, that "thing I wanted to do" was this.

Image credit: Matthias Bartelmann.

Cosmology, the Big Bang, the Large-Scale Structure of the Universe, Inflation, Dark Matter and Energy, and everything that goes into and comes from that. That was -- and is -- my scientific passion. You may or may not have one; yours may or may not overlap with mine.

It's one of the greatest joys in my life. But it doesn't define my life, and I always resented the idea -- which exists at many top Universities around the world -- that it ought to define my life. I'm not a scientist who lives science, breathes science, eats science, craps science, dreams science, and spends 100% of their time immersed in science. And I don't want to be. I want to be myself, which includes science, but which also includes lots of other parts of being a human being, and having what we colloquially refer to as "a life."

A selection of some of my "finer" moments in the non-scientific portions of my life.

This looks different for everyone, of course, and I never pretended to be anyone other than myself, for all of my weird quirks, interests and proclivities. But I recognized long ago that it's important to have a full life that includes a lot more than just my scientific interests for my physical and mental health and well-being. Which is why I'm absolutely livid over this letter, circulated in a top astronomy department (which -- I cannot prove -- but I believe I once worked at), reproduced in its entirety, with my commentary, below. (If it's too long to read, just read the parts I've highlighted in bold for you.)

Dear Grads,
The Academic Program Committee (Professor A, Professor B, Professor C, Professor D, Professor E , Professor F, Professor G, Professor H, Professor I, Professor J, Professor K) just completed its review of the grads.  Below is a long letter (which is usually better than several shorter ones) summarizing that review, some information for graduate students, and the concerns that you expressed in your department evaluations.
In general, we are pleased with how our students are progressing through our program.
There are, however, several areas of concern that we want to bring to your attention.
First, while some students are clearly putting their hearts and souls into their research, and spending the hours at the office or lab that are required, others are not.  We have received some questions about how many hours a graduate student is expected to work.  There is no easy answer, as what matters is your productivity, particularly in the form of good scientific papers.  However, if you informally canvass the faculty (those people for whose jobs you came here to train), most will tell you that they worked 80-100 hours/week in graduate school.  No one told us to work those hours, but we enjoyed what we were doing enough to want to do so.  We were almost always at the office, including at night and on weekends.  Nowadays, with the internet, it is fine to work from home sometimes, but you still miss out on learning from and forming collaborations with other graduate students when everyone does not work in the same place at the same time.
Okay, okay. First off, 80-100 hours a week means that literally, we are talking about 12-15 hour days, not including breaks for food or sleep, assuming you work all 7 days a week. Every week. This is an unrealistic and unhealthy expectation, and is a surefire way to turn any student into an overworked wreck of a human being.

The typical 25-year-old graduate student? Image credit: alancleaver_2000 of flickr.

It's far more important to maintain your interest, passion, and love for your topic, otherwise why the hell are you doing it in the first place?! There are many healthy ways to spend your time developing as a human being and as a scientist that involve doing things outside of spending 80-100 hours a week on your studies. This first piece of "advice" is absurd.

We realize that students with families will not have 80-100 hours/week to spend at work.  Again, what matters most is productivity.  Any faculty member or mentoring/thesis committee will be more than happy to work with any student to develop strategies to maximize productivity, even in those cases where the student is unable to devote more than 60 hours to their work per week.
You were all admitted to our program because you expressed the ambition of becoming a research astronomer.  We know that you are concerned about the market for post-docs and faculty positions.  Yet the market is no worse or better than it is has been for at least a decade or two.  The people who will get the best jobs are the type of people who always get the best jobs, those with a truly exceptional level of dedication to science, who seize ownership of their research and careers, and who fix problems instead of blaming others for them. If you find yourself thinking about astronomy and wanting to work on your research most of your waking hours, then academic research may in fact be the best career choice for you.
Of course, there are plenty of successful academic researchers that think about astronomy, physics, and their research during many of their waking hours who also enjoy other aspects of life.

Images from L-R: Edwin Hubble, athlete; the Fermilab basketball team; Lisa Randall.

What kind of awful person justifies their shortcomings in life by imposing them on a generation of up-and-coming scientists?

Second, a related problem is that some students are not reading enough of the literature.  All students should read at least several papers/week.  You do not have to read the entire paper, as sometimes just the abstract, intro, figures, and conclusions will provide you with sufficient information.  Nevertheless, please read.  Knowing what is going on, right now, in your field and other fields is crucial to your development as a scientist.  We would like to see more students engaged in defining their research projects and theses.  We would like to receive more telescope proposals from students and post-docs that do not include faculty members.  To do so, a detailed knowledge of the literature is a must.
Third, we are pleased with how Science Coffee and Journal Club are going and thank the many students who help make both of those opportunities available to everyone.  We also recognize that we as a faculty need to do a better job at participating.  Yet we have received some student comments about the way in which faculty do participate.  Namely, that some faculty-student interactions have become too intense.  In these cases, it is not the faculty member’s intention to make the student uncomfortable.   The faculty member means to interact with the student as he or she would a peer.  That should be flattering to the student! Faculty questions (at least in this department) do not arise from a desire to embarrass a student speaker, but from a real scientific interest in the answer.  In such cases, the student should do his or her best to respond and, frankly, to consider the experience good (and relatively gentle) training for any discussion at Caltech or at Tuesday Lunch at the Princetitute.
In other words, be flattered when we behave like assholes, because it's been institutionalized for centuries, and therefore you should accept it!

Quote from a letter to Robert Hooke.

Of course, Newton's quote takes on a different meaning when you realize that it didn't just come in a letter to his rival, Hooke, but that Hooke was a very short (and hunchbacked), and Newton's famous statement was not so much a humble testament to his predecessors as a scathing personal attack on his enemy. Newton might see farther, but it's no thanks to the diminutive Hooke! Just accept it, students, because you should be flattered to receive such treatment!

Fourth, in their evaluations for the APC, some students alluded to research or advisor problems that other students were having and that “no one else knew about.”  If you have a problem of any kind, or know someone who does, please come and talk with me or another faculty member.  Encourage the other student to do so.  Use your mentoring/thesis committees with or without your advisor present.  It makes no sense for someone to be struggling and not seek help.  These problems can be solved, but only after they are uncovered.
Fifth, while we welcome the thoughtful, honest, and insightful comments that we generally receive from students in their department evaluations, a few students are somewhat rude.  In those cases, it is hard to draw sympathy for your problem.  In your career, providing constructive criticism to your department and colleagues is important and should be valued.  Being negative and disrespectful will generally not fix the problems and will make colleagues less likely to work with you.
The rudeness/disrespectful comment is true, of course. But, if you're having problems in graduate school, with your department, with a professor, there are other resources out there. You know, outside, in the whole world that exists outside of that office you're spending 80-100 hours-a-week in.

Image credit: Gallaudet University, from http://www.gallaudet.edu/mental_health_center.html

There are mental health services and professionals -- usually available to students free-of-charge -- available to talk to. If you're having a problem dealing with anything ranging from your advisor to a faculty member to the pressure of grad school to your work-life balance, talk to one of them; that's what they're there for. I've done it myself at multiple times over my life, and for those of you wondering, my experiences have varied. Find a counselor/psychologist who you feel that you can talk to, and that you feel is listening to you. If you don't like the one you see, get a different one. You'd go to a medical doctor if you were physically sick, wouldn't you? Well, go to a mental health professional if you need someone to talk to. That's why they're there; that's their job.

If you still need convincing to see a therapist, read this.

Sixth, grant budgets are now tighter than ever before.  If we are to maintain the typically high levels of funding that our graduate program receives, it would be helpful to have more grads on fellowships.  Obtaining a fellowship is also helpful to your career, as having one adds to the sparkle of your CV.  For new funding opportunities, please check out: [link to other department at Unnamed Academy]
Some of these funds are available only though [other dept] (so you are not eligible), but others are general.  We realize that we need one of these pages on our website.  Any volunteers to work to compile it and to make sure that Staff Member P lists it on our webpages?
Hey, we're on your side! We want you to help ease our budgets; will you volunteer, on top of the 80-100 hours you're already working this week, to perform this service and do our web design? That's reasonable, right?
Seventh, please set up your mentoring/thesis committee meetings for this term if you have not already done so.
Check out the graduate program webpage: [link to webpage at Unnamed Academy]to learn about these committees.  Here are some important words about mentoring committees written by a graduate student:
“One thing we do require, and only require b/c it can be so very helpful, is a mentoring committee. A MC is a group of people the student chooses.  Students are supposed to have them once/semester (so schedule yours now).  We want you to benefit from the guidance/expertise/support of more than just your one advisor.
Most 1st-semester students have no idea who to put on a MC. You choose people by asking your advisor for suggestions (although, it is ultimately your call), asking other grad students, looking at the faculty webpages to see who works on subjects you like, or, failing all that, just guess. If nothing else, try a few people initially, and you can always change it later… .
A MC meeting can be very informal, and everyone understands it’s early in the work, so you may not have much to talk about. Basically, pick some people, pick a time, get a conference room reserved (email Staff Member Q), show up, and talk about your work for 30min or so.  Let people ask you questions (or maybe they’ll ask your advisor), don’t be afraid if you don’ t know the answers, and try to get to know the faculty and have them get to know you & your project so they can help you.”
This is actually good advice. It's important to surround yourself -- especially in a potentially hostile environment -- with people who support you, that you trust, and that will help you achieve your academic and life goals.

Image credit: Hampden-Sydney University; New PhD Malene Juul Simon, with her thesis committee.

If someone stops becoming the positive contributor you need for your graduate degree, do not be afraid to replace them on your committee. This will reflect poorly on them, not on you.

Eighth, by the end of the 5th semester, each student is *required* to submit a thesis plan and timeline to the department office, Graduate Advisor, and their thesis committee. The thesis plan can be modified and made more detailed as the student’s thesis research continues. The initial plan should include rough outlines of the thesis chapters. For each chapter that is a science research paper, the student should summarize the science question being addressed, why that question is important, why it hasn’t already been addressed by others, and how his/her work will lead potentially to a resolution. Later iterations of the thesis plan, prepared before and revised after thesis committee meetings, should include detailed outlines and figures for each chapter.
The timeline can also be modified over time based on how the direction and/or scope of the research changes. Graduate students are guaranteed funding for five years. Given that the average time to graduation is 5.5 years, any extension of the thesis defense date beyond the sixth year of graduate study requires the approval of the Academic Program Committee.  Current fifth and sixth year students will shortly be receiving a letter from the APC noting these requirements.
Because graduate school should be a factory, regardless of any extenuating circumstances, right? Had to switch advisors/projects? Got clouded out during the observing run you needed for your thesis?

(It happens.) What a horrible situation to place students in; to make them responsible for a whole slew of things they have no authority over, including (in astronomy, at least) the weather.
Ninth, please send Staff Member P an update of your Areas of Interest and brief summary of current research for the department webpages.  This is important for potential employers who are checking our our graduate student population and also for showing prospective graduate students all the interesting stuff we’re doing.
Tenth, your evaluations of our program identified some concerns, including a lack of computer support, inadequate representation of women and minorities among the faculty and colloquium speakers, and poor attendance by faculty at various department talks and functions. We are working on all three.  Professor E has developed a plan for better student support of student computing. The faculty hiring committee is developing a detailed plan to make sure that the best women and minority candidates are encouraged to apply and carefully considered for the job. The colloquium organizers have been made aware of your concerns.  All faculty are being strongly encouraged to participate more in the intellectual atmosphere of the department.  Do not ease up on reminding us of these points.
Lastly, please discuss any or all of these issues in the Graduate Student Council.  I would like a representative from the council to get back to me about that discussion.
We would also appreciate it if the Graduate Student Council could provide us with a list of all students who have served or would like to serve in a service role and what that role is/was.
All the best,
Professor Z
Well, what do you think? Astrobetter has a response, for those of you interested. Overall here's my take.

Photocredit: Studio Amati Bacciardi, of Rossini's Sigismondo.

This is well-intentioned advice from someone who makes a few very flawed assumptions. If you believe that:

  1. Mental health and happiness are unimportant,
  2. Your scientific research defines everything important about you as a person, including your self-worth, and
  3. All graduate students want to be (and should want to be) just like the letter-writer,
then by all means, follow all of this advice. But my advice?

Image retrieved from: http://www.thepetproductguru.com/.

As far as the letter goes, chew on the meat, and throw away the bones. (And yes, I learned that from a therapist, whom I saw while I was doing my academic research and having a personal crisis.) You're a person first, no matter what else you may be. No matter how valuable your work is, you need to value yourself independent of that. And -- no matter what anyone else tells you -- you have every right to a good and happy life.
Are you a faculty member in either physics or astronomy? Make sure you get the message out about what's truly important. Yes, we all have this love, this passion, the unquenchable thirst to know more. It takes immense amounts of hard work to get there, and you need to be motivated internally to make it. But that's not the only important thing, and we need to change the culture that allows insane letters like this to go out to students.
And if you're part of a graduate program that treats you like you don't have a right to a good and happy life, in addition to an education? A department that pays you unfairly, works you unfairly, or makes unrealistic labor demands upon you? Don't stand for it. You may be "only" graduate students, but you're people, too. Demand to be treated like it, and don't settle for less. (It may be a last resort, but if you need to unionize, be aware that that is an option.) It's your right, and it's your life. Be proud of how you live it.

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Eloquent, impassioned, and *correct.* Well played, sir!

By Frank Tuttle (not verified) on 10 Oct 2012 #permalink

When my wife was a graduate student holding a research assistantship position in a state university in the last few years, she was (1) encouraged to work whatever hours were needed to get the work done, which meant some late evenings and occasional weekends but was generally sane; and (2) advised by HR that, as a university employee, she must file time cards and they must show at most 20 hours worked per week (documenting any more work would make her eligible for a pension).

Unionizing is "a last resort?" It may be just me, but in an industry/department that pays you near poverty wages and expects you to work 100 hours a week, I'd call a strong grad student union "a first line of defense."

By ElOceanografo (not verified) on 10 Oct 2012 #permalink

This life-force-extraction approach makes me see upper faculty as Skeksis.

By Naomi Most (not verified) on 10 Oct 2012 #permalink

Well, it's nice to see someone advocating for a more balanced approach than the author of the letter. As someone pursuing a physics career later in life, I'm prepared to work and study hard. I'm not prepared to sacrifice the well being of my family to pursue said career in an institution like that.

My dad failed out of his EdPhD programs due to strange crap like this. He tried three times at two different universities in two different states and finally gave up. After that he never worked again in school administration even though he tried. The academics gave him poor references. In his field something very like politics figures in a critical way. He came up through the firing line all the way along and his hands on experience, even that gained as a superintendant of schools in a Northern California district did not match the current favorite theories in his departments even over decades.

By Christopher (not verified) on 10 Oct 2012 #permalink

Is this letter for real? The hours of work section reads like a parody of what a Physics department would say to their grads. I know the attitude is there, but to put it in writing??

I would love to see the non-anonymous version of this. We need to publicly shame the people who propagate this attitude.

The fact that many phys and astro grad students will not be able to go on in their field (because we overproduce grad students) makes this all the more reprehensible. They won't even be sacrificing their humanity in their 20s on the altar of an assured future in scientific research.

Also, even if this weren't just inhumane, it's also bad advice from the advisors' point of view. People don't work well when they put on too many hours. See http://www.salon.com/2012/03/14/bring_back_the_40_hour_work_week/

In good news, don't hold out for hope that things will improve after you finish the degree and start your first post-grad position. It only gets worse.

By Scott Cunningham (not verified) on 10 Oct 2012 #permalink

I am all for hard work, but after the schedule outlined in this email how are you supposed to have time to hang with your family? Or maybe even read a fiction book?

Unfortunately, I decided I wanted to pursue a physics degree 9 months before finding out I was having twins...a little late to the party. Why would I be interested in post grad work if I have to choose between 100 hours a week of research and watching my children grow up (to be really skinny as I wouldn't have enough money to feed them anyway). And since astronomy research can't officially be done without a phd, what is the incentive to pursue a science career in the first place? It certainly won't put food on the table and it sounds like a real drag according to Prof Turbo.

I'll stick with my Dobsonian telescope in the backyard and go for a career in computer science thanks very much.

If Carl Sagan read that email, he would probably be sad...I was.

I'm all for protesting the insanity of academic life whilst being no less obsessed about research. I also suspect 80-100 hours is a bit of an exaggeration -- as an intermediate level academic, I do about 70-80 a week spread over lab/office, train, and home, with two young children (partner doesn't work), and any more than this would be absolutely impossible. But I can also empathize with Professors A-K and Z: academics sucks. The bureaucracy and administrators are sucking all the passion out of research, turning their jobs are into process jobs. Safety, finance, rules, regulations, ... academics have more paperwork now than bloody traffic cops. And they know that life as a graduate student, and possibly still a post-doc, is the last opportunity one has to enjoy research. When they see graduate students squandering this time, in their eyes, well I can somewhat understand the impulse, even if they don't recognize these motivations.

By Gone Async (not verified) on 10 Oct 2012 #permalink

Out of the 18 people in my Physics with Astrophysics degree:

3 went to do a dual Maths and Physics course in the first year
2 had to have counselling
2 went on to do postgrad work full time and became university staff

The rest have done things that basically have little or nothing to do with their degrees.

Do a degree course you WANT to learn about. But don't turn it into a torture doing it.

Like Michael above stated, my Ph.D. largely required that you work hard, but not stupid. It's amazing how many (potentially dangerous) mistakes you'll make in a lab when you're extremely sleep- or food-deprived or emotionally touchy.

15-hour days back-to-back were only during studying for my oral exam (comps, etc., what you typically do at the end of your 2nd year), and even then, I knew that was going to end on August 14, 2008, so that helped keep me going. When you're in the no-man's-land between that and graduation though? Ouch. 12-15 hour days consistently would be a tough row to hoe.

I recall one of my professors recounting a discussion with other faculty members about what, he thought, were absurd demands being made of graduate students. He likened the situation to people abused as children growing up to abuse their own children.

Ethan, I can see why you're pissed off by this letter, but you are really rather naive. If you think that it's going to get easier or less stressful after grad school if you stay in academica, think again. It's gonna get a lot more stressful.

The point Prof Z is trying to make here is that only the strong survive in academic science, although as with all professions it helps to be lucky as well. Look at it this way (because I can tell you that this is the way YOU will look at it if you get to the position of taking on your own PhD students some day). The PhD supervisor has almost certainly busted his/her ass getting a grant ,or kissing the ass of his/her department head, to get the money to hire a PhD student. Supervisors' careers depend on their students getting lots of good data so good papers can result. In other words, picking a student is a bit like mortgaging your house to buy a racehorse. You want and need the horse to run really hard. The supervisor also knows that without good data and papers the student will not have a decent career in academia, and so will have wasted 4 or 5 years at a point in their life where they definitely do not have time to waste.

You may not like this picture, and in fact you'd have to be crazy to like it, but this is the way it is. This is the world Prof Z lives in. It's the one you are going to graduate school so you can join.

By Philip Aaronson (not verified) on 10 Oct 2012 #permalink

One point I haven't yet seen made in all the talk about this letter (which I know to be real - I recognize the department, and the letter is entirely in keeping with their attitude) is that the hours-worked part in particular is terrible experimental design - they're looking for a correlation between hours worked in grad school and "success" as they define it, so they do a self-reported (problem #1) survey of only those deemed "successful" (problem #2)? I doubt any of them would tolerate such sloppy research from their graduate students; how many hours per week did their counterparts who didn't wind up with research faculty jobs work in grad school?

By Anonymous (not verified) on 11 Oct 2012 #permalink

I would like to think that the line of working 80-100 hours per week on a routine basis is selective memory on the part of the professors. Depending on what your research area is, there will likely be crunch times when you do a burst of work at around that pace (observing runs for astrophysicists, field work for geophysicists, beam time for people working on shared facilities, etc., not to mention major proposal/conference deadlines) but the average will be quite a bit less. Startup companies are likely to make similar demands on your time. As long as you get the chance to recover from such short bursts, it can be dealt with. If your department or your advisor seriously expects you to sustain that kind of pace for months (or years) at a time, then you are definitely in a bad employment situation, and you should get out while you have the chance.

Michael @1855: IANAL, but it sounds like your wife's university is up to something illegal here. In particular, if they are insisting that she limit the hours documented on her time card to 20 hours/week, the inspector general's office of the agency that funds her assistantship might be interested. A research assistantship is supposed to be a full time job, and she is presumably not allowed to seek outside employment.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 11 Oct 2012 #permalink

And sometimes your first advisor lights out for the provinces after your first two years and there's nobody around doing the same sort of work or with any funding for you in any case. Funding isn't "guaranteed" anywhere, but especially here. So you cast around desperately till you find someone who very generously does get you some lab space and materials to work on a very, very different project. They really are being quite generous, and are actually a really good person, and pretty good to you, but not at all experienced in training grad students, leaving you to more or less flail around a bit more than would probably be best, and with very little in the way of other grad students in your immediate vicinity, as you aren't even working at the university anymore even if your advisor does hold an adjunct faculty position.

And there's even some intermittent funding, requiring you to crank up the loans during the periods when it isn't there (even more than you usually do to try to support a family with someone else whose workload and difficult pregnancy and childbirth caused her to be the person in the cartoon and is now having to work difficult, demanding and very low paying jobs that barely pay for daycare.

And then you both decide she and your child have to move six hours away to be with family so you can live more cheaply and actually have some time to work instead of constantly having to run home to provide childcare because she works these crazy, randomly-scheduled night shifts that flop her back and forth like mad, but sort of allow you to squeak by with only two days of daycare a week, which still ends up being a good chunk of her income.

And then you just fucking lost it. ;) Your project is boring as hell, and the meager interest you were able to work up has long since worn off. It's very applied and very real and very useful for sure, but pharmacokinetics is mostly of use in the pharma industry and, though you're a pretty decent little modeller, you really aren't all that good with hands-on lab work (like many a scientist, I know). And have learned that what you actually do best out of grad school was all that time you worked as a TA teaching chemistry labs, but you know damn well that instructor positions are likewise overworked, underpaid, and completely unstable. And yet, that's what you do best, and probably the only part of all of grad school that you enjoyed.

Rant, rant, rant, bitter, bitter, bitter. Hope I finish, but that hope feels more like an academic hope than an emotional one. Emotionally, it's all just a void.

Yeah, it happens. Sometimes in pairs. My poor kid...
Whew. That's like therapy. And about as effective.

My PhD wasn't in physics/astronomy or even the sciences, but I managed to do well and find a faculty job while having a life. And it's as true among my current colleagues as it was as a student - the person working the most hours isn't necessarily the most productive.

By Eve Proper (not verified) on 11 Oct 2012 #permalink

Philip Aaronson- as long as there are people like you rationalizing that it's OK to treat grad students (and post docs, and faculty) this way on the basis that that is just the way things are, nothing will ever change.

There are physicists out there who manage not to sacrifice their humanity to be a physicist. Your suggestion that it is necessary it not only wrong, but propagates the problem. And, yeah, the heyday of my blog was all about the painful, soul-crushing despair of being pre-tenure at a research university, so I have some clue as to reality. But this letter, and your defense of it, are unconscionable, not only because of what they do to grad students, but because they propagate dysfunctional attitudes about the field add a whole.

What was the purpose of conducting this evaluation if the program leader is just going to say, "Well, you need to try harder?" Besides, isn't grad school about learning how to learn your field strategically, not about pushing your way through with brute force?

I could see needing to devote 12 hours/day leading up to an important conference, publication submission, or the dissertation defense, but this is impractical as a sustained activity. The physiological/psychological is not only bad for one's health, but ends up hindering productivity (which leads to the demand for more hours, which leads to less productivity...).

I think that a major underlying problem is that many faculty simply don't plan out requirements for their students. The mantra of, "Spend as much time as you need to," is amorphous, because the tasks they expect of their graduate students are initially undetermined. Granted, some ambiguity is to be expected in research, but some planning can be conducted such that at least general expectations can be crafted.

By Brian Lane (not verified) on 11 Oct 2012 #permalink

A price must be paid for everything.
-- That I agree
They will squeeze every ounce of passion out of you
-- No, I dare create my self and my world
It's a winner takes all world
-- Not upon my broken back and broken dreams
Society, organisations, families have always been dysfunctional
--Inevitably they will change
Do you think you can change the world?
--Changing myself will be quite enough
To what end, no man is an island
--Right, if I change then you must also
I will not change
--So you think that I am in fact an island?
The price of change is too high
--Regardless, change is inevitable
What will you do?
--Perhaps I'll be a patent clerk
To what end
--To steal my life, it will not be given.
No one will help you
--Oh contraire


I almost hope that letter is real. Like Michael's wife (see second post), when I was in grad school, the school 'requested' we sign agreements stating we only worked 19.5 hours a week, so that the school didn't have to give us benefits. A letter like this would've gone a long legal way in forcing the school to treat the grad students like the full-time employees they were.

@Philip Aaronson, before commenting, do enough research to realize that the author of this post already has a Ph.D. and is still successful in the field. 'Naive' does not apply. Your post would suggest that you are, in fact, the one who exists outside of academia, given that you think "you’d have to be crazy to like it."

By Anonymous (not verified) on 11 Oct 2012 #permalink

"What a horrible situation to place students in; to make them responsible for a whole slew of things they have no authority over, including (in astronomy, at least) the weather."

Well that's your own fault for not making connections with, and leaning on, the meteorology department to use their authority to help you out. Take responsibility for your own failures instead of blaming other people or non-sentient physical systems!

The pics of you remind me of this saying (not to be taken in offense, but more as a sense of pride)....

Keep Portland weird!

By Ethan Allen (not verified) on 11 Oct 2012 #permalink

In Austin we don't need that disclaimer. ;)

This is remarkably like the visual effects industry

By Brandon Davis (not verified) on 11 Oct 2012 #permalink

This is as insecure as you could possibly make your dept. sound.

Different institutions have a different tenor, and it's usually the mediocre ones that sound like this.

By Plant Sci (not verified) on 11 Oct 2012 #permalink

Agreed with Philip Aaronson's comment.

By PhD student (not verified) on 12 Oct 2012 #permalink

"PhD student" and Mr. Aaronson: are you not aware that the blog author, Dr. Siegel, has already paid his dues and has been a professor before entering a private-sector career?

The general point remains, that 6-8 years of 80-100 hour work weeks with no weekend or evening time, is not healthy. No one is arguing that it is not the current reality at many academic institutions. And hard work is certainly called for. But the are argument is that the anonymous letter-writer is being (absurdly) unreasonable, that s/he reflects an unhealthy but common attitude, and that the system should adjust its balance somehow.

By MD Student (not verified) on 12 Oct 2012 #permalink

For what it's worth, I've seen virtually the same letter posted elsewhere and attributed to a chemistry department. I am fairly convinced that it is apocryphal.

By Will Nelson (not verified) on 13 Oct 2012 #permalink

It is clear that the institution is the University of Arizona. Go to this webpage for the Graduate Academic Guide on the UofA Astronomy Dept. website (https://www.as.arizona.edu/academic_program/graduate_program/graduate_a…)

and read the “Thesis Plan and Timeline” section. It is word for word entirely quoted in the letter to the graduate students.

The UofA dept. also has a Coffee Hour, a single dominant journal club referred to simply as “Journal Club” and references all over their departmental website reveal that their thesis committees are called “Mentoring Committees” in house. The graduate student governance at UofA is called “The Graduate and Professional Student Council.” All of these specific bits of terminology match the letter, despite the fact that these terms vary from school to school.

Whether or not it is a parody of UofA or an authentic letter from UofA is possibly still debatable until someone, student or faculty, at Steward steps forward either to claim or reject the authenticity of this letter.

By Anonymous (not verified) on 13 Oct 2012 #permalink

I agree with the fisking of the letter. The one time I was put on an explicit 16-hour/day work schedule in graduate school, it brought on a flare-up of my chronic ulcerative colitis that took me months to recover from. I did complete my Ph.D. program despite the health issues I had, but they forced me to confront the issues discussed here for myself.

What surprised me here was to recognize Prof. Bernd Wursig on the far right in the picture of Dr. Simon and her committee. He was also on my wife's committee, and is one of our favorite people.

By Wesley R. Elsberry (not verified) on 13 Oct 2012 #permalink

Grow up, children. Academic research is what it is; no one is forcing you to be a grad student. If work-life balance is all-important, try a different career.

So says someone who will want others to do the work for them, eh, Mike?

I sincerely hope that's sarcasm, "Mike". It's completely unacceptable and inhumane of you to demand students have no life outside of research. It's insane. If you are serious, I really feel bad for your students, or future students.

By ASTR Postdoc (not verified) on 15 Oct 2012 #permalink

Dear Professor; Pre-1950's educators taught us the universe was a perfect vacuume void of all substance and that gravity was attracting our atmosphere to Earth. With the invention of the GC/MS and space exploration we found the opposite to be true. In fact we discovered all space was occupied with gas and/or matter and that a light gas will compress heavier gases. This is played out every day in the chemical industry where Nitrogen gas is used to compress ("blanket") heavier gases. It's evident in nature with our atmosphere of Oxygen & Nitrogen being compressed by the Helium, Hydrogen, Lithium, Etc. gases contained in interplanetary space surrounding us. Earth and it's atmosphere are submerged in an ocean of lighter expanding gases compressing our atmospheric gases thus making it impossible for our atmosphere to escape or even expand. The problem is that very few people have been taught post-1950's physics. What can be done to bring physics into the 21st century? Can you help? Angelo Pettolino Autror: The AP Theory

I am not a physics professor but a professor in another discipline. What you're missing is the bottom line. There are more grad students and wannabe grad students than there are jobs for them. As long as this is true, it will be a seller's market (buyer being grad student in the analogy). The "rules" can be x or y and you can complain but it matters none in the end. Also, it's fair enough that you say you wouldn't be in good mental health if you worked 80 hours. Neither would I! But some people do that and they are happy. You're assuming everyone needs the same work-life balance. Some of these people genuinely are OK living like this. You don't want to play by the "rules"? Here are the real Rules: Publish good papers. However you do it, do it! (Don't fake data). If you do that, none of the other rules apply. You can only change the system if you survive in it. Complaining about things you can't change is OK but don't think it will make much difference. BE the well-rounded physicist you think will make the world a better place.

Slavers and arms dealers and drug dealers have all used the same excuse.

"There are more people than jobs" doesn't make it right.

Just because YOU do not want to work that long does not mean other people do not want to also. For sure there are plenty of people that do the work because they love it. You just want the field to work with your needs not you working with it. Academic research is SERIOUS stuff. If this is also at a top university what else were you expecting. If you are truly doing this for yourself then go to a second rate university where they will want <60 hours of work from you.

If the relation between available physics work and number of grad students is not conserved then stop allowing so many students to pursue this field. Why do science students have to do so much work with a large probability of not ending up with a career in the field? Not only does it cost mental stability but also creates debt (provided that you don't end up with a career in the field). It isn't for everyone... agreed, but this isn't the problem. The problem is that universities gain a lot from students whether its in the form of a cheque or an idea or free work. I think the problem arises on a global scale where people are exploited unknowingly or naively. We have the freedom to choose what we want to do with our lives and being a passionate group of people (physicists) we follow our hearts.... and universities are aware that we exist. I wonder where they would be if any student that ever dreamt of being a physicist or scientist decided to collectively not pursue the education? Not only this but most of university is based on the students ability to get a good grade as opposed to their ability to think for themselves or create solutions. It is no wonder that in the end so many people cannot make it.... its not their fault. I think that even in undergrad there should be research based work. There should be more projects as opposed to tests.There should be work that simulates research as experienced in the field.

For the most part I think school is a joke. Many successful people were college drop outs or barely saw the light upon graduation. University/college is not about what you know or your abilities its how much you can do in a limited amount of time. By all means I don't think education is a joke. I think everyone should want to have an education but it can be on your own terms; time and health being huge.

This is so troubling! I would not agree with the point that "school is a joke" but I do think that the process of getting your degree should involve personal reflection, passion, and self-development, and not be about just earning something to earn it, or get a better job.

I am lucky to work in the department that I do. They are currently concerned that students are publishing too early and burning out. We just published a blog post on work/life balance, and we have regular workshops on the topic: http://ucfhistory.wordpress.com/2014/06/12/worklife-balance-in-grad-sch…

Philip, Mike, Amalie (aka snobs). Get a life. You all seriously believe that prestige of your institution or your perceived work ethic will make a difference in terms of research funding or more importantly research results or future job prospects? Let your grad students get the job done the way that works best for them. If things are working get out of their way,

Also the idea that academia is some how more competitive than than other professional markets is just plain ignorant. Have you ever been to a hospital, manufacturing facility, engineering design facility, law office, tech star up or govnemrneg lab? Have you heard of capitalism, manufacturing, or free trade? Have you heard of America?

You all have been diagnosed with Super-ego PhD Nimrod Disease...It's right up their with narcissism in case you were wondering.

By Dartmouth Physicist (not verified) on 30 Jul 2014 #permalink

Learn how to spell...What a fool.

Also learn grammar fool. Really just terrible. Frankly if you aren't putting in 80 hours minimum then you really just don't care about your career in science. Go become a engineer or a technician if you want to relax.

The number of hours of study for academic degrees to finalize the work in a final thesis accepted by a professor or two multiplied by millions of college and graduate students is not worth the very few that make it to accomplishing anything worthwhile to further the progression of the development of the universe. What a waste of manpower! Add footnotes and bibliography, and it is not only insane, but disgusting.

By marvin purser (not verified) on 25 Sep 2014 #permalink

I fell like a lot of this doesn't apply to grad students outside the UK. I don't think I've ever met a grad student who happilly lets their work define their life...
Also, some grad student can be genuinely rude to faculty members. So recommending that they chill out a bit might not be bad advice.
But yeah, I feel sad for you having to do at least 5 years of grad school. I'm not sure I could.

By grad student i… (not verified) on 23 Jan 2015 #permalink

Completamente de acuerdo :9

By Maria Luisa Lu… (not verified) on 01 Dec 2015 #permalink