(Guest post) Doing a PhD: To move or not to move?

There’s nothing I enjoy more than a good old spat with my Head of School, Mike Merrifield. Our debates run the gamut of the academic’s traditional soap-box topics, but a theme to which we return regularly is the question of the importance – or not – of moving institution for early career researchers. I put forward my views on this in a blog post for physicsfocus last year. In this guest post (a first for “Symptoms…”), Mike explains why he and I disagree on the question of whether PhD students and postdocs should be assessed on the basis of their mobility.


Once again I find myself somewhat in disagreement with my friend and colleague Professor Moriarty.  This is never an entirely comfortable place to be, because he argues tenaciously, and, irritatingly, is right more often than not, but on this occasion I thought it was worth trying to spell out my reasoning with a little more nuance than is allowed by the 140 character sound bites of Twitter.

The catalyst for this disagreement was Philip’s response to an article in the THE entitled 10 steps to PhD failure.  His objection was to one of the pieces of advice given that

“Going somewhere else for your PhD shows that you have expanded your intellectual horizons. In contrast, others will view the fact that you did all your degrees at the same place as an indication that you lack scholarly breadth and independence, and that you were not wise or committed enough to follow this standard advice about studying elsewhere.”

which led to a lengthy Twitter discussion of whether mobility is an appropriate factor to consider as an indicator of drive and independence, where Philip’s position is “no,” and mine is “sometimes.”

First let me make it clear that I agree with Philip that the article is wrong if it implies that any such consideration is absolute.  Anyone contemplating where to do a PhD should weigh up a whole range of elements, which should include lifestyle as well as professional factors to establish where on the spectrum of work–life balance they want or need to position themselves.  While some people may relish the opportunities afforded by moving to a new locale and maybe even experiencing the culture of another country, others could be happily settled where they did their undergraduate degree, or have responsibilities that limit their ability to relocate, which may well then over-ride any other considerations.

But, pretty much by definition, work–life balance implies a compromise that does not optimise either side of the equation individually, and anyone considering where to do a PhD should at least think about the potential downsides to staying in the same institution:

  • You have already interacted with the academic staff at that institution quite closely, and heard at least some of what they have to teach you. Educationally, there are benefits to encountering other points of view and learning about topics where your current institution may have very little expertise.  You can certainly pick some of that up by going to summer schools, conferences, etc, but there is no substitute for being embedded in a different, challenging working environment to really get a new perspective on things.
  • What are the chances that you happen to have done your first degree at the best place in the World for whatever discipline has caught your interest? Surely, very few students apply to university on the basis of a specific sub-discipline; indeed, they may not have even reached the level to study and appreciate many of the more exciting possibilities until they are quite a long way into their undergraduate programmes.  It would therefore be an amazing coincidence if they happen to be at the institution where the most exciting and innovative work in that field is currently being undertaken.  If you are in the happy position of being willing and able to relocate, why wouldn’t you have the ambition to try to go to the best place in the World to pursue your interest?
  • If you decide to go beyond your PhD in an academic setting, you will have to convince someone to employ you in an appropriate postdoctoral post. Typically, you may be up against fifty-or-so other applicants, and the people responsible for selection will be considering a variety of factors to decide to whom to offer the job.  One of the things they are likely to be looking for is evidence of drive and independence.  It is unfortunately true that some students do drift into doing a PhD just by following the “path of least resistance” when they finished as undergraduates, as carrying on in the same place doing more-or-less the same thing is easier than making a more radical departure.  From a potential employer’s perspective, it can be difficult to separate such drifters from more dynamic motivated individuals who have consciously opted to stay at their original institution, whereas someone who has moved to a different strong institution is clearly not suffering from inertia and has more apparently made a pro-active career decision.  Thus, while absence of mobility does not constitute evidence of a lack of drive, it is an absence of evidence for such drive.
  • The same issue also arises a little later in an academic career, when a postdoctoral researcher will likely be applying for individual fellowships or faculty positions against even longer odds. At this point, the assessor is looking for evidence of the applicant’s originality.  I know from experience serving on fellowship and appointment panels that it can be very difficult, if not impossible, to disentangle the applicant’s intellectual contribution to the work from that of their collaborators.  One indicator is the level of variety in authorship of papers published – if an individual has never published a paper that doesn’t have their old PhD supervisor as an author, it can be very difficult for the assessor to determine whether all the ideas presented originated with that supervisor, too.  A wider variety of collaborations, on the other hand, suggests a much more outgoing approach to developing research ideas, not to mention the sought-after intellectual curiosity that draws one to new and different problems.  Such a breadth of authorship and interests is more readily established if one has worked in more than one research group.

Bear in mind that for all these considerations there will always be exceptions.  All that I really want to put across is that it is more straightforward to demonstrate the intellectual curiosity that drives the best researchers if you are able and willing to be mobile, and that if you are not then it is important to take extra steps to establish these traits in other visible ways.

Finally, I should reiterate that this piece was really only intended to lay out the implications of mobility (or immobility) for one side of work–life balance, and that the appropriate location for the fulcrum of that balance is a matter for all individuals to decide for themselves.

Working 9 to 5 (ain’t no way in academia?)

Science magazine has been giving some distinctly dodgy careers advice of late, with two articles in quick succession seemingly being written by authors who were cryogenically frozen in the fifties and revived in 2015 so as to give us the benefit of their views. This week’s Times Higher Education has an article on a letter written in protest about Science’s repeated use of damaging stereotypes and signed by hundreds of researchers, which is being sent to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) on Tuesday. (There’s still time to sign it).

The following paragraph, from the most recent article criticised in the letter to the AAAS, has been forensically dissected in a couple of blog posts I recommend — Bryan Gaensler‘s “Workaholism isn’t a valid requirement for advancing in science” and Chad Orzel‘s “Scientists should work the hours when they work best“.

I worked 16 to 17 hours a day, not just to make progress on the technology but also to publish our results in high-impact journals. How did I manage it? My wife—also a Ph.D. scientist—worked far less than I did; she took on the bulk of the domestic responsibilities. Our children spent many Saturdays and some Sundays playing in the company lobby. We made lunch in the break room microwave.

There’s a lot to wince at here, including the fact that the author’s wife “took on the bulk of the domestic responsibilities” while he blazed a trail, the children spending “many Saturdays” playing in the company lobby while dad worked, and the idea that his wife “worked far less”. (On a day when the kids are bickering and being particularly fractious, I’d find 16 hours in the office/lab a piece of cake compared to the rigours of domesticity).

But here’s the rub. The “I worked 16 to 17 hours a day” bit resonates with me. And I am just a little bit uneasy about sending the message to early career researchers that a successful academic career — at least in the present system — doesn’t involve long hours. I think it’s misleading and naive to suggest otherwise. Before I get shot down in flames, I need to stress that this doesn’t mean that I am suggesting that students and postdocs should be encouraged to work themselves into the ground. Nor am I an advocate of the current system — things have to change. The following, which I contributed to an article entitled “Parenthood and academia: an impossible balance?” in the THE last year, might help to explain my perspective.

“Daddy, Niamh won’t give me the loom band maker. And she won’t stop singing Let It Go really loudly all the time. Tell her to stop.”

“OK, calm down. I’ll be with you in a second. Just let me finish this email.”

“Daddy! She still won’t give me the loom bands. And she still won’t stop singing.”

“OK. OK. With you in a second.”

“DADDY!”

Deep sigh. Close laptop lid.

“OK. Coming now.”

I’d foolishly broken my golden rule again: never attempt to work at weekends or before the kids go to bed. As a certain porcine mainstay of children’s television who is wise beyond her years (and species) would put it: “Silly Daddy!”

Niamh, our first child, was born in 2003, when I was a reader. Her sister, Saoirse, arrived in 2005, when I was promoted to a chair, and her brother, Fiachra, came along another three years later. So my career was rather firmly bedded in before, in our mid-thirties, my wife, Marie, and I decided to start a family.

It has still not been entirely straightforward for us to juggle Marie’s shifts as a nursing auxiliary at the Queen’s Medical Centre (next to the university) with the time and travel demands of my work in academic physics. But if the children had started arriving a few years earlier than they had, when I was a (relatively) fresh-faced new lecturer, I don’t quite know how I’d have coped.

I found the transition from postdoctoral researcher to lecturer something of a culture shock. As a postdoc, your focus is almost entirely on research. A lectureship requires that focus to shift rapidly between at least three separate roles: teaching, research supervision and the ever-present administrative demands of both. Add in the demand to produce “impact” and you end up with a role that amounts to at least two full-time jobs in one. As a lecturer, I regularly worked 70- or 80-hour weeks (including weekends, of course), and this is not at all unusual in physics. Clearly that is not compatible with parenthood.

Nowadays, although I do sometimes fail, I try my utmost to keep evenings and weekends free to spend with the family. I have got into the habit of getting up very early in the mornings – around 4am – to have a few hours to work before taking the children to school. They are easily the most productive hours of my day. I have also tried, as much as possible, to cut down on the amount of travel to conferences and workshops I do. Again, this is much easier to do at this stage of my career than it would have been 10 years ago. Nonetheless, I still spend too much time away; so much more could be done via videoconferencing.

The working culture of your school or department is, of course, an essential factor in how easy you find it to balance family and work commitments. In my experience – and I know that this holds true for many of my colleagues – the School of Physics and Astronomy at Nottingham, where I have been since I was a postdoc, has been exceptionally supportive. As a testament to this, it was this year awarded “champion” status in the Institute of Physics’ Project Juno for “taking action to address gender inequities across its student and staff body”. I am not the first to observe that the changes facilitated by that project have resulted in a working environment that is better for everyone.

Still, I’m going to have to end on a downbeat note. Because I know for a fact that the research outputs I had when I landed my lectureship in 1997 would be nowhere near enough to secure that position today. Indeed, I wouldn’t even be shortlisted. The bar for entry to the academy is being raised at an extraordinarily high rate. I’m sure I don’t need to spell out the implications of this for the work-life balance of young scientists.

Let’s not beat around the bush, the competition for academic positions is intense. I’ve referred before to this letter in Physics World a couple of months back which makes the point especially well when it comes to my discipline.

 

In response to that careers advice column in Science, I’ve seen tweets and comments stating that long hours aren’t really necessary because we should “work smarter, not harder”. I’ve heard this argument quite a bit over the years. It’s rather trite advice in my opinion. Science simply doesn’t work to order — so much research involves going down blind alleys, reversing, inadvertently (or deliberately) taking a diversion, doing a U-turn, getting things wrong, getting things right only to find out that it doesn’t help solve the original problem, and in the end finding that Edison’s “one percent inspiration, 99 percent perspiration” appraisal really isn’t too far off the mark.

Working “smarter” simply isn’t an option in many cases — sheer bloody-minded tenacity is what’s required. This requires long and frustrating stints in the lab. Yet sometimes, when it works, the culmination of that effort is the most enjoyable aspect of the entire scientific process — we endure the pain and the long hours just to hit that (very) occasional high.

I’ll stress again that there is certainly no expectation from me that students and postdocs in the group here at Nottingham do long hours. I give them advice very similar to that offered by Chad Orzel in his blog post — do what works for you (and I certainly don’t dictate a required number of hours per week). But, similarly, I don’t feel embarrassed at all to say that I’ve enjoyed working long hours at times — lots of researchers border on the obsessive when it comes to their work and bouts of intense single-mindedness can often be an exciting, infuriating, and central element of the scientific process for some.

Orzel describes his far-from-traditional working pattern as a postdoc –including the obligatory late night visits to vending machines — as “a dumb thing I did”. As someone who has similarly regularly enjoyed the late night, mid-experiment caffeine injections provided by a machine-generated beverage which tasted “almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea” (or, indeed, any other caffeinated drink), I beg to differ. It worked for him — and for me — at the time. Whether it was dumb or not is entirely down to the circumstances of the individual researcher (as, to be fair, Orzel himself goes on to say in his post).

There’s also much more to academia than hands-on research. When you start as a new member of academic staff, you have to keep the research side going (and build up a new independent programme of work), start designing and giving lecture courses (and marking coursework/exams), get used to a whole new world of admin pain, and try to be the best tutor you can be. “Work smarter, not harder” doesn’t cut it — there are only a finite number of hours in the week and, as I describe in that THE article above, I couldn’t have kept my head above water in that first couple of years without burning quite a lot of midnight oil.

I’m not moaning about this (promise). I love my job and some of the key reasons I’m drawn to it are the diversity of the things I can do, the independence, and the large degree of flexibility in working patterns. Let’s not sell PhD students and postdocs a pup, however. Academia places large demands on our time and a 37.5 hour working week is simply not the norm. (Even if the Higher Education Funding Council for England and Research Councils UK assume that academics indeed work a 37.5 hour week. Apparently that’s a “fair and reasonable” figure. But that’s a story for another post…)