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…)

Sex(ism). Murder. Art. And Science.

Slayer.png

Trigger warning. If you find that you are unable to respond to criticism of sexism and misogyny without randomly arranging terms such as SJW, white knight, cuck, kill yourself, bitch, whore, rape, professional victims, PC gone mad, First Amendment, feminazi, fuck (and other assorted expletives) into grammatically dubious and arbitrarily capitalised boilerplate then you may find the following post both intellectually and emotionally challenging. A strong and potentially damaging kneejerk response or, indeed, extreme overreaction may result.

You have been warned.

The furore surrounding #TimHunt’s sexist comments continues to rage.

And rightly so.

As my erstwhile colleague, Peter Coles, has pointed out in a typically clear-headed and eloquent piece, what Hunt said was indefensible. In a similarly insightful blog post, Michael Eisen convincingly argues that Hunt’s attempts to defend the indefensible were certainly not due to any lack of awareness of how bad the problem of sexism in science can be,

while both Dorothy Bishop and David Colquhoun, among others, have pointed out just why the Royal Society was correct to ask Prof. Hunt to step down from membership of the Biological Sciences Awards Panel.

I say all of this as someone who has met Prof. Hunt and attended meetings with him (and others) in the context of challenging the damaging focus of the research councils on near-term and near-market socioeconomic impact in science funding. In those discussions, Tim came across as a modest, insightful individual who passionately advocates the value of curiosity-driven science. I found him to be personable, likable, and, indeed, often inspiring, as this BBC4 programme from a few years back amply demonstrates…

But what he said in that conference in Seoul was beyond dumb. It was crass. And immensely damaging.

I don’t want to retread well-worn ground at this point — particularly when (i) Profs. Bishop, Coles, Colquhoun, et al. have done all the legwork, and (ii) the subject of this post isn’t so much the impact of Hunt’s views on academics and researchers as the broader public influence of what he said — but I will note that it is worth considering Tim’s comments in the context of Adrian Sutton’s recent letter to Physics World:

PWletterPDRA.png

That’s just in physics, but the situation in other scientific disciplines is pretty similar. 1.7% of the postdoctoral research population per year make it through to a full time academic position. That’s how tough it is to get a permanent academic career these days. I know for a fact that what I had in terms of research ‘outputs’ when I got my lectureship in 1997 wouldn’t get me within sniffing distance of a shortlist today.

Prof. Hunt’s comments, regardless of whether they were misjudged 70s-esque ‘humour‘ or not, put the Royal Society in an exceptionally difficult position. The RS is meant to be scrupulously fair in how it distributes its awards and fellowships, the latter being like gold dust and increasingly being the pathway to a permanent lectureship. And yet Tim decides he’ll shout his mouth off — with just possibly, maybe, a smattering of bravado about not being cowed by the “PC Brigade”? — and say that he doesn’t really want women researchers in his lab because they burst out crying if they’re criticised? When he sits on the Biological Sciences Awards Panel? And when, as Eisen points out, he was more than aware of the problems which continue to plague women in science?

And no, the argument that “Well, he’s 72 you know, let’s cut him some slack given his age and the environment he grew up in” just. doesn’t. wash. Over to Colquhoun (78) again:

I should perhaps also note that I’ve been managing research students and postdocs for the past 18 years. It should not need saying — but, depressingly, it does — that Hunt’s remarks certainly do not reflect my experience of supervising female research students and postdocs.

It’s the impact of Tim Hunt’s statements outside the ivory towers/dreaming spires/[insert cliché of choice] of academia, however, that’s the real subject of this post.

I suspect that Prof. Hunt may be oblivious to the shockingly high levels of not only sexism, but deeply ingrained vicious misogyny, which infest the web. Like this. And this. And what’s described here. And, while we’re at it, this.

Hunt’s comments are, of course, a universe away from the absolutely appalling abuse which is meted out online. But the problem is that his statements feed directly into, and are exploited by, that sexist/misogynistic culture. Let’s consider the case of Milo Yiannopoulos, described by The Observer, no less, as “the pit bull of tech media” and a poster boy for many of the more rabid sexists and misogynists out there.

Last week, Yiannopoulos appeared in a debate with Dr. Emily Grossman on the topic of sexism in science, prompted, naturally, by Hunt’s comments. I watched the debate slack-jawed in astonishment. That Yiannopoulos could manage to trot out so much lazy, uninformed, stereotypical misinformation — oh, let’s not mince our words; I mean shite — in such a short space of time was a quite remarkable achievement. After being invited to put his views across, within the first minute or so he managed to follow up a complete non-sequitur of a non-argument with an entirely groundless assertion regarding women’s motivations for doing science. Here’s exactly what he said:

“We hear a lot from scientists. We hear a lot, in particular, from female scientists. But the fact is that there is some reason to suppose that there are…ummm…there is an advantage to being a man in certain subjects.

There’s reason to suppose that gender essentialism, biological determinism, whatever you want to call it…The fact that there are male brains and female brains may indeed have some basis in science.”

Let’s pause there. “May indeed have some basis in science“. I suspect that Yiannopoulos — who, it must be said, is a seasoned media ‘player’ — knows full well that he’s skating on thin ice here. (Here’s a very good article by Tom Stafford, a Lecturer in Psychology and Cognitive Science at Sheffield on the age-old nature vs nurture debate regarding brain differences. Neuroskeptic‘s blog posts (e.g. here and here) on the subject are also highly recommended. I must admit that I was astounded by the prevalence of under-powered statistical ‘analyses’ after spending some time reading papers in this field.)

Anyway, here’s what Yiannopoulos says next:

“This is thrown out of the window completely by feminists and female academics who refuse to accept that there’s any reason whatsoever why there might be a gender imbalance”

Hmmm. “…by feminists and female academics…”. We’ll let that one hang there. Let’s see where Milo is going with his argument…

“Two things on that. One, the science is very much still out on that…”

Oh.

He’s going precisely nowhere.

Because his argument is totally lacking in any self-consistency:

“May indeed have some basis in science…The science is very much still out on that”.

Cannily, Yiannopoulos plants the seed that the science supports his initial claims about gender differences. Then, less than thirty seconds later, he back-tracks. However, the important thing is that he’s planted the seed — a frustratingly disingenuous debating tactic. (But then, it’s just possible that adopting a principled position isn’t really what Milo is all about…)

But what’s Milo’s second point?

Two, if you look at equality in society, if you look, for example, at Bangladesh vs Norway, what you notice is that the number of women in science and technology subjects actually goes down as societies get more equal because women simply don’t make the same choices as female academics and feminists would like them to.

Women actually don’t want to go into the sciences on the whole…

And the source(s) of Yiannopoulos’ evidence for this astoundingly sweeping claim is…? How credible is that evidence? Does it represent a consensus scientific view?

He doesn’t tell us.

Strange, that.

Shortly after the debate, Yiannopoulos wrote this: Why do feminists cook up stories about misogyny when they lose debates. He, in his usual modest and understated manner, clearly feels that the debate went his way. A link to his post somehow ended up in my Twitter timeline. So I sent Yiannopoulos and his acolytes a number of tweets asking for the evidence — admittedly, in a somewhat, errm, robust manner — to support his claims in the debate, and, in turn, I ended up embroiled in some lengthy Twitter-spats about the reliability (and lack thereof) of the quantitative analysis in papers on gender differences.

What was Milo’s response to being challenged on the matter of data and evidence?

https://twitter.com/Nero/status/609304973608923136

Followed by

https://twitter.com/Moriarty2112/status/609323918298624000

[Update June 02 2018 — Tweets no longer available. I deleted my Twitter account for reasons explained elsewhere at this blog. Milo’s account was suspended.]

Not for the first time in the #TimHunt debacle was I reminded of the cartoons here. [Before those of you who have posters of Milo on your wall click on that link, remember the trigger warning…]

OK, let’s now finally get to the rationale behind the title of this post and the associated image above. (Apologies that it’s taken a while, but then context is everything.)

The title of the blog might give it away for some, but I’m a huge fan of heavy metal and all its various sub-genres. (There are, of course, very deep and fundamental links between metal and quantum physics, so my love of metal isn’t entirely non-professional). Metal has, let’s say, had its issues with sexism, as wonderfully lampooned by the brilliant Christopher Guest in this classic scene from This Is…Spinal Tap.(My favourite ever film).

(Shame that the punchline is in the title of the video but if you haven’t seen Spinal Tap yet, you haven’t lived…)

Since the #shirtstorm incident last year — which we covered in a Year 4 undergraduate module at Nottingham called The Politics, Perception, and Philosophy of Physics (see Slides #8 and the set of whiteboard photos at the bottom of that page) — I’ve been struck by some of the parallels between the “PMRC wars” that the metal ‘community’ (for want of a better term) fought in the 80s, and #shirtstorm, #GamerGate, and the entire “Don’t infringe our rights to say whatever the fuck we like” flavour of a lot of the debate surrounding sexism and misogyny.

I was a teenager in the eighties and remember being incensed by the PMRC’s attempts to lock down metal music. Can I understand why a community which feels beleaguered and under attack might kick back against what it sees as threats to its autonomy and creativity? Yes. Do I think that banning words and images is the way to go? No. That would be entirely hypocritical given that I’m a fan of Slayer’s music (well, up to about album #5. Their output has tailed off quite a bit since then). The title of this post and the image are taken from a t-shirt that Tom Araya, the lead vocalist in Slayer, wore on, I believe, the South Of Heaven tour in 1988. (I told you we’d get to an explanation eventually…). Sex. Murder. Art is also the title of a Slayer song. With exceptionally vicious lyrics.

Metal has progressed a great deal over the last few decades when it comes to sexism. I urge you to read this insightful and intelligent article by Dom Lawson on the evolution of metal. Here’s a choice quote:

…heavy music has spent the last few decades steadily edging away from an overriding culture of crass misogyny and making the whole scene a lot more welcoming and palatable to women in the process.

There are also intriguing parallels between the #TimHunt case and what Lawson says in his article above with regard to sexism being explained away as humour:

But no, Dom, I hear you cry, it’s not sexist. It’s funny! Look at those vibrating butt-cheeks! Brilliant. It’s probably ironic or something.

Well, no. It’s still sexist.

The progression away from the “overriding culture of crass misogyny” to which Lawson refers hasn’t happened by banning certain albums, lyrics, or bands. Or infringing freedom of speech. That would be entirely counterproductive. It’s happened by calling out sexism and misogyny when we see it. And via debate and argument.

“But, but, but… Hunt banned…witch hunt riding through…fascists…caused his downfall…freedom of speech. Those feminazis aren’t interested in debate.”

OK, OK. Calm down. Remember the trigger warning.

First, let me direct you back up the page to my tweet in response to Mr. Yiannopoulos blocking me. More importantly, let me repeat that context is everything. Hunt was entirely free to say what he did. And he did. And he was criticised for it. I’ll let the wonderful xkcd explain:

Of course, this would mean that Milo Yiannopoulos, by blocking me, considers me to be an asshole.

You know what? I’m rather proud of that.

What’s wrong with being sexy? Discuss.