10 July 2015

Glorifying overworking: another self-inflicted crisis in Science Careers

Here we go again.

I like to work hard and be productive. But I’m stunned by this article by Eleftherios Diamandis in a careers website:

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.

Let’s count all the ways this one paragraph is terrible, in the order they appear.

First, sixteen hour work days are crazy. That statement should come with a warning: “Do not attempt.” Maybe some people could do this for short bursts, and maybe a rare few people could do this for extended periods, but this is not how most people are going to turn out their best work.

Second, there’s the glorification of “high impact journals” as the path to career advancement. You mean the paywalled ones where retractions correlate more strongly with their Impact Factor than their citations?

Third, and probably worst, the “woman gives up career so man can have his.” As Alice Gorman pointed out:

She ‘worked far less’ sounds a hell of a lot like ‘worked far more’ to me.

I understand that this is the decision some couples make. People have their private discussions and make hard decisions about how to live. This may have been the right choice for these particular two people. But again... to blithely drift past this as, “This is what I did to get ahead” suggests that Diamandis thinks this is easy, and normal, and acceptable. It’s hard, and exceptional, and crappy.

Fourth, kids playing in the lobby and eating out of the microwave doesn’t sound good for your general health and well-being, even if you were working normal hours, which is not the case.

When I look at Diamandis’s website, it’s clear that this work load was not a one time thing that he did to get the position he describes in the article. He co-authored thirty papers last year alone (twenty data-driven and ten reviews). I’m concerned that this guy, in a leadership position, is making a people around him do the same things that he did, whether they want to or not.

And where do we find this? On the Science Careers website! Again! I say again, because you may recall, Science Career got stung just last month for Alice Huang suggested a women faced with a man continually looking down her shirt “you put up with it, with good humor if you can.”

I am wondering if the Science Career website has the same editor as last month. Because if so, there’s a bad pattern emerging. And it needs to stop.

Last time, the “Ask Alice” column was taken down within the day. I am willing to bet that a similar fate will happen here. Article removed, another nonpology from both the Science Careers editorial board and the author, who just don’t see what all the fuss is about.

Major hat tip for Oliver Robinson, who brought this to my attention with this bottom line summary:

Errr... message from this Science piece seems to be: success = poor work-life balance + wife to do domestic duties.

Additional: Rajini Rao notes that I didn’t hit every piece of awfulness in the article, which is true. (There was so much in just that one paragraph!)

You left out the part about walking in front of dept chair to get noticed. Which is just silly.

Yeah. That’s some preening right there. And there’s no way of telling if this did him any good, or was pure superstition.

More additional: My head is reeling at reading that Diamandis lists himself as co-author on 702 papers, and that list ends at 2013.

Related to this culture of “work and nothing but,” I’d like to point to this article about post-doc salaries in the United States (my emphasis):

This is about how, as the reaction of US postdoc shows, no one in this country actually believes in labor law anymore. No one believes that they can be protected from overwork, that pay should be proportional to hours worked as well as talent. No one even believes in the benefits their employer gives them. I have yet to meet a single person at my workplace who takes our (generous) 20 day vacation allowance. And trust me, it’s not just because they love their work. I’ve spent enough time with Americans to know how they are socialized to view vacation as a professional liability.

Still more additional: Terry McGlynn nails it:

The dudes running the system, who got in charge by exploiting their spouses, can’t be allowed to impose their values on our generation.

And even if the Diamandis’s wife did not feel she was exploited, there is no doubt that there are many women who were. And it’s not okay for people to set that expectation, even incidentally by example.

Update, 15 July 2015: Diamandis has responded, briefly and in a slightly cryptic way (not clear if that’s his email or the editing at fault):

Eleftherios P. Diamandis, head of clinical biochemistry at a hospital of the University of Toronto, said via email that he had seen the criticisms. “It is a free world; all opinions respected,” he wrote.

I’m not sure if that means that we are supposed to respect his opinion, or whether he respects other people’s criticisms of him. If the latter, it would be nice if he addressed the criticisms instead of shrugging them off.

He added, “If I stayed home, would my wife be sexist?”

To which I say:

That’s not what happened.

What might have happened and how his wife might have been viewed does not change what actually happened. A woman was asked to take over all the housework again. It’s not as a though this is a rare thing. It’s common. As I wrote above, this may have been the right choice for this couple, but in a context and culture where women disproportionately give up their career options for domestic duty, this sends a bad signal of unfairness.

So, as Dave Mellert answered, if a man’s wife took up the professional overload, and the man stayed at home to do all the housework, the woman wouldn’t be sexist. She might be bigoted or prejudiced or many other unfortunate things, but she isn’t part of a larger continuing pattern.

Hat tip to Karen James - who Inside Higher Education should have referenced when they quoted her tweet. Same with Jacquelyn Gill. Talk about making someone’s contribution invisible.

Update: Scott Jaschik has indicated that the Inside Higher Education article will link the tweets from Karen and Jacquelyn.

Update, 16 July 2015: Times Higher Education covers the criticisms of this, and several other articles, that have appeared in Science or Science Careers. It includes several new comments from Science’s editor-in-chief, Marcia McNutt. Most relevant to this piece is McNutt’s argument:

Dr. McNutt went further to point out that the journal’s first person accounts are being mistaken as advice columns, and says that such future accounts will be paired with alternative commentary or perspective.

That’s a weak claim. Let’s look at the text on the Science Careers homepage (my emphasis):

Clinician-scientist Eleftherios P. Diamandis says that making sure you are noticed can give you the edge over your silent competition.

Similarly, there’s this line in the opening paragraph:

But a well-planned, long-range effort to ensure your visibility among those who have hiring responsibilities can be the deciding factor.

The repeated use of “you” turns this article into an advice column, not a biography. If this article was intended to be merely descriptive and not proscriptive, it’s been poorly written and edited.

Another update, also 16 July 2015: Retraction Watch is reporting on the Diamandis article and the letter criticizing Science for its multiple missteps. Down at the end, updated today, it notes that Jim Austin is no longer the Science Careers editor. He was the individual who, in response to a cover of trans women that didn’t show their faces, called moral indignation “boring.”

Related posts

Breaking brand: Science magazine’s latest self-inflicted crisis

External links

Getting noticed is half the battle
Laboratory of Dr. Eleftherios P. Diamandis
Diamandis’s faculty webpage

1 comment:

Robert L Bell said...

I did my PhD at an elite research university where people fetishized the sixteen hour day, seven days a week, and professors would openly retaliate against students who failed to be seen as working long enough to satisfy all the greedy eyes.

Then I went overseas to a happy country where people came to work at 8:30, had coffee at 10, had lunch at 11:30, had cake at 3, and went home at 4:30. They had families, they had weekends with their families, they took vacations, they took leaves of absence to study the violin a the Royal Academy in London and were welcomed back with open arms.

Oddly enough, people got about the same amount of core high quality work done on both sides of the pond - although the Americans wasted a lot of time on stupid crap that looked great but never went anywhere.

And it's not just academia. At an industrial lab back in the states, the authorities clearly cared more that you looked like you were hard at work in the approved fashion than that you actually accomplished something. Guys retired after forty years of busily achieving nothing, while miracle workers were given the boot because people thought they were lazy.