The listening game

The last few weeks have been busy: I was visiting old friends in Germany and San Francisco and other old friends came to visit me in my new home, Philadelphia. Since most of my friends are also scientists, naturally much of our conversation evolved around academia, gossip about old co-workers and experiences with new labs. Interestingly, although our careers have diverged extensively, there was one recurring theme that linked many problematic experiences: PIs who don’t listen.

Pis who don’t listen… Cartoon [De Niro as Newton] by RedPen BlackPen.

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Is more really better?

As long as I can remember, I’ve heard teachers, professors and politicians say that we should encourage more high-school and university students to pursue a career in science. And I used to be a believer. After all, the people who said this, were the ones at the top, the ones with a proper oversight of things. However, today, I’m not so sure anymore. In fact, I’m becoming more and more convinced that encouraging people to pursue a career in science (or at least research) may just be a way for universities to generate competition and thus obtain a source of cheap labor.

conspiracy-theory-alert_display_imageSounds like a conspiracy theory? Maybe. But here’s why:

As I grow older, more and more of my friends, who used to work in research (and who really liked doing so) drop out. They move towards alternative careers, such as science communication, industry, teaching etc. And they generally list the same reasons for doing so:

1. Early-career researchers get little reward for their work: this primarily means that they consider themselves being underpaid and overworked. Money matters.

2. There’s too much insecurity, pressure and competition as you move up the ranks: there are many, many good scientists with great publication records, who’d all like to have a junior group leader or tenure track position. Obviously, the more people you feed into the system at the lower ranks, the more will compete for the jobs at the top. But there are increasingly less long-term contracts handed out . Security matters. Moreover…

3. … science is becoming less of a vocation and more like a job: It seems to be less crucial nowadays how good or creative you are, and increasingly important how well you can manage and advertise yourself. Your ideas and hands-on experience seem to matter less than what your CV looks like, in what labs you’ve worked and how well you’ve published. And since the results of your first five to ten years of research may therefore define your later career options, this discourages “outiside-the-box-thinking” and taking on risky projects. Often this also means, that science-related non-research activities are undervalued: I’ve filled in fellowship applications where there is no option to include teaching or the organization of science events as an asset.This is extremely frustrating, if you consider that much of science knowledge is actually passed through the grapevine: by great teachers and lecturers who transmit their love of science as well as up-to-date knowledge, and by experienced lab staff who show you the do’s and do not’s of experimental design and lab techniques.

Motivated teachers matter!

Motivated teachers matter!
from “Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham

So, all in all, my interpretation of the data: thanks to increasing numbers of PhD students and postdocs, there’s plenty of “raw material” to chose from. Therefore PIs and legislators can get away with providing low job security, as well as relatively low salaries. Also, having more early-career researchers also requires less personal touch and more standardized metrics.  And keeping it this way means a cheap workforce, which is why people at the top encourage more students to pursue a career in research. And thus the vicious circle continues…

Still think it’s a conspiracy theory? Maybe. Maybe also have a look at Paula Stephan’s book, How Economics Shapes Science. It provides a much broader and nuanced overview of the interplay between economics and science, including a detailed analysis of supply and demand in research.

But please keep this rant in mind, next time someone tells you we need to recruit more students into science!


Back in 1948, a not-so-unknown producer and director, Alfred Hitchcock, presented audiences with one of his “most experimental” films, Rope. While the storyline (a murder, and the discovery of the murder) never garnered much attention, Hitchcock’s filming technique did: He used extremely long shots of approx 10 minutes each and almost no editing, which gives viewers the impression of events on screen occurring in continuous, real time. Yet, interestingly, the time that passes on screen (105 minutes) is not the same as the length of the film (81 minutes), but when you watch the movie, you don’t notice the disparity between film-time and real-time. I became aware of this phenomenon back in 2002, thanks to an article by Antonio R. Damasio in Scientific American. Damasio argues that one of the reasons we accept this time-disparity, is because our emotional status influences how we perceive time. Thus, when we are happy, we perceive time to pass more quickly, whereas when we are uncomfortable or worried (like, when we are watching a film about murder) time seems to pass more slowly. *

I had mentally filed away this knowledge as merely an interesting cocktail-party-fact, until recently…

I am currently enjoying a three-month summer vacation at home, after having completed my PhD and before starting my post-doc position in France. Well, at least I thought it would be a holiday. I had the vague notion that there were a couple of things I really wanted to do during this period, but friends who had taken in-between-jobs-time before, had warned me that often there is not much relaxation involved. So, I decided to keep plans at a minimum. Here the list:


I am now about a month into my holiday. I don’t feel very relaxed, yet. In fact, I largely feel like I’m on an emotional roller-coaster: some days I wake up, and feel like this:


Other days I think:


Interestingly, I have noticed that how I evaluate my progress is measured in whether or not there will be “enough time for everything”. I’m not sure what is cause and consequence: do I feel there won’t be enough time for everything, because I’m low and therefore perceive things to take longer in general? Or am I low, because I realize that things are taking longer than expected?

Not that I’m really complaining: a long time off is a great thing. Instead, I have the feeling that this to-do-list might end up being like that never-ending series of “last-experiment-to-wrap-up-this-story”. I’ve also come to realize that time-management might be considered a great transferable skill in science, but this does not mean that free-time-management is also a desirable activity. So the real challenge this summer is to learn how to have a proper holiday. I’ll add that to my to-do-list. And probably the three months in-between-jobs-time will be a too short period anyway, irrespective of it being a enjoyable time or a stressful time. After my postdoc I’ll take six months off…

* Not everyone agrees with Damasio. In a blog I found researching for this post, John August points out that “in movies, unless something seems wildly impossible […] audiences are extremely forgiving about time”.