Isis (the scientist) and The Red Queen

Mar 08 2016 Published by under Uncategorized

Okeydokey. I wrote this a while ago, and forgot to post it. Ah well. It's still of value and maybe the postdoc/millenial hordes will descend on me anew and tell me "I don't get it". Just like I did when I was young, green and much more sure of what I knew than I am now.

She's back. And with a good message cloaked in her trademarked hilarity.

The predictable discussion ensued about whether it is appropriate to ask for more than a 40 hour work week from trainees, although I rolled my eyes a little and needed a cocktail over the fact we’re discussing a letter from 1996.

The money quote is:

 I have been a long time advocate of “work-life balance” or whatever the heck that means, but I also don’t believe that our jobs can be done in 40 hours.

Not just your field, honey. Almost anything, including computational, theoretical modeling. Her point is well taken: that there is variation. Some mentors are jackasses and make ridiculous demands. Others are not. Some who are don't know it, and some who are know it, and don't care. But where that line between "obscene" demands and "strong" demands can be and often is drawn in many places.

Isis' point about working till the job is done is the succinct statement of reality. Her dean, my dean, all of chairs, are not interested in the hours we work, but the widgets we produce or results (papers, funded proposals) we get. A good mentor works on that basis with their trainees, too. For trainees and for junior faculty, the issue becomes: what constitutes the appropriate amount of end product?

Leigh Van ValenThe Red Queen from Alice became an acceptable model/trope in evolutionary biology visa vi Leigh Van Valen, a character if there ever was one. I did have the experience, and sometimes it verged on intellectual pleasure, of knowing Leigh. Here is the link to the original publication for The Red Queen Hypothesis (Leigh was OA before OA was A Thing). The Red Queen is simply that one must run as hard one can to stay in place, as the RQ tells Alice:

“My dear, here we must run as fast as we can, just to stay in place. And if you wish to go anywhere you must run twice as fast as that. -- Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland.

In evolutionary biology, this came to imply that if a species did not evolve, but stayed in place, it would go extinct, given that it was existing in an ever changing environment and competing with other species that were evolving. Van Valen proposed that this was a consequence of natural selection and Darwinian evolution.

In the cultural context of academic survival, it means that if there are fewer places (jobs or grants) than people who want them, one must run as hard as the others who also desire those ends. I am not saying this is A Good Thing, or that it is A Bad Thing. It is merely A  Thing, and to a large extent, A True Thing. One's emotional response to this is, to a large extent, irrelevant. We can all commit to changing the system. We can work towards being different. But, when you are a postdoc, or an untenured faculty, railing against this, tweeting furiously will not change the fact that if you want to succeed, you need to achieve standards. And those standards are often made in comparison to other people who are also running as hard as they can.

I had originally written about another 500 words on this. But I've broken them up into more posts, as they address specific parts of this problem: the 80 hour work week, stopping the tenure clock, and same-sex couples. Keep reading....




7 responses so far

  • Ola says:

    The message (run fast) is especially important during the post-doc to faculty transition period. As was explained to me before embarking on my own transition - you have to be all of the things, all of the time, no let up. You have to read a lot, write a lot, teach a lot, get out on the road a lot, work in the lab a lot (on both your own and your mentor's projects), and have some kind of life/down-time too. A 40 hour week simply won't cut it. Once the transition is over, THEN you get to relax for a few seconds.

    I have a particular problem getting this message across to my trainees, because I'm a fairly young PI (PhD at 24, first R01 at 30). The millennials now in their early 30s still slaving away at their own doctorates see someone only a few years older who can afford to take things a tiny (tiny!) bit more slowly, and that makes the "run fast" line a really tough sell when it comes from me. Everyone expects the beardy old gray dudes to take it slow, but because I'm still relatively young it's assumed I'll run as fast at the transitional folks. They get pissed when they see me not running as fast as they think I should.

  • Morgan Price says:

    As a computational scientist, I feel that hard work is overrated. Putting in long hours to do more data analysis or write more code leads to low quality work that needs to be redone later.

    • potnia theron says:

      Running as hard as possible doesn't mean long hours. But it does mean figuring out how to be efficient.

  • aspiring riffraff says:

    There's also something to timing your downtime effectively. I went on a long vacation this fall immediately following a conference, and after submitting 2 grants and getting 2 papers out for peer review. As my brain was effectively mush, it was a perfect opportunity to take some time off with my SO and come back to work excited to start again.

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