Personal comment on the infamous letter to astronomy grad students

If you are in the world of astronomy, you probably have heard or read about the infamous letter written by senior staff of an unnamed “famous” astronomy department sent out to their grad students (though it is not difficult to find out which department sent out the letter). If you don’t know what I’m talking about, please read the “inspirational” e-mail here.

The first reactions and comments were naturally ones of outrage (see e.g. astrobetter). There were tweets and facebook posts that were shocked and indignated, mostly on the fact that we, as astronomers, should be working on the subject all of our waking hours and expressing “Thank you, sir, may I have another“. I think that the main source of the scorn was the claim that you have to work 80-100 hours per week on astronomy as a grad student if you want to have a succesful path as a researcher.

First of all, I don’t think anybody can work that long over prolonged periods of time (there’s even evidence for that). As an exception, because there were so many deadlines, I worked 65 hours last week and feel tired today. I hardly saw my family last week and am pretty unhappy about that. Now add 15 hours to that and I would feel downright atrocious.

However, I feel like that putting a number to the hours you work in a week missed the point completely. I am especially sad that the letter put this point first without any nuance or diplomacy – a great way to discourage your students. I can smugly say that even though my advisor was trying to impart similar wisdom to me about working hard, his way of doing it had a much more positive effect on me. Let me veer a bit into personal anecdote time here:

I found out in 2005 I was pregnant. The timimg is never perfect. I had just gotten the Lawrence Fellowship for Graduate Students. Ironically, while that made my measly grad student salary multiply by about 1.5 times, it carried a pretty horrendous health insurance making me basically pay for a big part of the costs during pregnancy and birth, basically negating all the gains in salary (heh!). Anyway, there I was, freshly married and quite frankly scared of telling my advisor that I was about to devote a large part of my life to a new being growing inside of me.

He couldn’t have been any more supportive. First questions were of the lines of “Are you ok?”, but then he did the smart thing, appealing to my ego: “You’re not thinking of leaving astronomy, are you? That would be a big loss! You can make a great scientist. You can make it happen”. Anyway, I left that meeting with a big sense of confidence, that yes, I could make it happen! He didn’t sugarcoat anything, he never said I could succeed by just being half as productive, but he saw the potential that it was doable.

Fast forward about 14 months. I was on my first trip since having my daughter. We were observing at Keck. Funnily, many people complain that they feel tired all the time while observing, but let me tell you, with an 8-month old at home, I felt refreshed and slept like I hadn’t in months, i.e. contiguous 6 hours. heh! Anyway, it was September of 2006 and I was supposed to be graduating less than a year from that date. I had produced just one paper (my deal with my advisor had been three) and I was hitting a roadblock with the analysis of the two big papers. For the Hubble paper, I feel like I wasn’t getting the fitting program, how to tweak the parameters, etc. I just wanted to scream at the world: “Look at the pictures! They tell all the story, what do I need to analyze here!?!?!”.

So we were driving back from a pretty unsuccessful run. We had just gotten a few hours of data out of 2 or 3 nights, I forget. I was feeling down, it was just too hard, the baby, the roadblocks, the stupid clouds. So somewhere on the road between Waimea and Kona my advisor asked me if I really wanted it, that the time and commitment I was putting in wasn’t gonna cut it. Especially not when I was doing other things than the analysis needed for the papers. “It’s all about decisions, Tanya. The person observing after you tonight went diving today. It is a nice thing to do, especially if you’re in Hawai’i. But to really want that job in astronomy, you will need to give up some nice things sometimes.”

All about decisions. That point really resounded with me. I can’t tell you that suddenly everything worked out fine. But I worked hard and by November, close to Thanksgiving I had *the* analysis, *the* main point of the Hubble paper done. There’s even a funny story about my excitement over that result. I had gotten the correlation with which my most disturbed objects were also the most reddened ones on the Thursday before Thanksgiving. I know because the next morning was a “Baby and me” class that I attended every Friday (those who know me will cringe, since they already know this story). We were asked around the circle to say what we were thankful for. I was to go first and happily blurted out that I had just found out the last piece of the puzzle of the paper and that I would be one step closer to graduating. Oh man, that was the wrong answer in that group and I only realized it slowly after every. single. mom. was thankful for having a healthy baby. Ooops!

I did not get a job for the 2007 job season (but only half a year later), that would’ve been too convenient of a story, wouldn’t it have been?. But I can tell you that 2007 was a year which I did focus on work, very much. I shooed colleagues away wanting to come in and gossip, the hours at work were too precious. It was about decisions. The fact that I did not even know what was playing on the TV during those years (I know my friends were obsessed with Lost!, heh), what was going on in the news. I may not have been the best paper reader, may not have had the best code written, it was sometimes hard going at it a bit alone (not completely alone, of course, thank you, Mark!). But the focus was there, the motivation was sparked that kept me going, I was gonna to whatever it took to get that PhD and hopefully that postdoc job!

Mind you, I didn’t suddenly work some magical fixed number of hours a week or spent my time at home with my baby on one arm and the laptop in the other. Rather, and it sounds weird to say it like that, I became more efficient. I most definitely missed some things. I couldn’t have done it without the enormous help and encouragement of my husband. But I can’t explain it better than I was really into everything astronomy during that time (as I feel like I have been this year, too). And it’s like an avalanche, it just multiplies and gets bigger.

Anyway, boy did I veer off the point. It was about this fixation on the number of hours worked, when in reality you should get away from this thinking. It’s about the focus, the flow and the results which you should measure. And thankfully the posts and blogs that have come out since have been a bit more nuanced and addressed much more eloquently what I was wanting to say. The two articles I liked I liked the most were:

a) The post by Elizabeth Lovegrove over at astrobites. Its main point is that there is no clear line where work ends and when fun begins and that we should step away from the computer once in a while. That doesn’t mean that you suddenly should seek out weird ways of doing science in the cafeteria, but rather that we are not in a factory where some fixed amount of product needs to be produced in a certain amount of time. It is science, insights don’t come at the n-th hour worked on the subject.

b) Another amazing blog on the subject was written by Lucianne Walkowicz. http://tangledfields.com/2012/10/26/free-advice/ It’s downright inspirational for any field you work in. Right in the beginning she tackles the issue about the number of hours worked with this simple sentence: “If you are counting how many hours a week you are working, you probably don’t like your job very much.” Exactly! I couldn’t have conveyed it better. I would suggest you just sit down and read the whole article, it deals with health, goals and a whole bunch of other things that I was just nodding along to.

Lastly, I do want to say that I hope if anything good comes out of this discussion is: yes, it’s about decisions, but there are a few things that you should not decide away – it is your health, be it physical or mental and your family and close friends! Now go on, keep on truckin’!

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