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I own you, and you're easily replaceable. (chemistry-blog.com)
247 points by mikexstudios on June 23, 2010 | hide | past | web | favorite | 127 comments



In addition to the usual work-day schedule, I expect all of the members of the group to work evenings and weekends. You will find that this is the norm here at Caltech.

Then you're doing it wrong at Caltech.

We are often quick to assume that MoreHoursWorked = MoreWorkGettingDone. This is true up to a point, but false beyond that point. Personally, I believe that evenings and weekends are usually beyond that point.

I used to work 90 hours per week. But when I decided that I needed to get more done, I started working 60 hours per week. Results per hour and quality of results have both improved dramatically, so I'll never go back. And I would never work for anyone who doesn't understand this.


I recall that some studies showed that long term productivity is maximized at around 40 hours a week (at least on average) [citation needed, please]. When we go from 40 hours to 60, productivity rises temporarily, then falls. The fifth crunch time week is even less productive than a standard 40 hour week. After 2 months, the benefits of the first week are cancelled out. Finally, when we go back to 40 hours a week, productivity plummets, then rises to it's standard level.

But the most interesting thing is that long term perceived productivity is higher at 60 hours a week than at 40. Because of that, it is very difficult to realize that overtime is a mistake (emergencies aside).

I would also understand that not all people are alike. Some may be most productive at 35 hours a week. Some may be most productive at 50. But 60 hours sound like much. Maybe you could try to work even less for a month and see the results? (And of course try to measure your productivity reliably. Going from 60 hours to 50 or 40 may be beneficial, but less so than going from 90 hours to 60.)


Here's a meta-citation for you: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=971708

In short, Henry Ford did experiments in his factory and decided that 40h/week was optimal. Unfortunately, this figure has stuck, even though newer research indicates that for knowledge work and creative work, less than 40 is more appropriate. (35-40 suggested by these slides: http://www.lostgarden.com/2008/09/rules-of-productivity-pres... )


I know the same numbers, but they are for programmers. There are jobs where number of hours worked is by far the best predictor of output. OP's work may or may not be among them - sometimes science is a lot more like picking cotton then creative design.


Then they need to change the way they operate their labs, because they don't need someone with 25 years of education picking cotton.


Wow, if one can increase productivity by reducing hours from 90 to 60, then again (as you say) from 60 to 40, then what really is the optimal hours worked per week? I would think it largely depends on the task at hand - manual labor or academic. I know when I framed houses I could do 6x10s and was wasted beyond that and useless, but mental work can be exhausting also. I know with practice one can build up the ability to work longer hours physically and I suspect with training you could do the same mentally. The bigger question, however, is people are expected to have a life outside of work, too. Personally, I'd like to see 35 hours as you suggest as the law.


For the software industry at least Steve McConnell's classic Code Complete cites several studies showing that total productivity (not just per hour productivity) is maximized at just slightly above 40 hours per week, and bouts of prolonged overtime don't generally translate to greater output. My own anecdotal evidence tends to support this.


My personal limits hover at around 30/35 hours a week. Any additional hour is spent surfing the web, struggling the urge to sleep, drinking tea, in brief various task that may easily pass for work but aren't productive at all.


I wonder if a typical trait of successful founders is to be excited/determined enough to do good work (=results/time) while putting in obscene hours. Is this true?


No. Pretend otherwise if you want by saying 'well what if it is this kind of work' but consistently working more than 40 hours per week is counter-productive. Every study shows this.

And there's no need to put in obscene hours, or expect it. As it's counter-productive... See where this is going...


These studies were done during WW2 to investigate ways to increase productivity in the US arms factories. Note that this was with a workforce that wanted to produce as much as possible, not a workforce that was coerced to.

Their conclusion to maximize productivity was to work 40 hours most of the time, with occaisional bursts at 60.


My view is everyone is built and wired a little differently. I love these behavioral management studies too, but certainly there exist people who can stay very productive at the 80 hour a week mark for a few years.

If the professor mentioned properly selects for such people out of his mountain of applicants and the group's culture thrives on it, then he's running a tight ship.


Well, this is dated 1996...so you have a 14 year management theory edge over Professor Carreira. Additionally, he's no longer at Caltech, but now heads a lab in Zurich, though it gives off the same 'patent factory' vibe (http://www.carreira.ethz.ch/).

We are often quick to assume that MoreHoursWorked = MoreWorkGettingDone

That assumes sustainable productivity as our highest goal, though. I think that's a good one and plainly you do too. But external measures of productivity are not always their own reward: some will sacrifice external position for internal strength. Working the juniors like slaves, with the resulting high turnover, means fewer competitors for publication credit or questions about your strategic approach: those who hate you leave as soon as they can, those who remain are inclined to do what they're told. Look at countries which are dictatorships; they know quite well that open societies tend to be substantially richer, but conversely they're much harder to boss around and it's often safer to be the big fish in a small pond.

Not saying this is true of the professor in question, but his tone certainly suggests an authoritarian demeanor.


>> ...You will find that this is the norm here at Caltech.

> Then you're doing it wrong at Caltech.

at Caltech.

This isn't really about the 90-hour workweek. Occasionally, it transpires that you have 90 hours of work to do and only one week to do it in.

What's repellant is that the words "at Caltech" add no meaning to that sentence. They are included purely to argue from authority:

"You will find that this is the norm here."

"You will find that this is the norm here at Caltech."

"You will find that this is the norm here at Caltech, and who are you to violate the norms of such a prestigious institution?"

Scientists are supposed to know better than this.


Scientists are supposed to know better than this.

Maybe we shouldn't suppose so much.


I don't understand this mentality. He is focuses on hours worked not on results. Are research grants given based on number of hours spent researching by grad students?


I'm perplexed how you fail to grasp such a simple concept as is our laboratory's quality standards. I will however notify you again - that you are always expected to perform at highest levels of performance. Or shall I have to remind you, that you should be amongst elite students. If you are unable to perform to these modest standards, I will have to replace you with some uneducated poor asian farmer. Who will be more than willing to fulfill my simple requests. There are people out there who would be able to show some gratitude for such opportunity.


If you are unable to perform to these modest standards, I will have to replace you with some uneducated poor asian farmer. Who will be more than willing to fulfill my simple requests.

I don't know how long I'd be willing to stick around doing work that could be done by a poor asian farmer.


Tell that to the millions of World of Warcraft subscribers.


They're just implementing his brilliantly conceived research program. As long as they have their hand-eye coordination, they can continue to churn out the fruits of his vision. All the names on the following his on the resulting papers and patents are the scientific equivalent of "sent from my iPhone."


One thing you (and others here) may be overlooking is that chemistry is largely an experimental science. Performing experiments takes a lot of time, because the experiments take time, but often they take on the order of hours and you can use that time for other stuff. When I was graduating in physics, I often went to the lab on evenings, in weekends, hell, even on Boxing day. However, when I was there, I usually wasn't working on my thesis; I was just running experiments. In the meantime, I read books, went to the gym, surfed the web, etc. It's far from ideal, as 'the job' is on your mind 24/7 and it ties you up a bit, but it is not as bad as it may seem to an outsider not realizing what actually went on when I was at the lab.


Results per hour improved, but did total results improve? I think you're implying they did, but you kind of stated it wrong.


The writer of this letter now has a research group named after himself (http://www.carreira.ethz.ch/) so lets go with uncurable egomania combined with dangerous levels of political skill and charisma, all co-presenting with a callous disregard for one's fellows, justified by the argument that "people want to work for me." Frankly, we're lucky he's only a scientist and didn't study economics, politics or law instead of chemistry.

--- edit ---

If naming groups after yourself is normal, then it's not a bad apple, it's a bad barrel! It sounds like academia could only be more feudal if you had to call your professor "my liege."


Lots of research groups are named after the PI, this is nothing unusual. For example:

http://dft.uci.edu/

http://www.princeton.edu/~cargroup/


At my university, it's more common to give your research group a grandiose name that implies it's got a bunch of profs in it, when it's actually just you. Not sure if that's better or worse...


At my university every single lab/research group is named after the professor directing it. It's the standard in Japan. The name simply changes when a new professor joins or takes over.

I find the practice a bit in bad taste, but it's not exceptional.


But since it's the norm it doesn't sound grandiose at all (at least to me).


I finished my studies at the ETH a few years ago, and heard at that time that this was the normal case for chemistry students here as well (at least I was being told) doing a phd.

I guess these students must have been from his group as well :-)


AND he decided that Comic Sans was a good font; so he also has really poor taste.


Non-scientists love to talk about how important science is and how we need more scientists, but the reality is that smart kids with some worldly knowledge practically couldn't do worse than to go into science.


Fortunately for guys like this there's an oversupply of smart kids without the worldly knowledge to avoid careers in science.


That seems to be a rather sweeping claim to make on the basis of one asshole.


It's probably on the basis of that one asshole, and the experiences of other people he knows.

I personally know several people who have been taken advantage of by their professors, so I'm inclined to believe him.

Also, "taken advantage of" is exactly the right term in my friends' cases. Both are classic Aspergers cases (actual Aspergers, not just an excuse for bad behavior), and their professors seem to be taking advantage of the trouble they have mounting an effective resistance.


>Also, "taken advantage of" is exactly the right term in my friends' cases. Both are classic Aspergers cases (actual Aspergers, not just an excuse for bad behavior), and their professors seem to be taking advantage of the trouble they have mounting an effective resistance.

That's just the real world calling, and their refusal or inability to answer. If they were in corporate america, a co-worker or middle manager would steal their work and take credit, or capitalize on their inability to resist additional assignments.

If they were in a start-up, they'd be overburdened and then forced out, probably receiving the lowest equity of anyone and getting even less than out of the deal, because they didn't make any decisions.

Its just a dog eat dog world out there, and if you can't say "No" or take credit for your achievements, you're going to get taken advantage of.


>That's just the real world calling, and their refusal or inability to answer. If they were in corporate america, a co-worker or middle manager would steal their work and take credit, or capitalize on their inability to resist additional assignments.

I've worked in corporate America for a while now, and I haven't seen managers steal credit for their workers work before. Generally, if you're a manager and you have someone you manage who is doing a great job and getting lots of stuff done, that reflects well on you as a manager too.


It all depends on the corporate culture. When I worked in the nuclear industry, the culture was very sociopathic. New engineers were 4 to a cubicle. It was "your fault" if a 40- or 80-hour task was not completed on time because your manager let it sit on his desk for two weeks and gave it to you on the day of the deadline.

I've also worked in places where engineers get the offices with windows, there are lunchtime tech talks, and managers try their best to prioritize work and then "get out of your way".

So it all depends. The people who email Scott Adams (of Dilbert) their workplace horror stories are not [all] making them up. A "good" corporate culture in America is still atypical, IMHO.


Maybe you're right but no matter how much bad behavior there is out there, it's still important to call people on the bad behavior you see.


It is also bad behavior to fight somebody else's battles. They have to learn to stand up for themselves and say "No". Getting in between a manager and an employee when you're not on the org chart is a quick way to career wash out.


I was a bit glib there and I'm sure you're right that the GP was speaking from experience. But it's also a useless comment to me (and likely all other HNers without relevant experience) because all it tells me is that some guy on the Internet thinks science is a terrible industry to work in. Why? What's the reasoning? What did he/she experience that led to that conclusion? The GP could have given me some insight, even a mere anecdote, to make me think, but given the sparse context, I think the only reasonable thing I can do is dismiss it as crankery or bitterness.

As for your friends, who's to say that academic science is the culprit? There's assholes everywhere, and neither you, nor the GP has convinced me it's endemic to science research.

As for my anecdote, I work in bioinformatics now. I've only just started, but so far my experience couldn't be more different.


Anecdotes are hardly evidence, but here are some articles that I've found agree with my experiences and the experiences of others I know.

http://philip.greenspun.com/careers/women-in-science

http://blog.penelopetrunk.com/2008/06/18/seven-reasons-why-g...


I dont know about the others who are upvoting him/her. But I went to grad school and my upvote was a very informed upvote. Its sad, its true.


My wife is currently a grad student at a top 10 chemistry university studying under a fairly well-known and respected female PhD (relevant because "respected female chemistry PhD" is rare enough to really be "what's wrong with chemistry now"...not the subject of this article...). This PhD does an excellent job in motivating her students by pushing them for timely results, but I don't think anyone in the lab feels like they are expected to work evenings and weekends (indeed, some of them have brand new kids and a healthy work/life balance).

Of course, most weekends the lab has least a couple people in it, but I don't think it reflects the attitude presented in this memo. To be clearer, the motivation to come in on weekends and stay late are not coming from a harshly-worded memo, but from their desire to push their career forward.

The plural of anecdote is not data, but I thought I'd throw that perspective in.


The plural of "anecdote" is not "data".

That's brilliant. Can I steal that from you?


According to this [1] you can steal it from Frank Kotsonis who in turn stole (and inverted) it from Raymond Wolfinger

[1] http://askville.amazon.com/original-source-quote-plural-anec...


Fascinating - according to that link, the Wolfinger quote stated the opposite, that the plural of anecdote _is_ data. I guess I could see it going either way depending on what you were arguing, which kind of makes the statement lose its punch.


That has been my point several times. Anecdotes are data, they just aren't very good quality data, but sometimes they are all that is really available. Their biggest problem are lack of controls, but then many statistical analyses lack controls; and lack of consistent baselines and alternatives between anecdotes.


I love Hacker News.


It's a common adage, so I doubt anyone would object.


This is almost a perfect example of "sick system" (or how to keep people in abusive work/personal relationships):

  Rule 1: Keep them too busy to think.
  Rule 2: Keep them tired.
  Rule 3: Keep them emotionally involved.
  Rule 4: Reward intermittently.
http://issendai.livejournal.com/572510.html


Interestingly, if you add:

    Rule 5: Allow them to quit or pause at any time
    Rule 6: Allow them to set their own input costs (to "place their own bets")
you have the basic tenets of game design.


That's horrifying. I can't help but wonder if it's not carefully crafted to ring true to everyone in the manner of a horoscope.

Doesn't everyone have a tough job now and then? Doesn't everyone have rough relationships with friends or family when the counterparty is down? Who among us only associates with well-adjusted people and companies?


Wow, that's the kind of relationship when you finally get rid of, you feel like in heaven.

I prefer the "boring" healthy relationships.


Or a cult.


We'd never be so gauche as to send a memo about it. There are much more efficient methods of getting employees to work every night and weekend, and if you do it right, it won't even occur to them that that isn't normal.

I forget whether I'm talking about salaryman "we" or tech industry "we"...


Presumably this is why Google is buying everyone breakfast, lunch, and dinner.


I certainly hope that point isn't lost on anyone familiar with Google.


Probably not coincidentally, the end of breakfast and the beginning of dinner are 9 hours apart.


Isn't that because you also have an 1 hours lunch break ? Seems logic to me.


I always find it amusing how stunningly naive most people who work over 60 hours a week in salaried positions are. Your 100k job may seem swank but if you're working 60-80 hours a week you're making effectively 30-20 dollars an hour. You'd be better off working 2 separate jobs at $40 an hour at 50 hours a week (or a single hourly job at $36/hr that pays regular overtime) than killing yourself in the death march.


I have a PhD from Caltech in Applied Physics/Engineering. I worked for a physics prof when I felt like it. He didn't even KNOW when I was working for the most part, and I took great vacations.

You payz your money and you takez your choice. Different profs, different groups, had different cultures. I was in a group where the cultural values were being really smart and having a great time. This letter is clearly from a group where the cultural value is devoting your life to climbing the ladder.

Rejecting the work your butt off model is the wiener way out. Maybe it works better, maybe not. Maybe it works well for some people, and that's why many of them are represented among the full professor faculty at Caltech. I don't care if it works that well, it is not my choice, and I had no problem finding full professors at Caltech who asked for nothing of that kind.

R:


In the OP's case, it was an assistant Prof trying to move up.


Reminds me of a memo that got leaked from my previous employer back in '03. Tanked the stock 20% in a day.

http://technocrat.net/d/2006/8/28/7262/


Arno Penzias when he directed Crawford Hill Laboratory at Bell Labs is said to have sent a memo to the scientists working there. In the memo he said that a VP had visited Crawford Hill and noticed that there were cars arriving in the parking lot late, between 8AM at least until 9 AM, and leaving early, at least between 4 PM and 5 PM.

Arno asked all staff reading his memo for the following. If you have to come in late, please try to arrive after 9 AM. If you need to leave early, please leave before 4 PM.

I never saw the memo myself, but I did have the pleasure of working at Crawford Hill for nearly 2 years in the late 1970s. I find the existence of this memo easy to believe. So at minimum, it is a good story, might even be true. My own meager google skills do not turn up any corroboration on our universal consciousness.


Wow, what a great story! It makes some memory cells vaguely stir in the back of my mind, but I can't remember where I might have heard a variant of it. Hope it sticks this time.

Speaking of brilliant managers, one of my favorite anecdotes is of an engineering exec who, his first day at a new job, was doing the rounds meeting people and happened to notice an engineer asleep at his desk. Most managers in this situation, of course, would have one of two reactions: either get mad because the guy was sleeping at work, or try to be quiet because he was obviously working hard and needed it. This exec, instead, immediately grabbed a couple of the other engineers and went out and got a couch.


It reminds me of E.J. Corey's group at Harvard, as described in "Lethal Chemistry at Harvard," available at:

http://www.nytimes.com/1998/11/29/magazine/lethal-chemistry-...

The article begins with the suicide of one of Corey's graduate students.


For some reason your link was cut. Here it is, in shortened version : http://nyti.ms/bejeg0


Ah, I get why I am downvoted. The link was cut on the old version of firefox (1.0) I was using.


Oh. Hell. That hits a little too close to home.


"My measurement will be the parking lot: it should be substantially full at 7:30 AM and 6:30 PM"

In other words: I know its not a good measure (based on a previous statement), but I am still going to use that, because I suck so much that I am too mad to think of anything else. To stop getting fired, I will measure how many people die of hunger, and kill farmers to make sure people get more food.


1) The CEO of a large company often gets to choose the board of directors. He's at little risk for getting fired.

2) He doesn't suck. Despite the anomalous dip in stock price, Cerner performs well to this day, and Patterson, as was noted in another post, was named one of the best CEOs in the country by Forbes when it comes to maximizing shareholder value.


Forbes, via Dan Lyons, also took SCO's side and printed many things that turned out not to be true. I'm not inclined to treat Forbes as a reliable source.

That said, he might well be good at maximizing shareholder value (e.g. squeezing lots of hours out of salaried employees) and he certainly didn't get fired over this.

I definitely wouldn't work for him, though.


Ah, but the company rebounded and is still doing pretty well, Neal Patterson is still CEO -- and most likely, the parking lot is half full on Saturdays.

Guys like this win @ life. By doing this kind of shit.


In April of 2010, Forbes magazine named Patterson fourth on their annual list of "America's Best-Performing Bosses" based on a formula for calculating which executives delivered the best shareholder value relative to their total compensation. Factors included stock performance relative to industry peers over the past six years, annualized stock performance during the leader's total tenure and performance relative to the S&P 500 over that time, and total compensation over the past six years.

Source: http://www.forbes.com/2010/04/27/best-performing-chief-execu...


Guys like this win @ life. By doing this kind of shit.

It's likely that, no matter what else he does with his life, this memo will always be the one thing he's most well known for, and just about everyone who reads it will judge him for writing it.

That just doesn't sound like "winning" to me.


Ah, but it's not bad to work for someone who has the guts to take action.


ComputerWorld reckons there are only 51 better places to work :p

http://www.computerworld.com/s/article/349873/No._52_Best_Pl...


Reminds me of the tech-company I worked in for a few years.

One of my friends was working as a programmer there. The guy was crazy and when the inevitable relaunch came, he worked insane hours, would code at night and on the weekends at home.

Our CEO, egomaniac that he was noticed that he would arrive late at work.

He made the technical manager chew him out despite his protests while standing watch next to him.

The developer quit shortly after and the company tanked after one more year.


This attitude was the norm when I was in chem grad school in the 90s. Slacking was working anything less than 70 hours a week and with 5-7 years of that kind of work undoable in a word from your advisor you were powerless to do anything about it.

Needless to say, I've never regretted my decision to drop out and write software instead.


"This lab is what is known as a '40 hour lab'. You are not permitted to work here for more than 40 hours each week. Sign ins and sign outs will be rigorously monitored as well as periodic spot checks to make sure no research tasks associated with this lab have taken place outside official hours.

As you well know there are many, many qualified applicants who would gladly take your place if you feel that you are unable to follow these rules. The simple truth is that if you are unable to get results in the 40 hours provided each week, you will probably be unable to get results period and should look for different employment."

Go ahead, professor, post it. I dare you.


I hate this kind of ethic; our competitors have it almost exclusively (from my observation).

We are a much smaller company all round with a very relaxed work schedule (like today, our busiest day, we finished early to watch the football) and yet we consistently outperform, outmanoeuvre and beat those competitors into the dust.

It's all about work ethic and the ability of a "team" to Get Things Done.

I think the leanest and most productive type of companies/groups/teams today tend to:

- work flexible hours

- work relatively few hours

- and most importantly works hard to reduce the hours you need to be productive (this does wonders IMO)


When choosing a field of work, it's important to look at the pay. I want to work at something I love, but I also want to get paid well for it, and no matter how much I love a field, I don't like being abused. If a field is money-poor, it just is. Some industries are awash in money, some aren't.

Next thing is how many people are eager to be in the field, no matter the cost. Don't enter a field overcrowded with good people. Sports, acting, anything glamorous. For reasons that escape me, science fits in this category. Find an area where you're genuinely appreciated. If there is no money involved, the appreciation is fake.


I check the "many people" rule too. But sports, acting and science is big enough to find good places to stay. In my experience in the electronics sector, everybody wants to do "robots" and "lasers", so you really have to compete with a lot of people for the limited job supply, but you could do great things that are required but not so demanded.


If this ever happens to IT, I think I'd rather go work in fast food and write code on the side. I'm passionate about the work but not passionate about being worked to death.

I guess some may argue it has happened in some tech circles (startups: at least you usually give us a reason to work hard), but it's never been the norm anywhere I've been employeed.


Consider yourself lucky. These kinds of employers do exist in the software world. Generally speaking, they may even be correct to think that way (if you twist your logic a bit). Poor to mediocre programmers are very easy to find, and will usually be happy to get a job even if it's underpaid. This creates an environment where you just hire tons of these kinds of programmers that are underpaid and overworked. This can actually even get the job done, albeit not very well.


Unless you own the company or are a partner, never imagine you're anything other than work for hire. The worst part is if you're a good soldier and do your (unpaid) OT, there's no guarantee you'll see any kind of reward. Employers who mandate 40+ weeks are ususally the kind who are looking to screw their employees any way they can. It is, however, a perfect sign that you need to be looking for a new job immediately.


I would loath to work for a place where I were just "work for hire". Case in point: I was laid off at the last place I worked. My direct manager explained the situation personally, apologized profusely. And then acted as a reference for my next job. Sure, I lost my job, but I wasn't just dropped like a used tool.

Employees can (and should) be people too.


The entire IT outsourcing industry is built on this principle.


I've seen that a lot with offshore dev shops: "We charge rates 1/4 what an American would take. Oh and you'll need 4 of our developers plus a manager to oversee them!"

(scratches head)


Granted I am only a student but I made a similar move by quitting my internship and an Office Space like software company and finding a part time job and doing freelance work on the side. I couldn't be happier.


"Our culture celebrates the idea of the workaholic. We hear about people burning the midnight oil. They pull all-nighters and sleep at the office. It’s considered a badge of honor to kill yourself over a project. Workaholics wind up creating more problems than they solve. Workaholics miss the point, too. They try to fix problems by throwing sheer hours at them. They try to make up for intellectual laziness with brute force."

- Jason Fried & David Heinemeier Hansson, "Rework"


I deal with this scenario everyday in a company I work with, where the founder expects everyone to work on weekends and late night (most days). Since it is an advertising agency, he accepts every work that comes his way from clients. He comes from Sales background and somehow believes that more work is equal to more money, which is not true. When it comes to any work where some amount of thinking is involved, Less work (Quality) == more money.

Most of the people in the team are stressed and are complaining that they don't have a personal life. They would quit the company, the day they get an opportunity to apply leave, so that they can attend other interviews.

Very soon, I am going to buy him a book called "Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams". It's an amazing book, and is a must read for people who are or want to manage teams.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peopleware_%28book%29


I second that, "Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams" is an awesome book and I really encourage anyone who hasn't read it to pick it up some time. I think it is an important read for both developers and managers.


Is this a US thing? a CalTech thing? or just one crazy professor? I know several research scientists in various places in Europe and they have nothing like this. Sure, when deadlines need to met they work longer or they get swept up in their work they end up sitting until 3 am and sometimes you have to drop by the lab on a weekend to check on an experiment, but all that is an exception rather than a rule.


It depends entirely on the professor and the department. My adviser once said that he expected forty hours a week, but if we really wanted to be successful we should put in sixty.

I know plenty of other people with ridiculous horror stories though. Things like professors demanding to know why a postdoc was taking so much time in the bathroom, or confiscating a graduate student's plane ticket back to China until an assignment was completed.

Academics desperately need a ratemyprofessor.com for advisers and lab environments.


"confiscating a graduate student's plane ticket back to China" -- Theft. Possibly grand theft, depending on the state and how much the ticket cost. And possibly false imprisonment, if the student had no other reasonable way of leaving the country (e.g., if they were a starving grad student who didn't have the money for a second ticket).


When I was working in CS research in the UK in the 80/90s the prof I worked for probably wouldn't have noticed until someone had gone missing for a few weeks.

Some people worked long hours, some didn't, there wasn't any correlation between hours in the office and how successful people were.

However, other profs were known to be fascists. It all depended who you worked for.


Definitely varies by prof--- even in the US, which on average is less laid back, I know people who have to actively hunt down their professors if they ever want to see them. They could probably take a month off and nobody would notice. Seems especially common with fairly senior tenured profs who've moved into academic politics and PR type roles: when they're spending their days in strategic-direction meetings with deans, or giving invited talks at industry events or whatever, they can sometimes forget they have a research group and some students.


Yeah - the guy I worked for was heavily involved in EU level projects. We typically had no idea which country he was in let alone whether he was supposed to be in that day/week/month.


Another vote for "it depends on who you work for". I just got that a speech that's basically equivalent to that letter from my (CS) adviser. I think it was supposed to be motivational, but the only thing it's motivated me to do is send out resumes and commit to quitting grad school.

Edited, to add that I was already working 80 hours a week before the speech. I'm not even sure how I could possibly work more if I stayed.


Organic chemistry - particularly total synthesis - is the Marines only without the warm and fuzzy personal development. It's full of the bad crazy.

(My background's theoretical solid-state which is a lot less savage.)


I don't know any chem PhD/Grad students to ask this question, but I'm curious: is this work schedule specific to Chemistry researchers? From my experience in college chem classes (I was premed before CS) their research involves lots of experimentation and waiting on reactions to run; a lot of butt-in-seat time might be necessary for them to do their research.


I think it is a lot more common in chem and bio for the sort of reasons you say. You have to work on the schedule of the experiment, which isn't always conveniently aligned with an 8-5, M-F schedule. I did theoretical physics at Caltech and there was no expectation of this sort from the profs. Lots of my friends in chem & bio (and to a lesser degree experimental physics) worked kinda crazy schedules. Even in those departments, though, some profs were known to be slave drivers and some were more relaxed.


Academic math/CS is not remotely this bad, at least in my experience. I've never heard of anyone being told to work more hours. I've heard of people being told to get more done, but that's a different issue.

In general, a bad supervisor will neglect you rather than force you to do ridiculous amounts of work, and will fail to put in the requisite effort to get you a job.


Same here. I think part of it is that in CS, at least in my area (AI), there's a sort of "producing research progeny" mentality rather than "having a bunch of low-paid staff" mentality. The way you ultimately put your stamp on the field is that, in addition to your own work, you produce a bunch of brilliant researchers who go on to basically found a "school" of AI strongly influenced by your work/views.

It feels the profs who care that much about hours/wk are ones who really just have a whole lot of gruntwork they want done, and want grad students to do it. That's not really a good way to produce brilliant research progeny (grad students whose PhD consists entirely of doing gruntwork for you aren't the kind you want for that), but maybe in some areas it's the path to fame--- especially areas where hitting on a Big Result is the way you make your career.


Interesting. I always had a hard time squaring Dave Patterson's "grad students are the coin of the realm" comment with my friends' experiences in other disciplines, which were a lot more along the lines of what went on with this Carreira jerk.

My impression regarding this divide is that major discoveries in math, physics, CS etc. tend to be the result of very original, creative thinking--ah-ha! moments--and that is not the sort of thing that can be stimulated by simply doubling the amount of time you spend working. Whereas big papers in chem and bio appear to result, in large part, from a tremendous amount of trial-and-error gruntwork spent on the bench. Certainly, somebody's inspiration (the PI's) is driving the overall research program, but you need a huge amount of manual labor to bring it to fruition. Whereas, in the theory fields, you can just sort of stare off into space until it comes to you.

My experience is definitely on the theory side, so I would love to hear what the other sides's thoughts are...


Bad idea. Reward people for "putting in hours" and suddenly they'll figure out ways to be present in the office without doing actual work.

Some employers avoid falling into this trap by refusing to make a record of how long employees work, only their results.


Currently wrong? The letter is dated 1996.


And yet it's all too current.


I'm actually surprised that HN-ers aren't more sympathetic to the professor.

Let's suppose the prof is, himself, so passionate about his work that he's devoting all of his time to it. He's made an effort to recruit people who are equally dedicated, because when the colleagues he depends on go home before him, that puts a bottleneck on his output. Furthermore, if most of his grad students are content sacrificing their personal lives for this work, doesn't it sour morale to have one guy who's always last to arrive and first to leave, yet who expects equal status?

Plus, while other commenters have suggested that this professor is mainly motivated by ego, it's also plausible that he's doing life-saving research, thst he decided long ago that he has a moral responsibility to sacrifice every waking hour to his work to save others from years of pain and sadness.

Again, I don't know if any of the above is true, but it's easy for me to imagine circumstances under which this memo would be totally reasonable. Surely anyone who's worked at a startup knows how important it is for everyone's workload expectations to be aligned?


Do associate professors really have that much clout over there that they can do this? Maybe I'd expect something like that from a department head. Is that what this is?


Over people in their research group, yes.


I guess what I really mean then is: did this guy get his ass chewed by a higher-up (who was smart enough not to put it in so many words) because it's how the institution operates?

It's a little over the top. Trollish even.


Usually tenured profs who're producing good research don't get hassled much; heck, same with untenured profs who are producing good research to some extent.

It does vary a little by school, if the school's administration wants to cultivate a particular image. For example, CMU was getting a reputation for taking 9-10 years for a PhD. It was for a variety of reasons not all the profs' fault, but it did include some aspects of profs wanting to keep their senior/productive students around producing more papers by dragging out their PhDs. The administration decided they didn't want that reputation, so started putting strong pressure to get people out within 6-7 years typically, 8 years max, which reduced that considerably.


I read a discussion on Usenet many years ago about weight training. A post described how they measured the stomach muscles' pressure on the intestines.

Someone asked "How do they get anyone to do heavy squats with a pressure sensor up their ass?!"

The answer was just two words -- "grad students".

(A favorite anecdote.)


Professors who treat their grad students like slave labor almost always create their own comeuppance.

See, one day, that grad student will be a PhD. And because you abused him like slave labor, instead of being a peer you can collaborate with, he becomes your competitor.

You find yourself getting less funding and less people willing to go in on grants with you because some young, hotshot upstart took own of his PhD level ideas you don't own and turned it into something valuable. And you're scrambling to catch up.


Yikes. It's amazing how unenlightened people can be in such a time of supposed enlightenment, and in such a field of rigor.


In a time of supposed enlightenment? At least now we have free markets instead of feudalism and puppet monarchies run by Great Pirates.

Last year, my neighbor was a PhD working in a lab at an institution in the same equivalence class, and he told me that he made it clear that he expected people to work nights and weekends. The attitude in the email linked above is strict but the point is that the guy probably had been slacking and if he wanted to do something else then he should do something else instead of slowing down the pace of important research and taking up a spot that could be easily filled by somebody else.


The thing that's being missed here is that it's a chemistry total synthesis group. Organic chemistry's pretty bad, but total synthesis is evil.

Total synthesis (designing programs to build molecules from scratch) is a global never-ending footrace - first to make the molecule wins. That's almost uniquely startuppy/pressure-cookery among science; even among chemistry. I was a postdoc in one of the world's leading chemistry departments, but that was in chemoinformatics, which was less crazy. Before that I did my PhD in a prestigious earth sciences department, working on problems in mineral physics, and that was fine.

Total synthesis is unique.


In the end, it is irrelevant whether the bureaucrat is right or wrong about the work week and productivity.

The bottom line is that the market dictates whether it's a buyer's market or a seller's market. In the case of the letter in question, it's clearly a -perceived- buyer's market at the time the letter was written.

No point in being outraged by the letter. The quick and easy solution is to quit - why would any sane person want to continue to work in such a toxic environment?


Trying to find some sense in this, I guess the chemistry work was focus on developing new types of drugs, which should have make him so rich, that he got mad thinking about the money's about to earn.

Otherwise, I see no reason for a person to be that nasty.


I'm fairly certain that this is illegal in CA. This letter would certainly be very useful in a lawsuit demanding retroactive payment for overtime hours worked.



nice googling job!


article says currently wrong yet the letter shown is dated 14 years ago

disconnect?


well its not like GLaDOS is going to build itself.


It is amusing, if anything.


My startup is working really closely with comp sci grad students in a lab at a local university. I wish I could get their advisor to encourage this behavior. ;)




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