Time is the coin of your life

In my wallet I have a fortune from a fortune cookie which I opened long ago (I don’t remember where or when).  It says:

Time is the coin of your life.  It is the only coin you have and only you can determine how it will be spent.  

It is the only truly profound “fortune” I have received in one of those things.  It is attributed to Carl Sandburg.

(I have another one in my wallet that says, “You shall soon achieve perfection”.  I’m still waiting for that one to come true…)

I think one of the hardest things for me is making good decisions about how to spend those coins of time.  Perhaps it is because I like to do so many things that I have committed myself to too many projects; that is, I have committed my future funds multiple times over.  Alas, I find that I can’t simultaneously collect beetles, work with them under the microscope, write software, analyze my data, teach, help my communities (academic and otherwise), and have a life outside my work.  Funny the way that goes – it seems as if there is only one Thread active at any single time in my brain, and that I have only one Core, and that I can only be one place at any given time.   How I wish it were otherwise.

For better or worse, I have established a pattern in how I spend my time, and one aspect of this is to have long work hours.  I love so much about what I do in biology that much of my time is spend on that – it’s a rare week that I spend less than 50 hours at the office/lab, and usually it is more than that.  I also spend some of my time at home being a biologist.

But, as a faculty member who supervises people, I also have great difficulty formulating expectations and making judgements about how those who work with me should be spending their time.  For example, how many hours should a graduate student of mine be in the lab/at the office?

By default I tend to think about my own life.  When I was a graduate student, most of us would spend 10, 12, or more hours each day –  a bit less on weekends.  My pattern was to arrive at about 9:30 in the morning, and work all day into the night, having had several breaks during the day, the longest one for supper.  When I was in Edmonton, most of the graduate students in Entomology would be in and working at 10 pm or 11 pm, and we would often leave a bit after 11 pm so that we could make it to the Power Plant (a pub on campus) for last call.

But these days I find it rare to find a graduate student in the building in the evening, or on the weekends.  Yes, a few are in, but only a small fraction.  There are now personal computers, including laptops, which allow students to do some of their work at home.  But much of a biologist’s work involve things that can’t be taking home easily, and that have to be done at the office.  I certainly can’t do that much of my work at home – I come in as the specimens, microscopes, and molecular equipment are there.  It may be that students would be more productive if they came in more, but that younger generations have a different balance between work and the rest of their life.  It may be that more grad students have families than was true when I was younger.  I do not know.

I realize that this is as much about intensity as it is total number working hours.  It’s about “productivity-hours”, in the same sense as “degree-days“.  Someone who works intensely doesn’t need to work for as long.  Someone who works slowly, or with frequent breaks, would require more hours to accomplish the same amount.  With the allure of the Internet, and the ability to lose focus in the midst of the always-on interconnectedness of our social web, the amount accomplished per hour may have diminished. I can easily imagine a focused, intense person doing fine on less than 40 hours a week at the lab.

What I do know is that the productivity of the graduate students seems less than what it was during my grad school days.  I have done no study, and it is hard to compare eras fairly; perhaps my perceptions are faulty.  Perhaps it is less important now for each student to be as productive, as so many graduate students are now working on their supervisor’s projects (as opposed to having independent projects), and so perhaps the burden of the work is more distributed across multiple people.

I struggle with my emotions about this.  I get frustrated by the slow pace of some of the work in the face of grad students coming in for 30 hours a week.  I am not paying them for more than that, so what right do I have to ask more of them?  I can’t impose my way of life on them (it is not an easy life, even if it is a very good one), and some of them have family occupying much of their time.  I also recognize that, for some people, if hours are too long they become less productive.

Here I am, on a Saturday morning, in my office, and I am the only one in my area.  (I should say that one of my graduate students is very frequently in my lab in the evening and weekends; he just doesn’t happen to be here now.  I have had other graduate students who work long hours, but they are definitely the exception.)  I no longer expect students to be here on a Saturday morning, but it continues to surprise me that few come during off hours.  It has started me thinking (again, for the umpteenth time) about what I do expect, and what is reasonable.

(I should say, as a disclaimer, that I could have written this exact post 10 years ago or more; it is not about any particular student, current or past. And I have had some passionate, intense students who worked no less (perhaps more) than they should have given their life circumstances and career goals.)

Are modern grad students less engaged? Less passionate? That group of grad students I was with in Edmonton were not in at 10 pm at night because they felt pushed to do so by supervisors – we were in because we loved what we were doing. One relevant factor may be the changing nature of science.  When I was a Masters student in Edmonton, my grad student colleagues, the ones who spent the evenings in at work, had their own projects. We were not working on projects of our supervisor; we had our own self-designed project, for which we had much love and motivation to complete.  It may be that as more and more grad students work on their supervisor’s projects, there is less passion for the work, and less of a sense of ownership that would inspire long or intense hours.

Or are modern grad students more aware of a need to have a balanced life?

After taking several deep breaths, I realize that these students are not me, and they need to make their own decisions about how to balance their life.  I can do no more than to provide a context for my graduate students, and it is then up to them as to how they spend their time coins.  I can describe my expectations before I admit them.  They can also help set the context by telling me of their career goals and life circumstances.  Together we can set milestones for their projects, outline the consequences for failing to meet those deadlines, and then let them figure out how much effort (and time) is needed to accomplish them.  I can tell them that the amount of effort I put into their projects (including helping secure funding) will be in part based upon how much effort they put into their projects; I am less likely to help someone who does not work hard.  I can tell them that upon completion of their degree, if they wish to be research faculty at a university, they will be competing against a broad pool of people many of whom will be hard workers spending much more than 40 hours a week doing biology.  I can point out to them that it is a rare privilege to do the sort of work we do, and that any of us who are so lucky should make the most of it.  But once all this context is set, I need to simply let go.  And concentrate on spending my coins wisely.

Update: After posting this, Kip Will (in the comments) reminded me of an amusing, oft-told quote from my mentor, George Ball.  George is the kind of mentor who inspires his students to work long hours, in part by setting an example; he worked harder than any of us.  Several decades ago, one of George’s graduate students, in his first year with George, was struggling to do any research, as he was also taking five courses.  Upon lamenting his lack of research progress to Dr. Ball (as he would have been called at the time), George responded:  “there are always the hours between midnight and 6 am”.  At the time, we hoped that he wasn’t being entirely serious.  I don’t think George expected us to do this regularly, nor do I expect that of my students. But George did expect us to do the things that needed to be done, including putting in long hours in crunch times.

Update 2:  Maybe this is totally against blog post “rules”, but I reworked a few portions of the post to make my viewpoint clearer, and I have added a couple of paragraphs.  I’ve done this specifically because of Julia and Chris’s thoughtful comments, below, that made me realize I wasn’t translating onto screen what was going on in my brain.

This entry was posted in Academia, Miscellany, Musings and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to Time is the coin of your life

  1. Kip Will says:

    “There are always the hours from 6pm to 6am.” GEB

  2. Jon Quist says:

    I remember volunteering at BYU’s insect collection under Shawn M. Clark a couple years ago. I did a lot of two things: pin bugs and browse the collection for research of my own. Most of the time I’d end up staying 6 or 7+ hours without any food before I left. I always had the best time in the lab even while pinning specimens. Truth is, it takes a rare and crazy person to enjoy this type of work even with payment. I would switch jobs as a warehouse worker to a natural historian in an instant even if a pay decrease was involved and I was doing someone else’s work. What would be important to me is looking back several years from now and realizing my ‘coin’ was well spent.

  3. A few disjointed thoughts, as a young grad student: as you of course know, not all grad students are aiming to be academics, or even the best. I’d rather be happy than get straight As (or the equivalent), at this point in my life. That, combined with the fact that research is not my end goal, means I have no reason to dedicate more than a 40 hour work week to my research-based thesis. I have other things to do that will impact my future as much if not more.

    Also, I think you may have been surrounded by particularly productive graduate students. Was that really the norm across disciplines?

    Another thought: I think graduate students today are expected to be Jacks of all trades, at least from the people I see. Everyone seems to expect us to take part in social and political things, sit on committees, do outreach. And yet the same professors who call for more graduate student involvement in these things cry out in dismay when their own graduate students take on those tasks.

    My opinion is that people like you, David, are few and far between, who actually stay sane working 50+ work weeks on research. People like you are the graduate students who will likely end up as academics. The rest may be just as driven, but not in their area of strength and passion. These days you have to have an MSc to be competitive in a lot of fields, whether you really ought to grad school or not.

    And one other thought: Many academics here at UBC seem stretched so thin by their committee/outreach/publish/publish/publish demands that they don’t answer emails, don’t treat their graduate students right, etc etc. I don’t think that’s healthy, or setting a good example (not that you do that, just that people around here do). What I see is that academia has achieved an unhealthy inflation of the value of a given professor/publication (you talk about this too), such that people seem to be pushed way past their limits in order to just keep up with the ridiculous competitive game…

    So many people I talk to are completely disillusioned with academia because of this. Anyway. Okay. That’s all I got for now.

    • Ooh! also! Technology! We do things WAY faster. Does that mean we should be doing more work? Moving faster on more complicated ideas? Maybe we should just spend less time working and more time expanding our experiences.

      • Ah, yes, all those wonderful computers. Computers that feed to us all the wonders of the world, and make us so much more efficient at… Facebook, and reddit, and…

    • Thanks, Julia. Those are good points. My intention of my post was not to say say what is right or what is wrong, but rather to reveal my own internal struggle in thinking about it. Of course, some of my own feelings about it leak through into the way I word things.

      • Of course! And I can bet a lot of my own feelings about it leak through in the way I word things as well. I suppose I was trying to contribute to your internal struggle, but I am also a bit reactive because I feel pulled thin by the expectations placed on me at the moment.

  4. I want to add someone else’s opinion to this conversation:


    I’m still struggling to hit the right balance of time “at work” and time “at home”. I appreciate the blog post. For me, it’s a question of productivity and being “at work” most of the day does NOT correspond to higher productivity. The guilt associated with not visibly “working” can also be quite damaging.

    I agree that academic jobs, and certain industry jobs, tend to be high-intensity. We should not pretend that they don’t involve certain sacrifices. But, I think we do ourselves and our fields a disservice by perpetuating the feeling that there should be no bound on our dedication to academia.

    • I agree with everything you say, Chris. For some things productivity is best achieved by working outside the office. But for some jobs, that is not the case – the work MUST be done at the office/lab. Your programming work can much more easily be done in some quiet café than can doing molecular work.

      Perhaps I need to reword my post to make it clear that I don’t expect boundless dedication. The post was more about my internal struggles about what I should expect or not expect.

      Anyway, I’ll add an update to clarify.

    • Chris, I’ve updated the post to be clearer about where I’m at – I left some things unsaid in the first version.

  5. Hi David,

    I read this post early this morning (before the edits), and I must admit it made me feel guilty for not going into the lab this weekend. I know where you’re coming from with regards to this issue, as it’s something I’ve discussed with my advisor (Steve Marshall) several times before. I tend to think I’m above average when it comes to hours & productivity/week, but is that enough? Who knows.

    But, having just re-read your edited post again, I see it now as less of a guilt trip, and more as constructive advice for graduate students from a dedicated and concerned advisor. It’s a discussion I think every grad student should have with their advisor (and with themselves) throughout the course of their project. Thanks for sharing your experiences!

  6. Pingback: Expiscor (9 September 2013) | Arthropod Ecology

  7. Pingback: Please stop telling me how busy you are | Arthropod Ecology

  8. Wayne Maddison says:

    I’ve never read The Mythical Man Month about software productivity, but according to commentaries one important point is that there is a huge variance in the quality of programmers — excellent ones, which might cost twice as much, may be 5 to 10 times as productive. Thus, it’s important to have at least some excellent ones on any team. Many disciplines have such a high variance, where the distribution has a tail of a few brilliant people who have a huge impact. I wonder about such an effect WITHIN my own life, given the different people I am from day to day. There are a few hours, a few days, a few weeks, in which I am *ON*, blazing ahead. These are the times that have a disproportionate impact on my productivity. And so, my productivity isn’t just a function of hours, but it is as much a function of how many of those special hours I can find. Caffeine helps, as does Bach, but I still don’t have the formula. Maybe by the time I am 80.

    • Diana Wheeler says:

      I think the unevenness may be illusion. In my ‘off’ times I often am mentally working through issues. When that back brain has a break through, I have a rush of productivity. Of course, sometimes my off times are just off.

  9. A higher percentage of the populace goes to graduate school now than ever before. And they have to. Advanced degrees are expected for a great many more careers than they were in the past. And with the job market being what it is (=shitty nearly across the board), more undergrads are continuing through academia because they don’t perceive themselves as having many other options.

    This fact alone changes the demographic and character of the graduate student pool.

    Anyway. Thought-provoking post, David.

  10. Also, it seems to me that fewer of today’s entomology graduate students were bug enthusiasts as children. Instead they’ve arrived at insects later in life, directed by an undergraduate experience. I expect both observations are related.

  11. Samuel Perry says:

    I haven’t been a grad student (yet), and have little to add to the main idea of the post, but did want to say something about Alex’s comment about being a buggy kid: I was a bug crazy kid, loved them dearly. As I meet people while collecting, I’ve noticed fewer and fewer young people interested in what I’m doing (possibly an artifact of me collecting less in the open since coming to Washington from Ohio), and less and less of the kids I have over to play with my own kids being at all interested in seeing my collection.

    I could postulate as to why this is happening for days, but I’m wondering if anyone else has experienced the same thing.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s