Not What We Want

This email, supposedly sent to the grad students at a widely known Astronomy Dept, has been making the rounds and needs to be discussed.

You can read for yourself the ten-point manifesto, but the most offensive points to me include,

  • Not only should you work 80–100 hours a week, you should WANT to. If you don’t want to, then maybe research isn’t the right career choice for you. If you have a family, maybe you can get by with only working 60 hours a week.
  • You should take it as a compliment when a faculty member makes you feel stupid in front of other students. Get used to it. That’s the way it is.

First of all, I would like to express my deepest concern for the graduate students in that department. Given the blatantly hostile and unhealthy working environment you are enduring, I hope your health insurance includes mental health benefits and that you are taking advantage of them. If you need convincing to go to therapy, read this amazing post about LA inpatient alcohol rehab and what it’s worth for. I totally understand why your comments on the evaluations may have sounded rude.

I have many responses to these points and others in that email, but the overarching one is that I think the culture being promoted by this department is our biggest flaw as a professional community, has a huge negative impact on our scientific productivity, and is exactly the opposite of what I think we should be striving for. If we ever want to have any hope of rising to our full intellectual potential as a diverse and inclusive community, this type of culture should not be allowed to persist any longer than it already has.

88 comments… add one
  • Wayne S Oct 10, 2012 @ 16:43

    Without arguing for either side, what I believe this email to show is how big the disconnect is between the faculty and the students. The fact that some of these problems are not well communicated to advisors and students is why they still exist. Being able to communicate is key to being successful in any field, especially the communication of expectations. Any good moderator would be able to bring both sides together which is how policies should be enacted. When they are dictated all they do is drive a wedge between people and halt productive communication and thus preserve the disconnect between the two groups.

  • @stewardwildcat Oct 10, 2012 @ 16:44 getting bigger.

  • David Moles Oct 10, 2012 @ 17:20

    For a mediator to bring the sides together, both sides would have to admit there are “sides”. It doesn’t look to me like the writer sees any value in treating students as an equal partner in communication.

  • @mandaYoho Oct 10, 2012 @ 17:36

    “…If that doesn’t say dedication, I don’t know what does.” @astrobetter

  • Anon Oct 10, 2012 @ 18:03

    It’s definitely a communication issue, but ultimately not one between the faculty and the graduate students. It’s a lack of communication between the faculty and the *prospective* graduate students. If an institution expects 80-100 hour work weeks, faculty need to be telling admitted students about it up front.

  • Brooke Oct 10, 2012 @ 18:18

    Reading this letter, I can see why this department has built a “widely known” reputation in astro academia. There are some important points here. It’s a rare grad student who doesn’t have to work hard to be successful in a postdoc position (and beyond). Department culture is important and the students and faculty should actively take part. It’s a department’s job to prepare students for a career — any career — where they will inevitably face critical questioning from those who are not invested in the student’s success. Having a clear plan for a thesis (even if it changes), regular committee meetings of some sort, and mentoring separate from advising are all important factors in the thesis getting done on time and having scientific impact.

    Having said that…

    Can someone explain how these two statements:

    “We know that you are concerned about the market for post-docs and faculty positions. Yet the market is no worse or better than it is has been for at least a decade or two.”
    “grant budgets are now tighter than ever before.”

    are consistent with each other?

    Likewise, for that matter, these two:

    “The people who will get the best jobs are the type of people who always get the best jobs…”
    “your evaluations of our program identified some concerns, including … inadequate representation of women and minorities among the faculty and colloquium speakers… We are working on [this] … The faculty hiring committee is developing a detailed plan to make sure that the best women and minority candidates are encouraged to apply and carefully considered for the job.”

    Those pairs coupled with the In my day grad students worked 80-100 hours a week and we were happy to do it, but don’t let my mentioning that make you afraid to tell me you can barely put in over half that or anything, because it’s not about measuring up to our level of commitment, we just want you to be productive, really! part indicate to me a troubling level of smooth-talking complacency.

    I’d like to say that this attitude — if it really represents the entire faculty — is just years of selection effects on the part of the admissions/hiring committees, but I’m not sure it’s true and I’m not sure it matters. There are more applicants than there are student spots, more students than there are postdocs, and many more postdocs than there are permanent positions of the sort this department (like most others) is grooming its students for. If they have the reputation it’s implied they do, this department can just keep choosing students likely to conform to the current model of success. Why should they be motivated to change?

    I’m not trying to sound cynical; it’s an honest question.

  • Ian Paul Freeley Oct 10, 2012 @ 18:20

    “We know that you are concerned about the market for post-docs and faculty positions. Yet the market is no worse or better than it is has been for at least a decade or two.”

    umm…that seems wrong. I think a strong case can be made that the whole *global economic meltdown of 2008* changed the job market a bit. And not for the better.

    Why have the authors of this email been given anonymity? The message was sent to a wide audience, and they didn’t say this was dept eyes only. Before we go totally ape-shit over this (and I think plenty of ape-shit is justified), I think the authors of the email need to be given an opportunity to justify their statements. There’s also the possibility this isn’t real, or has been modified, so I say name names!

    • Wayne S Oct 10, 2012 @ 18:58

      Says the person who is also remaining anonymous. The people who wrote the email will undoubtedly find out about this and can feel free to lay claim or not. The point is not to hate on the authors but actually discuss the issues that are apparent at more than one institution. While this email may be offensive it contains beliefs that are held at nearly all institutions.

  • @erinleeryan Oct 10, 2012 @ 18:46

    Kinda wish we could just call out this dept by name already. RT @astrobetter: New Post: Not What We Want

  • David Moles Oct 10, 2012 @ 19:07

    To be fair, Dr. Freely is remaining *pseudonymous*.

    • Ian Paul Freeley Oct 10, 2012 @ 19:31

      Thanks David, it’s actually true that it’s not that hard to link my pseudonym to my actual name.

      And Wayne, I agree that these are issues that need to be discussed–that’s part of the reason we need to know who the author(s) are, we can’t discuss it with them otherwise. I’d also like to give some of the other professors on that committee a chance to walk-back the statements if they want to. Wait, is your S short for SchliXXXXX? Are we simultaneously discussing this on FB?

  • Nancy Adams-Wolk Oct 10, 2012 @ 19:10

    Wow. This attitude is not too surprising, but it is exactly what is destroying astronomy. It has been shown time and time again that overworking people just leads to mistakes. Unfortunately, the culture that astronomy, physics and other physical sciences have taken is that you must put in long hours to show people that you care. I love how the department’s wording makes “even 60 hours a week” grad student a slacker. Yes, most astronomy grads love what they are doing, but not to the point of having no life outside of graduate school. Everybody is stressed with the current job market and the pressures to do more work with less grant money is not lost on grad students.

  • Amanda Oct 10, 2012 @ 19:21

    Why is this such a huge shock to everyone? We all know there are (typically a lot) of people at any one given institution who think and act this way toward graduate students and postdocs even. This is not just a problem at this institution, but in many places. However, this is a great example (agree w/ Wayne S.) that we can address publicly and hopefully even send/post to every astro/physics department as people feel necessary.

  • @WindyCityAstro Oct 10, 2012 @ 19:59

    Next gen of #astro, this is def not healthy for most and not required to succeed, @astrobetter: New Post:

  • JF Oct 10, 2012 @ 20:30

    This was the prevailing attitude at our “top 5” grad school in the 90s. It even had the reputation of being “softer” than places like Caltech or Cal, and therefore, needed to be “toughened up” in order to not lose so many top students to those places.

    Looking back, (astro) grad school was like cult initiation…they want to cut you off from the rest of the world, any outside interests (like hobbies, dating, etc.) are frowned upon, and you should learn to get all your sense of approval based on their judgement of you. By my 3rd or 4th year, I pretty much spent most of my non-working hours thinking, “I should be working now”. A lot of what you see on “PhD Comics” rings true with my experience, so it’s probably common.

    But I wasn’t unhappy. I had a great adviser, got a good prize fellowship afterwards, and all that. Most of my classmates were happy, too, at least until they realized they could increase their salary 5-fold by going to work in Silicon Valley during the dotcom boom. Sadly, nearly everyone that stayed is out of astronomy now, most not by choice. I picked that grad school specifically because they had a great rep for their PhDs getting academic jobs. Such is the changing nature of the job market.

    Given the PhD overproduction problems nowadays, the writer should at least be given credit for being brutally honest. You can give your blood, sweat, and tears to this field for 15-20 years and come out of it with nothing. Your work can be highly-respected and cited, yet end up unemployed. It’s akin to making the Hall-of-Fame in some pro sport. Lots of very good players never make the pros, and only a few stick around, and only the rare ones get to the HoF. Those that want it to be easy or like other careers should probably move on. There are just too few jobs.

    • J Rich Oct 10, 2012 @ 21:03

      To me, not brutally honest enough. To me, this statement:

      “The people who will get the best jobs are the type of people who always get the best jobs, those with a truly exceptional level of dedication to science, who seize ownership of their research and careers, and who fix problems instead of blaming others for them.”

      still makes it sound like if you didn’t get the best job it’s still somehow because YOU failed, period.

    • J Rich Oct 10, 2012 @ 21:06

      (Not that I necessarily disagree with the sentiment)

  • Ryan T. Hamilton Oct 10, 2012 @ 20:36

    Here’s another gem:

    “Yet we have received some student comments about the way in which faculty do participate. Namely, that some faculty-student interactions have become too intense…In such cases, the student should do his or her best to respond and, frankly, to consider the experience good (and relatively gentle) training for any discussion at Caltech or at Tuesday Lunch at the Princetitute.”

    and then, just two paragraphs later:

    “Fifth, while we welcome the thoughtful, honest, and insightful comments that we generally receive from students in their department evaluations, a few students are somewhat rude. In those cases, it is hard to draw sympathy for your problem…Being negative and disrespectful will generally not fix the problems and will make colleagues less likely to work with you.”

    If the students brought up the matter of faculty interactions as a problem, then the faculty should probably heed their own advice in this. Instead, they spin the problem back on the students as not having tough enough skin or equally bullshit reasonings. It’s disheartening and I hope the grad. students at this dept. found a constructive way to go forward.

  • Paul Winkler Oct 10, 2012 @ 21:15

    It is telling that the faculty seem to be staying away from student activities. I suspect that they have correctly read between the lines, that this is frowned upon, and although the letter writer invites further student invitations, he really doesn’t want anything to change in this regard.

    The writer is clear that there is a significant caste system in this astronomy department, and that he is the Raj, and the faculty comprise a kind of lower alien creature. The collegial peer-to-peer atmosphere doesn’t apply to him/her.

  • Jane Rigby Oct 10, 2012 @ 22:38

    Perhaps what saddens me most is the proffered metric for success: 80 to 100 hrs per week of facetime at the office. Papers published, ideas had, proposals dreamed up, new collaborators identified, code written — those are good metrics. But the over-simplicity of telling students that 80-100 hrs per week in grad school means success, and less equals failure, would be ridiculous if it weren’t serious.

    The idea behind AstroBetter is that an hour dreaming up a faster way to do something, plus an hour spent sharing it with colleagues, are better than six hours spent doing the task the old way.

    Read these two quotes from managers, from a recent NY Times article urging us to judge by who gets stuff done, not by who’s always in the office:
    “So this one guy, he’s in the room at every meeting. Lots of times he doesn’t say anything, but he’s there on time and people notice that. He definitely is seen as a hard-working and dependable guy.” And, “Working on the weekends makes a very good impression. It sends a signal that you’re contributing to your team and that you’re putting in that extra commitment to get the work done.”

    Re-read that quote. “Lots of times he doesn’t say anything”, but he’s ALWAYS there.

    • Wayne S Oct 10, 2012 @ 23:22

      Thank you Jane. That is a point tried to make previously in my own department. Its about progress not hours worked. My brother at Yale has this issue. He gets his work done before 5 every day and shows up early to make sure it happens. Yet the other students in the lab show up late and procrastinate yet they give him scowls because he leaves at a reasonable hour after he gets more work done than they do.

    • Jackie M. Oct 11, 2012 @ 0:38

      Jane, on behalf of the introverts in the room, I would like to posit that saying things isn’t the ONLY way to contribute. A community is built of people with different skill sets: and speaking up isn’t the only way to help build something great. A diverse community is an adaptable, strong community.

      …and frankly, if someone genuinely loves spending all that time at work, that’s a joyous thing. I’m always happy to see people happy.

      It’s when we make one person’s conditions for happiness the compulsory work ethic for everyone else that we inevitably quash others’ abilities to make their best contribution. That’s when we we being to do harm, by taking great students, great colleagues, and turning them into simple grist for our mills.

      That, ultimately, is the waste.

    • TMB Oct 11, 2012 @ 1:57

      To be fair, it sounds like they don’t want to give hours worked as a metric – they’re being asked to by the students.

  • @rajkashana Oct 10, 2012 @ 23:49

    Which is more important? Student’s physical and mental health or dogged pursuit of the illusive Nobel-level research?

  • aj Oct 11, 2012 @ 1:13

    I am not fully sure why this email was sent, but am guessing it was partially because many of the grad students in our department were not selected for prestigious external post-docs as they have been in years past. This email essentially states that if only those students had worked harder, they would’ve “made it”. I know several of those students personally, and I know they worked incredibly hard. I know they are incredibly talented. I know it is a *huge* loss to the field if their talents are not fully taken advantage of. Why the job market turned out this way this year, I don’t know, but I do know it had nothing to do with them not working hard enough.

  • Jackie M. Oct 11, 2012 @ 2:49

    Kelle, I am immensely, profoundly grateful that you linked to that post about mental health. It’s so common, yet people have no idea how they’re triggering it, or when they are themselves suffering from it, or how to go about seeking treatment; and even when they do, the stigma still weighs so heavily.

    It is so very common— but people who have never experienced it have the hardest time understanding the first thing about it. That by itself creates an emotional desperate, crushing, debilitating set of circumstances.

    So thank you, sincerely, for that one link.

  • Christian Ott Oct 11, 2012 @ 3:08

    I have thought a while about this. My preliminary conclusion (which may be wrong) is that it’s fake — made up to stimulate discussion (which is not a bad thing).

    While I buy that a single person or a group of very few individuals at a number of well known institutions may write such a letter, I cannot see how an

    “Academic Program Committee (Professor A, Professor B, Professor C, Professor D, Professor E , Professor F, Professor G, Professor H, Professor I, Professor J, Professor K)”

    could do this. This is a large number of colleagues who all must have lost their common sense (and my respect). I could not imagine something like this happening in my department (yes, Caltech, yes, Astrophysics) and if it did, I and, I am sure, the vast majority of my colleagues would not tolerate it.

    – Christian

    • Abhi Oct 11, 2012 @ 6:02

      Not part of *this* department but I was shown this email a few weeks ago. It was sent to the grad students and it is real.

  • Anon Oct 11, 2012 @ 3:23

    Christian: this didn’t come from Caltech. A little bit of googling for key terms like ‘Academic Program Committee’ will reveal the source.

  • Living too high for strife Oct 11, 2012 @ 3:35

    Well then, kiss me, — since my mother left her blessing on my brow,
    There has been a something wanting in my nature until now;
    I can dimly comprehend it, — that I might have been more kind,
    Might have cherished you more wisely, as the one I leave behind.

    I “have never failed in kindness”? No, we lived too high for strife,
    Calmest coldness was the error which has crept into our life;
    But your spirit is untainted, I can dedicate you still
    To the service of our science: you will further it? you will!

  • Orsola De Marco Oct 11, 2012 @ 4:50

    About 3 years ago I decided to count the amount of hours and minutes I worked every day. I felt that I was working too much in my new role as an associate professor, but I wanted to be sure of just how much. I estimated approximately 10 hour days, plus about 5-10 hour during the 2-day weekend, adding up to a 55-60 hour week (yes, I have kids). Once I started logging my hours I realized that over a year I worked about 8.5 hour per working day on average, making my week a scant 42.5 hours. This is because I rigorously counted out coffee breaks and lunch breaks and chitchat (unless related to work) which accounts for a fair amount of a regular office day. I also noticed that the longer I spent at the office, the more “dead” times I would have. In conclusion, notwithstanding that I fully agree with Kelle about the e-mail to the grad students, I honestly doubt that anybody works 80 hours per week, let alone 100. I can only think that stating a figure “80-100” is done for effect as it sounds quite intimidating (which was the intention of the mail anyway).

    • Ann Onymous Oct 11, 2012 @ 5:35

      I also strongly doubt that as grad students they actually worked 80-100 hours per week as stated. As a matter of fact I have never seen any grad student working this much for more than a short time. This is what I may have worked when writing my PhD manuscript and it was clearly not sustainable in the long run. Of course we all have rushes once in a while (hello proposals) which increases our working hours but frankly that’s not a competition. Personally I generally spend ~10 hours at the lab days a week with probably 9 hours of effective work time. That’s already 45 hours a week. I try very much not to work in the evening or on the weekends because I really need a break doing something else than Astronomy if I want to be efficient.
      Now maybe the message they wanted to convey was that to land a tenured position sacrifices are needed. Maybe some 1st year students are naive but I think they rapidly see that’s not easy in any way. I doubt requiring them to slave away is going to help them become good scientists in the end. I imagine that requiring students to write good papers and really helping them to do so would be way more beneficial to everyone involved .

    • Anonymous Oct 11, 2012 @ 9:36

      I have also attempted time tracking and found similar results: no one *really* works 80-100 hrs/week.

    • Sebastien Lepine Oct 11, 2012 @ 13:19

      I’ve logged-in 100 hours/weeks a few times on observing runs, including once on a 15-nights January run on Kitt Peak which was clear every night. These were “real” work hours because of the intensive nature of my observation program, which required constant full attention. That particular time I came back completely exhausted, and needed a few days off to recover. I also became worried of my mental state at the end of the run, as I was becoming disoriented and making mistakes.

      I concur with Orsola. In my opinion, most people who claim to work more than 70 hours/week on a regular basis are just posturing, and simply count their physical presence in the workplace including breaks and other idle time, not the actual amount of time they spend actively engaging in “work”.

  • Sarah Oct 11, 2012 @ 4:59

    There’s an awful lot we can comment on from this email – some of it is a bit outrageous, and some of it perhaps more “brutally honest” than unacceptable (there are some things in the email that I wish someone had told me during my PhD). Luckily here in Europe this kind of attitude towards PhD students is much rarer, although it certainly does prevail in some departments.

    What’s difficult for me is that this phenomenon in science (and it’s not at all specific to astronomy) where success requires long hours, conferences, moving around the world, publishing, being on top of the literature, tireless self-promotion etc – selects out not the best, brightest, most original and creative people, but those with the physical and mental make-up to cope with this lifestyle.

    Many of us simply don’t have that, through no fault of our own, as the recent debate around mental health issues in science has demonstrated – I’d even go so far as to say that the brightest minds are often the most fragile. And that’s not even touching on those with physical disabilities or some sort of chronic health issue.

    The way academic careers are structured and measured, illustrated very nicely in this email, we’re shunting out some amazingly intelligent and motivated people. Is this the way we want to build a kick-ass scientific community?

    • zinemin Oct 11, 2012 @ 11:27

      I could not agree more, Sarah. This is something that nobody seems to really talk about. Clearly as one progresses along the career path, “constitution”, “robustness” and even “insensitivity” become more and more important. This includes tolerating frequent moves around the planet, excessive travelling, not listening to other people, ignoring results that could slow down one’s research in any way, constant aggression against people “who don’t get it” and coping with high levels of stress.
      I really do not think that selects the most intelligent, creative and thoughtful researchers (and certainly not the ones who manage to have at least a shred of empathy with lower-ranking people, as this email shows!)

  • @Paul_Crowther Oct 11, 2012 @ 5:28

    Naturally, plenty of reaction in the twittersphere, incl. from @kellecruz and from @dalcantonJD

  • @whereisyvette Oct 11, 2012 @ 5:30

    Silly PhD students- you’re not people, you’re just research automatons! RT @astrobetter: New Post: Not What We Want

  • @whereisyvette Oct 11, 2012 @ 5:35

    So “that” letter @astrobetter originated at UoAZ. As a high school student who loved that dept, this depresses me. 🙁

  • @sarahkendrew Oct 11, 2012 @ 5:42

    I commented here > RT @astrobetter: New Post: Not What We Want

  • Dave Oct 11, 2012 @ 7:29

    It would be nice to know which professor and department are behind this email, as it seems to be describing a method to build up a faculty of unproductive tenured professors, or deadwood, as they are sometimes called. Having slaved away 80-100 hours a week from grad school through a tenure-track position, many will be burned out by the time they get tenure. And their productivity will decline for the remainder of their careers.
    I think that the key thing is the motivation to work 80-100 hours a week if you have that time available. If you are excited enough about your work that you would really like to spend 80-100 hours a week on it, then you are probably better off than someone who spends 80-100 hours a week because her/his advisor expects it, even if you can’t spend nearly that much time on it.

  • Eli Bressert Oct 11, 2012 @ 7:33

    It’s very surprising to see that the faculty members are measuring success by the amount of hours put in and not efficiency (like many have said before). This is not only a problem in science though. It’s also a re-occuring problem in the business world as well:

    Measuring someone’s ability to contribute to astronomy by their number of working hours is a lazy person’s effort. There’s far better ways to see how well they are doing, .e.g., papers and invited talks. They are not perfect measurements, but it definitely beats “hourly” ratings.

  • John Johnson Oct 11, 2012 @ 10:36
  • John Oct 11, 2012 @ 11:56

    I don’t have any great insights here, but I recently read “My Life As a Quant: Reflections on Physics and Finance” by Emanuel Derman, who has a very interesting account of being a grad student in physics at Columbia in the late 60s (preview: a culture like the one described in the letter), his struggles as a postdoc and assistant professor before he went to work in industry (and eventually Wall Street.) He’s a very good writer on the life-work-ambition problems.

  • Eilat Oct 11, 2012 @ 13:04

    Frankly, I think a little public shaming may be the appropriate remedy. I say let’s name names.
    As people have noted, the letter had no demand of confidentiality. Furthermore, it is a testament to the lack of self-awareness experienced by someone who claims to spend 80-100 hours a week solely on their science that he/she would send such an email without even a hint of concern that it would “get out” and ruffle feathers (to say the least!).

    • Evan Tilton Oct 11, 2012 @ 13:40

      This post says its from Arizona. Googling some of the more distinct phrases from the letter does indeed seem to match Arizona’s website and departmental structure, so I’m pretty sure that they are correct. I still wonder if it is actually real though – it is either from Arizona or it is a satire of Arizona, but we can’t be sure which until someone from Arizona confirms one way or the other.

  • Jason T Wright Oct 11, 2012 @ 13:29

    First, I’d like to highly recommend John Johnson’s post and Julianne Dalcanton’s post on Cosmic Variance. Also let me emphasize, for those who do not know John, his bone fides as an advocate for students, work-life balance, and actually caring about students’ mental health. Read his blog if you don’t believe me. I think this gives his post a lot of credibility.

    I’m glad we’re having this discussion, because I think a lot of faculty read that letter and think, for the most part “geez, I wish we could say those truths to OUR students!” Let me share why I think that is, and what’s wrong with that approach.

    I think that the whole 80–100 hours per week number comes with a substantial dollop of “in my day we walked to school in 10 feet of snow uphill both ways.” I’m sure that I put in 80–100 hours occasionally, if you count mealtime; and if you count travel time and observing time then observing runs can certainly put you up to that number. But few students put in 100 hours of actual work in a week, and even then only rarely. I mentally shifted that number to “50–70 hours per week” of actual research work when reading the letter.

    I look through the tone and details of this letter and see misguided faculty actually trying to help (is it a sign of assimilation by the tenure-track Borg that I sympathize at all?!) They ask the students to come to them with their problems, they explain that however tough the audiences are internally they’re tougher outside, they want the students to be realistic about what it takes to be like them. These are laudable goals, in principle.

    But the last one is the problem: the underlying assumption of the letter is that students should be more like them, striving to maximize their chances at prize fellowships and tenure-line positions at Prestigious U at arbitrary personal cost.

    Yes, it’s It’s incontrovertibly true that of otherwise identical students putting in 40 and 80 productive hours per week, respectively, the 80 hr/wk student will have a better cv and be more employable. Pointing out that the 60–80 hr/wk students are your primary competition for the “best” jobs is perfectly true. But that depends on what you think the “best” jobs are, and whether you actually want to do what’s necessary to get them.

    If a student is productive at 40 hr/wk and happy with that, then they should be encouraged to maintain that pace with their eyes wide open regarding the likely jobs that will be available to them on the other side, according to their personal productivity. After all, 40 hours per week of actual, hard, no-goofing-off work can be a lot more productive than 80 hours of stressed-out, tired, procrastination-filled drudgery.

    I think this is at the heart of Kelle’s excellent follow-up thread: what DO we want? I think we want professors to acknowledge and celebrate that some students are happy NOT to sacrifice their mental, social, and even physical health for the best shot at the most “prestigious” academic positions. We should be supporting them in helping them follow the path they DO want.

    This goes hand-in-hand with the false problem of the “overproduction” of PhD astronomers. PhD astronomers have one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country; there are not too many of us for the economy, there are just too many of us for the Academy. By refusing to denigrate, and in fact celebrating those who seek to apply their skills to job tracks unlike their PhD advisers, we solve this “problem” and improve the job prospects of astronomers everywhere.

    • Evgenya Shkolnik Oct 11, 2012 @ 15:28

      Jason, you are bang on here. I just want to add that a probable contributor to the motivation behind this letter is that professors see their graduate students as their academic offspring, and thus, the perceived success of their students is a direct reflection of their own professional success. This echos precisely the parent-child relationship where parents want to be able to gloat about their kids’ successes, as that is clearly a reflection of their excellent parenting and superior genetics. Unfortunately, many (certainly not all) professors do not consider what is truly best for their students (professionally AND personally), but rather are more concerned for what is best for themselves and their departments, e.g. reputation, research output, etc.

    • David Donovan Oct 11, 2012 @ 21:22

      While I agree that the spending more productive time and one’s work greatly increases the probability of getting hired into a position (“best” or not is another discussion, where I also agree with you), I would like to see more people calling bullshit on the myth of the meritocracy and its inverse implications.

      Chances are, if you are enrolled in a decent PhD program any where, you have the potential to be a good scientist. Whether you have the potential to be a Nobel prize-winner or not is another matter, but good enough to compete with many of the actual practicing ones anyway. The suggestion that “if you just worked harder” you would get the position tends to minimize the role that plain old luck has in one’s career path. Think of all the serendipitous events that add up to a life — what if we hadn’t had *that* advisor, who just happened to be a grad school buddy of the admissions committee chair, etc. This rationalization and unshakeable dogma that hiring is a purely meritocratic process, and not a human one capitalizes on “imposter syndrome” and other afflictions that many of us suffer from in the field. The truth is that there are many other factors that go into someone getting that “best” position other than those controllable by the applicant. We need to stop beating ourselves up over this stuff. (A great book on this topic is “Status Anxiety”, by Alain de Botton

      I heartily agree with the problem of too many PhD’s for the Academy, but not for life/economy. As one who successfully transitioned to industry myself (working as an engineer for Apple, after attending a top Astronomy PhD program, for those who don’t know me), I have been bombarded with friends’ resumes who want to leave the field but: 1) are ashamed, 2) have no idea how to even put together a resume, and 3) carry an unrealistic vision of what industry is like (and in addition what appears to me an inflated sense of the amount of freedom that they actually enjoy while being in academia). All three of these things are a huge disservice to the field, the graduate programs, and to the students/postdocs/junior researchers themselves.

      Partially I think this problem is part of a larger trend where we have conflated Universities and the degrees they offer with vocational training programs (Joseph Epstein’s recent column here is a good discussion of what I mean). Perhaps humanities graduates have less expectations that their credentials will exactly fit some job description, and are somewhat more prepared to sell their transferrable skills.

      On the other hand, Astronomers in general (and in specific) have an enormous collective ego problem. The idea that only academic research Astronomy is worthy enough for brilliant people to study, and that conversely if a person decides to do something else then they just weren’t that brilliant is detrimental to all parties involved.

      There are as many ways of measuring human success as there are people. And whether a given person will attain that measure is by no means deterministic — we should stop acting like it is.

    • Jennifer Hoffman Oct 12, 2012 @ 0:59

      Hear, hear! Thank you, Jason, for making this important point.

  • Another anon Oct 11, 2012 @ 13:43

    The department in which this e-mail was sent to the graduate students is Steward Observatory, The University of Arizona. I have confirmed this with people at Steward. It still seems surreal to me how an entire committee of our colleagues could have approved such an e-mail. But it happened.

    • Anon Oct 11, 2012 @ 14:27

      While the letter is, in fact, an accurate representation of what was sent, this doesn’t mean each of the committee approved it (and I know for a fact that they did not).

  • saurav Oct 11, 2012 @ 14:30

    Even medical residents cannot work > 80 hrs/wk, and I hear that there is a big shortage of doctors. They do work approximately 70 hrs/wk, every single week, 48 wks/yr. However, the treatment they administer is a known process, and multiple doctors and nurses involved to make sure mistakes don’t happen. While we do not deal with human lives, astronomy research requires thinking, analyzing, and, for the most part, doing something that has never been done before. In such cases, a tired brain makes mistakes, an overworked brain rarely thinks of new ideas.

    Productivity is a funny thing: Alycia Weinberger mentioned two weeks ago that a lot of her ideas come to her when she is driving back home, when she is listening to NPR and not even thinking about astronomy. Sometimes you need to step out of the box (maybe watch bad TV for three days) before you figure out how to interpret that plot you made or stumble upon the bug in your code. (Newton’s apple might not just be a legend.)

  • @Astro_Wright Oct 11, 2012 @ 16:08

    @steinly0 @astrobetter @cosmicvariance Let’s all continue this conversation:

  • Anonymous Oct 11, 2012 @ 16:10

    Please, colleagues, note that the letter begins with “We have received some questions about how many hours a graduate student is expected to work. There is no easy answer, as what matters is your productivity, particularly in the form of good scientific papers.”

    What part of this are readers so keen on ignoring? Compare that opening from the letter to this quote from a typical post here: “Perhaps what saddens me most is the proffered metric for success: 80 to 100 hrs per week of facetime at the office. Papers published, ideas had, proposals dreamed up, new collaborators identified, code written — those are good metrics.”

    Well, that is what the letter says.

    And, dear colleagues, I see such anger on this page, that in disagreeing with some of the prevailing discussion, I dare not post under my own name. How sad is that?

    • David Moles Oct 11, 2012 @ 16:25

      Possibly they’re keen on ignoring it because the rest of the paragraph undercuts that sentence completely.

    • anonymous Oct 11, 2012 @ 17:43

      And is it equally sad that I am afraid to re-post the letter under my name (and still am) for fear of finding out that one of my *own* colleagues/collaborators wrote the letter, and I would damage my chances for a future job by talking about it (I’m a postdoc)?

      An open and honest discussion is good, but the “open” part is simply impossible because of the attitude like that in this letter: “we’d love to hear whatever you think” and “if you’re not working hard enough we have no respect for you” implied in the same paragraph.

    • Anon Oct 11, 2012 @ 18:45

      We recognize that we as commenters need to do a better job at participating. Yet we have received some faculty comments about the way in which commenters do participate. Namely, that some faculty-commenter interactions have become too intense. In these cases, it is not the commenter’s intention to make the faculty member uncomfortable. The commenter means to interact with the faculty member as he or she would a peer. That should be flattering to the faculty member! Commenter questions (at least on this blog) do not arise from a desire to embarrass a faculty member, but from a real community interest in the answer. In such cases, the faculty member should do his or her best to respond and, frankly, to consider the experience good (and relatively gentle) training for any discussion in life.

  • Ian Paul Freeley Oct 11, 2012 @ 16:47

    Here’s what I see as the main issue with the letter–almost all the action items are given to the graduate students. As near as I can tell, the faculty agreed to do absolutely zero extra work. This has got to be a moral killer for the students, they went though the exercise of identifying things that could use improvement, and on almost every issue the faculty blew them off or told them to go fix it themselves. Ideally, one would hope the faculty would be looking for ways to improve their mentoring skills, and they would take on a few action items.

    Things grads told to work on:
    * spend more hours working
    * read more papers
    * ignore the lousy job market
    * submit more telescope proposals
    * grow thicker skins about grillings
    * bring advisor problems up to committees
    * don’t be rude
    * apply for fellowships
    * volunteer to work on web pages
    * set up meetings
    * submit thesis plan
    * update research description

    Things faculty are told to work on:
    * show up to journal club and colloquium
    * get students computer support
    * work on diversity for colloquium speakers

    To be fair, that is a decent list of things graduate students should be doing. But where’s the mentoring? Where’s the collaboration?

    How about, “Professor S will lead a session demonstrating literature sorting tools to help people keep up-to date on papers”, and “We recognize that we need to work on maintaining a professional environment, faculty are encouraged to keep journal club question sessions reasonable and we would request the grad students keep their evaluations civil”, “Faculty will coordinate to ensure a critical mass of X members are present for all journal clubs”, “Professor W will contact the Career Center to get someone to come to the dept to talk about resources available to graduating students for academic and non academic job hunting.” THIS IS NOT HARD! C’mon faculty, it can’t be all take and no give. If getting a phd was as simple as running through a 10 point checklist, you would be out of a job, you’re there to do some active collaboration and training! Maybe it wouldn’t take 5.5 years to graduate the students if you didn’t leave them to figure out everything on their own.

    • Ian Paul Freeley Oct 11, 2012 @ 17:02

      tl;dr version
      Grad students: Exert maximum effort and strive for excellence!
      Faculty: Do bare minimum, you know, try to at least show up to talks. Delegate the rest to someone else.

    • Anon Oct 11, 2012 @ 18:30

      All the random crap Professor Z asks for in the email struck me. I’m a grad at a different university, but often faculty make demands or have expectations for grad students that they don’t really think through. So, is organizing and attending the meeting Professor Z requests part of their 100 hours? or setting up the requested website? Probably not. Doing things like organizing coffee hours, journal clubs, group meetings, maintaining websites and/or computing resources, public outreach, and other administrative tasks is often expected of grad students with little faculty notice or support. Faculty expect a thriving, collaborative academic environment to just magically coalesce without their doing anything. It’s true that an individual grad student gets out what he/she puts into grad school, but it’s also true that faculty get out the grad program that they put the work into fostering.

  • Susan Oct 11, 2012 @ 18:39

    Considering that grad students are the slave labor that our university system in built on, I’m not surprised. There’s no mental health benefits, very little actual health bennie at all, and no limits on hours, or classload. A friend’s husband was interviewing for urology residency, and heard “So, you married? Don’t worry- if you come here, it won’t last long!”
    Its the last real form of indentured servitude that’s legal here in the states- and what’s sad is that universities are charging higher and higher tuition- but skimming most of the profits to inflated administration pay instead of hiring faculty, payingbteachers better, or giving better working conditions to the grad students (I know this because I worked in the college accounting department to pay for my grad work.).

  • Richard Scalzo Oct 11, 2012 @ 20:30

    I’m with Christian and Orsola on this one. Our department discussed the original tumblr post today at morning tea; we think there’s ample reason to believe that the email is a hoax, although the topics therein clearly merit a response since they hit close to home in our community. And I too have tried logging my hours in an attempt to stay focused and track my productivity, and I find that a week in which I “bill” 40-45 hours of actual work (not counting seminars, tea breaks, etc.) is a week after which I’m exhausted and not able to think clearly enough to put in additional hours of productive research. But hey, I’ve gotten this far…

    One reason I like Mt. Stromlo so much is that it is a fairly relaxed working environment, despite the high profile of the RSAA as an astronomy department. While not everyone will come to every talk or every morning tea, I would say most people come to most of them. People work hard here, but they compartmentalize well and they know that some of the best discussions and ideas come when you’re having a brew with your mates, not (just) when you’re hunched over a keyboard. Besides seminars, there are multiple brown-bag lunches, barbecues, Friday drinks… And the faculty, however illustrious, don’t see themselves as too important to come have tea with the undergrads and talk informally about science. So it can be done.

    • Anon Oct 12, 2012 @ 1:46

      Richard: it is indeed real. I’ve spoken with some grad students who received the e-mail.

    • Anonymous Oct 12, 2012 @ 9:31

      Wow, you talked about it a morning tea! We (the grads who received the email) feel important. 🙂

    • Brad Gibson Oct 19, 2012 @ 19:26

      I definitely do not disagree with the global sentiments Richard. To be fair though, Stromlo is a little (stress, a *little*) different from many places, in the sense that there is little to no teaching or admin for the vast majority of the staff, and it is geographically isolated from the ‘mundane’ administrivia that most of us in ‘traditional’ academic positions deal with.. on a day to day basis, the staff are left to their own devices to ‘explore the universe’ with no one breathing down their neck. I agree wholeheartedly that the staff are some of the most open and collegial I have *ever* dealt with (3 years as a postdoc from ’95 to ’98) .. but I also have to acknowledge that for most (not all) of the staff, they are left to their own devices without any external pressure. B-B lunches, BBQs, etc, are a whole lot easier when your annual appraisal outcome is not linked *directly* to whether or not you secured 50k in external income!

  • Humbert Humbert Oct 12, 2012 @ 1:01

    I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on the frivolous youth of today.

    -Hesiod (8th century BC)

  • David Moles Oct 12, 2012 @ 14:30

    Yeah, because Unnamed Academy seems like the sort of institution that would be totally supportive of whistleblowers.

    • OtherComments Oct 12, 2012 @ 17:55

      …actually it is

      (my original post got wiped for some reason, I think I replied wrong)

      I made a point that the person who created the Tumblr should own up to it b/c too many people are being thrown into the ring and “guessed about” for who did it. Very hostile work environment.

    • Ian Paul Freeley Oct 12, 2012 @ 18:40

      …actually it is[citation needed]

      It sounds like there are dozens of potential suspects for who posted it. I don’t see how knowing who the actual whistleblower is would be relevant.

  • OtherComments Oct 12, 2012 @ 14:34

    Still not fair to others who had nothing to do with it but are caught up in the rumor mill and witch hunt. Hell, one of the “rumors” is that it was an alum who did it or a post-doc.

  • Anon Oct 12, 2012 @ 19:37

    As a master’s student, I must say the conversation here has made me feel so much better about my future. I’ve heard all sorts of stories from all across the spectrum when I first began this career path (folks who talk about horrible biases in the referee system, those who would never do anything else but research, several who knew even going into their PhD programs that they did NOT want to stay in academia) and I find myself flip-flopping between being certain of my future and being absolutely terrified, haha.

    I love what I’m doing, but there seems to be a fine line in the sciences between dedication and stupidity and I – for one – believe productivity is at its peak when we lead balanced lives (and that balance is different for everyone). Thank you for showing me there are still plenty in this field who are both passionate about their work AND their sanity!

  • Katie Morzinski Oct 13, 2012 @ 0:39

    The job market is not deterministic, no matter how much we wish it were. There is no *guaranteed* recipe for success. Many factors, objective and subjective, affect the decisions of hiring committees. Some of these factors are within the locus of your control, and some of them are beyond your control. Do your best, but be cognizant of and intentional about the sacrifices you make. If you sacrifice your mental health and personal well-being for a permanent job, what happens if you do not get the job — will you be utterly destroyed? And, what happens if you do get the job but have become completely miserable along the way — will it be worth the sacrifice?

  • J Oct 13, 2012 @ 6:50

    I work at the institution where this happened (I am neither a student nor a member of the tenured faculty). The email is real, not a hoax. However, some of the facts behind it are a little more complicated. Some of the issues were discussed in a committee meeting, but the email was not vetted or signed off by ten+ professors.

    The fundamental problem here is not that the professors are especially dictatorial, but that faculty are overworked, students are stressed about their future, while communication between faculty and students can be pretty poor: this leads to a variety of disjoint expectations, students getting lost in the shuffle, and so on. Both parties bear some responsibility for this. The faculty, since their role is training, should bear more of it, but students do have to bring a substantial amount of self-motivation to make it through grad school, and not wait for professors to talk to them.

    The inflammatory nature of the email, which is totally inappropriate, obscures legitimate issues raised by both the students and the academic committee, which should have been discussed in person, not in a mass email. “Reply to All” has caused many more problems than it has solved.

    Here is the most important thing: I have worked in a lot of academic departments and this one isn’t any worse than the rest. It’s just a little bigger. If other people shame this department without reflecting honestly on whether their department has the same set of communication and attitude problems, then you are going to make the problem worse, not better. It would be a far better thing to ask your own students, honestly, and perhaps allowing anonymity in their responses, what THEIR concerns are and what you need to improve.

  • Anonymous Oct 13, 2012 @ 15:57

    It is clear that the institution is the University of Arizona. Go to this webpage for the Graduate Academic Guide on the UofA Astronomy Dept. website (

    and read the “Thesis Plan and Timeline” section. It is word for word entirely quoted in the letter to the graduate students.

    The UofA dept. also has a Coffee Hour, a single dominant journal club referred to simply as “Journal Club” and references all over their departmental website reveal that their thesis committees are called “Mentoring Committees” in house. The graduate student governance at UofA is called “The Graduate and Professional Student Council.” All of these specific bits of terminology match the letter, despite the fact that these terms vary from school to school.

    Whether or not it is a parody of UofA or an authentic letter from UofA is possibly still debatable until someone, student or faculty, at Steward steps forward either to claim or reject the authenticity of this letter.

  • Postdoc Oct 14, 2012 @ 16:19

    I think most people know this is real now. However, for those few that still think this is a hoax or parody, I’m a postdoc at the institution, and I saw first hand how bad the email affected the grads here when it came out. There was a lot of anger and some crying. Also, if it were a parody, don’t you think it would be funnier?

    I want to make it clear though, that this does NOT represent the opinion of all the faculty. There are those here that are very out of touch, but there are also faculty that try very hard to understand their students and advocate a healthy work/life balance. It’s unfortunate that many of those understanding faculty have not stood up to the others, and more importantly, voiced their opposition to the letter.

  • Pre-posdoc graduate student Oct 15, 2012 @ 18:29

    Regarding the whole “we showed up to work 80-100 hours because we wanted to” thing:

    The project I am working on for my thesis trails all the way back to when I started it during my freshman fall as an undergraduate student (and no, a state school). In addition, I am the only one in my (rather large) field that is working on it at the moment (as far as publishing goes). That is to say, I enjoy what it is that I do, but my foremost concern is that if I don’t do it, no one will and no one will understood what it is that I have been talking about (in the necessary near future). So it is a bit of a pain in the ass to muster the motivation in order to continue when the higher-ups complain about my hours. Meaning, I am only applying for postdocs to finish this one project, not because I want to, but because I have to if anything is going to come of it. The only way I would actually “want/desire” to continue in astronomy is if my field was not full of people who think I don’t actually work enough despite that I work from home half of the time, compute model calculations full time, and observe a third of the time, 24/7, remotely via smartphone, laptop and desktop. I.E., do you really think I would have trudged through the hoops of undergrad, grad, and then some just to “slack off”? I hate to break it to the old-fogies, but recall, progress doesn’t necessarily just fall from the sky:::only data. Results come when they come, and not a moment before that.

    Also. Yes, we’re graduate students. But we’re graduate *students* = still in need of training/debugging, or did you not read our statement of purpose that we spent some of that 80-100 hours working on?

  • Sam Leitner Oct 19, 2012 @ 21:30
    This article points out that the professors who claimed to have worked 80-100 hours almost definitely misremember their grad school pain. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics, people who claim to have worked 75 hours actually worked, on average, 25 hours less than that (according to their own work journals)!

  • quote from david brooks Nov 28, 2012 @ 1:41

    “Human behavior flows from hidden springs and calls for constant and crafty prodding more than blunt hectoring. The way to get someone out of a negative cascade is not with a ferocious e-mail trying to attack their bad behavior. It’s to go on offense and try to maximize some alternative good behavior. There’s a trove of research suggesting that it’s best to tackle negative behaviors obliquely, by redirecting attention toward different, positive ones. ”

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