By Nick,

The brilliant Scientist’s specialty is finding new and interesting ways to combine things together.
The brilliant Scientist’s specialty is finding new and interesting ways to combine things together.

Last week, Lego unveiled a new character, a female scientist by the name of Professor C. Bodin, with a coveted Nobrick prize. The wonderful thing is that the description of this new character does not explicitly say “woman scientist”. Its just a scientist character description using the word she. The company was rightly praised by news outlets and women scientists groups, as helping to break down gender stereotypes regarding women and science. But a couple of stereotypes remained: first the white lab-coat, which isn’t really too much of a big deal, but also in the description were the words:

“She’ll spend all night in her lab analyzing how to connect bricks of different sizes and shapes…”

Do scientists work all night? Is this stereotype gaining popularity? Is it even true? And if it is, is this a good thing or a bad thing for scientific progress?

The blog of the journal Nature covers the topic pretty well here. One of the most striking things about this article was the first comment. It commended the idea of a work-life balance, but promptly dismissed it as an unrealistic prospect for an early career scientist (we call them early career rather than young but even this “early” career stage extends well into a person’s mid-late thirties). This person was asked to leave their PhD lab because their six day a week, 50-60 hour week, wasn’t good enough? A one of story of a bad lab, or is it a more worrying trend?

The pressure to work such long hours comes from the pressure to publish – the metric by which we measure scientific and financial worth in our field. This pressure for publications can be a bad thing. And I think we likely to see worse science as a result. If a negative result can’t be published, then years of work may get no tangible reward. Its easy to see how many an early career scientists could be tempted to change results, or overlook an inconvenient paper. Many though, being honest souls, will sacrifice their personal lives, their relationships and their health, to work long hours in order to get publishable results.

In the ever-more crowded marketplace for funding, can an early career researcher afford a negative result that makes a year or two’s work effectively useless? One postdoc I know, has had some negative results. I would hate to see that very talented person’s career ruined because of bad luck.

Yet I have a pretty damn reasonable work-life balance. I work close to a 10-6 working day, play ultimate frisbee* several evenings a week, and have relaxing weekends. My PhD has been successful, I have good results. Yes I have worked some weekends, and a few nights – but mainly when machine time has demanded it. It certainly hasn’t amounted to any kind of hardship in my life. Am I lucky, a genius, pragmatic or naive?

There is a not famous at all quote by the first Director of RSES, written in a letter home to his wife:

We come in at 9am, we go home at 5pm, we play Bridge at lunchtimes, and we do the most excellent science.

Maybe this less stress environment is a geology thing? Perhaps we are lucky that the field we are in attracts a more laid back person. Its certainly harder to have your science scooped than for those working in biological fields. Or maybe the all-nighter image is fuelled by the American system, hungry for quick, impressive results. The European and British models seem to be a lot more laid back. There is less pressure. But I fear this environment is being eroded by the funding squeeze, and the pursuit of the American academic funding model.

Welcome to academia Professor C. Bodin, but do consider your work-life balance choices!

* grad student cliche