Dr. Mom, My Adventures as a Mommy-Scientist

Discussion of my journey from grad school to postdoc to tenure with two kids, a husband, (and a bit of breast cancer) in tow.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Why am I so Ashamed of Being Successful?

So...I have always been different. I'm sure many of you can sympathize with being the "smart girl" in the class. I learned at an early age that things go better if I pretend to not be as successful as I am or to hide certain things. You would think this would get better the higher I got up the academic food chain, and it has...to some extent. But there is still a major difference between me and many of my colleagues. I'm almost ashamed to admit it but...

I work about 40 hours a week every week. I rarely work at home.

It seems like most of my colleagues (women and men) work crazy 10, 12+ hour days. Often you hear people comparing the academic version of war stories almost as if it is a contest to see who has worked the longest day. But I have never been like that.

At my Midwestern R1U I am considered fairly successful. I have been here three years now and have received 3 federal grants, given 2 invited talks at international conferences, been asked to serve on 2 journal editorial boards, and mentored students who have received a whole host of awards (Goldwater fellowship, NSF grad research awards, awards from professional society, etc.). As such, the university likes to use me as an example of what to do.

Recently we received one of those grants that promotes women in STEM and we have been having meetings to evaluate the situation on our campus. The primary complaint seems to center around more childcare, and in the context of this I frequently hear people complain about their 12 hour days. One of the options that was presented was part-time appointments. Someone made the joke that sure, then we can just work 40 hours per week instead of 60 or 80. I just cringed inside. I wonder, do other people know that I don't do that? Sometimes it is easier to let people assume that I must just work all the time to achieve what I have rather than that I have been lucky or smart or whatever you want to call it.

At the end of this meeting, Dr. Mrs. Supersuccesful asked to talk to me and we discussed success and women at R1U. I thought here is someone I can finally share my secret 8 hour days with. Unfortunately, I was wrong. I got the weirdest look when I admitted that I don't work crazy hours. (Which is why I never tell anyone.) Then later when discussing this with Awesome As. Dean, she said that I should speak out and let people know that 8 hour days are okay. But honestly, I am still ashamed in some way that I don't work as much as everyone else does and yet still seem to do okay. Which begs the question: Why am I so ashamed of being successful?

28 Comments:

At 2:51 PM , Blogger ScientistMother said...

It may be part imposter symdrome but it also may be that people may think you're not working hard? No that I am a graduate student with child, I find that I spend less time in the lab, less time thinking about the lab when I'm at home, but I am way more productive? Why? because I actually work when I am here. Many of my fellow colleagues sauter in at late hours, go for long lunches, have a coffee. So yes they are spending 12+ hours here, but are they actually working for 12+ hours?

 
At 2:52 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

First off, you rock.

Why are you afraid of being successful? Because for some reason academics (and people in other fields too) seem to judge worth in part based on how much we're working. The amount of time you work seems to be as valued or more valued than what you produce.

I've heard a few academics say that they don't work nights and weekends, and they can be divided up into two groups. One group is seen as not productive or successful enough and may not get tenure or may not be respected. The other group is good enough to be respected for their ability to get work done in less time, but if they're really good, they make people jealous. Academics can be extremely petty.

Do you think that people will think you fall into the first group or the second?

Regardless, I must admit that I enjoyed hearing you say that you can get away with working 40 hour weeks. Thank you for that.

 
At 3:33 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

When I started my PhD in chemical engineering, my advisor told me I need to work ~60-80 hours per week because he did when he was doing his PhD. After some time, I realized that he was not confident with himself and wanted to see similar pattern with his students. He was a terrible mentor. I can say openly after working with different PIs during postdoc. You should not be ashamed of telling people. I feel like there is a strict rule in the academia. But people realize that putting a lot of hours do not mean anything if you are not really efficient and successful what you are doing. Because people should see more role model like you in academia.

 
At 3:37 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I applaud you. But I think that you owe it to the rest of us to let it be widely known that you CAN be family-oriented, work reasonable hours, AND still be successful. Let the field know that IT CAN BE DONE. For people in my career stage, just considering post-doc lab options, its a huge source of hope. I have heard very discouraging advice from a number of people concerning lab choices. Even if you’re good at your science, “You can’t go to a high-profile lab” or “you can’t produce fast enough to be successful” unless you’re willing to essentially abandon family and work crazy hours.

I am devoted to my science, however I am more devoted to my child. And since I carry the majority of our child-care responsibilities and my husband’s job is not flexible, I simply can not work as many hours as other people. Does this mean that I need to consider choosing less demanding paths? Your story would say that that’s not necessary to achieve the goals in science that I really would love to pursue. Thank you for sharing it, and please TELL THE WORLD!

 
At 10:14 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good for you. I wonder if you could share some of your strategies for success. I'm sure it would help a lot of people. One thing I gleaned from reading your post is that you work 40 hours a week outside of home. Am I right? Just wondering.

 
At 7:02 AM , Blogger Wendy said...

I work a 40 hour week, too. I've worked a 40 hour week since I started grad school (finished in 4 years). I do answer email from my grad students in the evenings, though, but they know not to count on a prompt reply.

A few years ago I decided to stop playing the "I'm overworked" game. It annoys me that, even when irrelevant, colleagues will tell me what time of day they did something ("So I was in the computer lab at 3 am...").

I wonder if I was at that same meeting. I'm one that will vent about the lack of high-quality child care in the area. (In the meeting I was in, I also felt that the one leading the meeting didn't really understand what people want and need in childcare.) I don't need to leave my kids in care for more hours. I need to not be distressed about their health and safety while they are there.

 
At 9:55 AM , Blogger Balancing Act said...

You are truly inspiring!

I think the hours game is very common. My carpool and I joke about the time-keepers in the labs. Her boss requires a certain amount of hours in the lab each week and they have to schedule days off. My boss is much more laid back about that and pretty much requires attendance at meetings and as long as we are products, doesn't care about hours. Yet both of us have people in our labs that seem to track our hours.

For me, I average around 55 hour workweeks. But, a large portion of that is done from home. So, at work, people think I work 20-30 hours each week because they think that's when they see me. Many of them are dumb-founded that I have enough done to graduate in May.

Sometimes I fall into the trap of playing the hours game, and sometimes I am able to shrug it off. My success does not depend on their perception of how many hours I work.

And like ScientistMother said, they may spend 12+ hours at work, but what are they doing? I've observed many of the people who tout their hours spend many of them fooling around on the internet.

I also tend to think other people think they are spending much more time than they are because they don't know where the time went. Because I have an agreement with my advisor to work from home if I can, I really do watch how many hours I spend working at work and working at home. But, most people just show up for work, take breaks like meals, and go home.

Anwhow, I think your success is fabulous and it gives me hope that I can work more normal hours eventually. I think if more people knew it was possible to achieve such good things when managing a reasonable work schedule, and how you are doing that, the climate could change and be more friendly. Thank you very much for your post!

 
At 5:02 PM , Blogger Candid Engineer said...

Change the culture of academia by being less shy about your working habits. People can go f*** themselves if they don't like the hours you're working, you know and I know and anyone who's reasonable knows that you're doing what you need to do to get the job done.

I worked 40 hour weeks as a grad student and only in the past few months have started working a consistent 50-55 during my postdoc (a period which I hope does not last). I pride myself on the fact that I am more efficient than most others around me.

By I know just what you mean. People look at me funny when I admit to working less or to taking 4-5 weeks of vacation per year. But I tell them anyway, because that's the only way anything's ever going to change.

 
At 10:10 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice post. I sometimes wondered if there was something wrong with me or if I was simply lucky in grad school when I seemed to work fewer hours than groupmates but was more successful. Now that I am on the tenure track I find it hard to get things done in less than 60 hours/week, but I admit that I could improve my efficiency and delegation skills. One colleague of mine said that on the East Coast, faculty like to brag about how they never take vacation and work nights and weekends to the point where it's not even believable. In contrast, on the West Coast, faculty like to brag about their fabulous ski trips and wine country tours while secretly working feverishly on nights and weekends. Kind of funny :)
I also agree with the claim that most 80 hr/week grad students are wildly unproductive, BUT there are a few who really are extremely productive. The problem I witnessed with many of the latter was anxiety, anger, and depression resulting in lower productivity when integrated over 5 years time.

 
At 5:49 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

How many hours you have to work can be dictated partly by your department chair. The impression I get is your department chair and the rest of the faculty are very supportive of new faculty. In some departments that is not the case. The teaching loads can be big (large classes or higher credits), plus there could be many heavy service activities. All this is in addition to your own research activities. You simply cannot get away with 40 hours a week and be successful even if you are super efficient and good!
I am quite sure you would have needed a lot more hours to achieve what you have achieved (which btw is commendable!) if you were elsewhere.

 
At 11:43 PM , Blogger Sarah said...

Please, tell your stories!! I was scared off of grad school when a prof told a story about a particular lab where memos were sent out that said literally if you weren't in the lab on Sunday's and did less than 60 hours a week you were not serious. I'm still scared of it when I see postdocs killing themselves at work and having no time for life and a family.

Your story (and other commenters) make the PhD route much less frightening!

 
At 7:08 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Dr. Mom, I think you need to tell people about your work hours, and suggest at the next meeting that perhaps a time management course might be helpful for some staff members, rather than more child care.

I am an American who has a tenured position at at Dutch university and I work 32 hours a week, spending one day at home a week with my 20 mth old daughter. My husband, a post-doc, does the same, and this is standard for working parents of young children here. Until a few months ago I was actually taking 4 more hours off each week for extra time with my daughter. But this year will be my most productive yet, both in terms of quantity and quality, yet I missed so many days to e.g. stay home with my daughter when she was sick. And I hardly worked at home: it's just not possible!

Before I had my daughter I also worked more, like 50+ hours a week. I used to be the kind of person that was at the department on both Saturday and Sunday. Now I really wonder what I did with my time, because I don't see it in my publications. NOW I work way less, but I am much more focused when I am at work, and I know now what to prioritize. This misplaced pride in working long hours is also a cultural thing I think. Few of the people in my department here (The Netherlands) would consider coming in on the weekend. Everyone pretty much goes home a normal hours, and they all take six week vacations as well. I can't speak for other fields, but I don't see that the American researchers in the same field are producing more or better quality research than my Dutch co-workers, yet my colleagues here manage to be productive and STILL have a balanced life.

Next time the topic comes up and someone reacts surprised at how "little" you work, you should act *concerned* at how much time they are putting in. :) Turn the tables! :) Ask them if they are having trouble concentrating when working because of some (personal or professional) problem, or if they have had problems planning. Suggest a project planning or time management course! Maybe it will make them think for a moment about whether or not it really is something to brag about.

Because really, I know many very successful researchers who are well-known internationally that seem to be able do do just fine working normal hours, and would in fact consider it shameful to be rushing for a deadline. The only colleagues I hear complain about how many hours or how late they have been working are the foreign visitors. There needs to be a shift in attitude.

 
At 8:44 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hmmm, I think that might have been me making that joke... If it was, my point was that "part time" appointments had actually been described to me that way by someone in the administration (you get paid half salary, and then you won't feel guilty only spending 40 hours per week at work). So I was more reacting to my feeling that the upper ranks casually acknowledge the fact that expectations are too high for many people to complete them in 40 hours/week.

I personally work more than 40 hours per week, but essentially never more than 50, and never more than 45 actually at the office/lab. I almost never come in on the weekends. This was a conscious decision. I decided how much of my life I was willing to give up to this job. If what I'm willing to give is not enough for tenure (we'll see...) then I need to find something else to do.

That it was a conscious decision does not prevent me from feeling that I'm treading water/drowning at times. I spend plenty of time worrying about what I'm going to do if/when I run out of money. But the amount of time it would take for me to be successful enough to get rid of that worry (assuming that's even possible!), is not worth the things I would lose.

 
At 10:13 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a really helpful post. I do not put in the long hours (working on an Engineering PhD with Microbiology focus) because I like to have time with my husband and daughter and I have hobbies, too! I am not as successful as I need to be, yet, but I have blamed the lack of time when perhaps the true blame should be lack of focus. I have some real talkers in my lab, and though I think an i-pod can be detrimental to collaboration, I think in my case I need something to tune out the chatter.... I think you're awesome and the type of mentor and role model we up-and-coming scientists with families really need.

 
At 3:06 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am the exact same way! I've felt funny about my 40 hour weeks too. As a Ph.D. student I averaged about 40 hours/week, and I published plenty of papers. Now that I have my daughter, I've been working about 30 hours/week as a post-doc and, while my productivity has slowed, I'll still get a few papers out this year.

I figured out early on that, for me, longer hours ='d more time messing around online. Plus, I don't have teaching responsibilities or meetings and my research isn't particularly labor intensive. It's easier for me to motivate and focus when I'm not at work all the time. We'll see if things change, though, when I'm tenure-track.

 
At 7:00 AM , Anonymous Åsa said...

This was verty nice to read. I'm currently involved in the early phase of my PhD project and have gotten second thoughts more than once when I see how much people wear themselves out in my department. I've always managed to be productive enough in a 40h week (even less at sometimes) but then I find myself spending extra time doing nothing in the lab/office just so that my supervisior and colleagues won't think that I'm lazy going home "early". Since I don't have a family (as in kids...a long-lasting relationship doesn't cound as a family here it seems), the general attitude is that we should live, breathe and eat science even though we might have other parts of our lives that ought to be stimulated.

In comparision I have a friend who's doing her PhD at a pharmaceutical company. They have stamp clock so that if they work overtime (i.e +40h) they have to take that as free time (or as more vacation). Still they finish their projects within time. That's worth to think about...

 
At 1:55 PM , Blogger Balancing Act said...

After reading comments after mine, I wanted to write a clarification post. Probably, I should write this in my blog, since it is so long, but it on topic here.

I mentioned in my earlier comment about working an average 55 hour work-week. As a grad student, this is the amount of hours I believe are reasonable during a semester for the following reason: I am paid to work that number of hours. Whether on a teaching assistantship or research assistantship, I sign a paper saying I work 16-20 hours each week for the salary given. The hours are some specific number in the range I gave, and on TA it is broken down into task hours.

My tuition is also paid. Full time credit hours are 9-12 and time spent is 3-4 hours per credit hour per week. So, I am paid for 27-48 hours of work in that regard. Since my hours are research only, then that is what is expected I do for all that time. Given those ranges, I am paid to work 43 to 68 hours per week. This is why I am for, and generally average, 55.

Now, during the summer, my credit hours are only 12-16 per week + 16-20 TA/RA. By my count, for the 10 weeks of summer sessions, my hours should be about 28-36 per week. I aim for 32.

However, according to this system, I am only paid for these hours when school is in session. Over the semesters, the amount is averaged out over the whole semester on a monthly basis, but during the summer, they actually do only pay you for the exact weeks you work. This would mean that there are breaks for 3-4 weeks in winter, 1 week in spring, 3 weeks pre-summer, and 1 week post-summer incorporated into this method. I have learned breaks are usually the best time to get research done. My plan is to work however much is productive during that time and put aside time with my kids (like chaperoning field trips at the end of their school-year when I'm out) and I don't track hours.

Of course, after saying all this, July 8 - 23, I worked 12-18 hours days. This is partly due to someone else's poor time management abutting a deadline and partly due to my own deficiencies. On top of that, my computer died a horrible death on Tuesday and I am only now working on a back-up. That is why it took so long for me to write this comment.

I want to add two more points: last summer, my advisor tacitly suggested I pursue non-tenure path knowing I won't neglect my family for 6-8 years working 60-80 hour weeks all the time.

Also, to the Dutch tenured person -- Holland was recommended to me as a good place for a post-doc in my field during this past week. You've made it even more appealing.

 
At 5:21 PM , Blogger Cloud said...

Hi, I clicked over from Sciencewomen. I left a similar comment over at her place:

I work 40 hours a week. I have done so since about my second year in grad school, when I realized that the extra hours were making me less productive, not more productive.

I'm a scientist, but not in academia. I'm in industry, and my job is only part research right now (I'm part scientist, part techie, and I like it that way). However, the hours I work have stayed just about the same whether my job is more slanted towards research or more slanted towards informatics.

I feel absolutely no guilt about the hours I work because I get lots done. I routinely get raises, bonuses, and promotions. No one has ever complained about my work ethic.

Everywhere I've worked, from grad school on, there have been people competing to claim that they work the longest hours. I think that is sad and have never seen evidence that these people are more productive than me.

I will also say that the fact that I developed these work habits early has made the transition to working motherhood easier. At least I don't feel guilty about short-changing my job/career.... (I actually don't feel guilty about much of my life as a working mom, not even my use of day care, but that's another story.)

 
At 8:07 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

My work hours bimodal distribution. Due to a general tendency for irregularity and some medical issues that affect me more or less at times, plus not having anyone monitoring my working hours I seem to work either about 5-10 hours a week or 60-80 hours a week. I'd probably average around 30 hours a week. I work a lot from home so it's a bit fuzzy.
I don't like to talk about it because I have been made to feel guilty early on in grad school about it. Many people assume I always do the 60-80 hour thing because they sometimes see me being very busy and see that I have research output so they just assume... I do talk about it but only with people I trust and on one-on-one situations. I believe it has helped others feel "normal" to see that someone can work like me (less hours than envisioned and/or irregular) and be successful.
I'd say broadly, let them think you're efficient and good at what you do - because it's true! But share "the truth" with people as well.
I should say there is no need to feel ashamed, but I struggle with this too.

 
At 1:28 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm leaving a comment exactly the same as Cloud...just replace "industry" with "government". This phenomenon of overworkers has carried into every sector, not just academia. I just ignore those annoying people that talk about how much they work, and I honestly feel sorry for their families that are being short-changed. Just because some people are obsessed with work doesn't mean anyone should be made to feel guilty that you aren't. That's their problem, not yours. Plain and simple.

 
At 1:46 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dr. Mom, good for you for addressing this issue. I am a Dr. Mom, too, but having left for industry 5 years ago I look back at what it took to be successful.

I wish I can say I worked 40 hrs each week and always took vacation time to spend with my family, but this would be a lie. I did my thesis work in a "poor" lab where I had no lab tech, no kits, premixed reagents and buffers, no fancy equipment. Our HPLC pump was more gravity than pump, we had to do everything by hand, never sent samples out for any analysis we could figure out ourselves even if it took more time and had to justify to the penny why it made more sense to buy premixed acrylamide rather than make up the acry/bisacryl mixture ourselves (forget about the hazards of that). Pre-cast gels, premixed 10X buffers, kits for anything but enzymes were but a distant dream.

Though I was extremely focused and organized, it still took 5 yrs to have enough data to publish and graduate, generally working 10 hr days plus some evenings. Still, I count it as a huge success because I had the ultimate in flexible hours, set my own schedule, goals and timeline and got it all done while I was mommy to 5 growing children (3 of whom were born during graduate school). I often lay my success on the fact that besides for my laser-sharp focus, I never took the weeks-long vacations like my peers and I never took more than a week for maternity leave when the standard was 6 weeks. It is easy to look back and wonder how much those tactics really affected my success, but in a department where the faculty was dominated by males and the prevailing attitude of even the females was that you can't do well at both being a serious scientist and being a (good) mother, I felt, in order to shatter these myths, that I'd need to undergo tremendous sacrifice & feats of pure determination to prove that I was serious, worthy and capable.

While in some ways I was a trailblazer, hats off to all of you who are hopefully trailblazing a new reality of successful and productive careers as scientists without burning the midnight oil. Do continue to share your secrets of success!

 
At 3:27 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am very happy to read this. I've been one year at an Ivy League as an asst prof, with a 3 year old, and a husband, and I am a bit paranoid over working only 9-5, but I've already gotten 2 grants and submitted a paper, and my lab's growing. I just really hope I can keep going this way.

 
At 3:11 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I liked your article. This is a topic I feel women don't talk enough about. I have also felt a lot of pressure to live and breath science so I decided long ago that I couldn't be in academics because I wanted to have a family and work fairly normal hours. After I finished my PhD I made the move to industry. However, the biotech industry can be just as demanding. I finally realized I just needed to find the "right" industry job suited to what I wanted. I now have a job I love as an R&D scientist at a company where I can work 40 hours a week. I once read a quote that said if you need more than 36 hours a week to do your job then you aren't productive. While I don't think this statement applies to every job position, it has helped me keep my perspective over the years.

 
At 8:40 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

The answer's easy: The reason you're ashamed to say how "little" you work is the same reason others brag about how much they work: some think it's a badge of honor. However, everyone knows that you can work long hours and still not be successful (i.e. this is not sufficient for success) and as you describe, it's also not necessarily required.

 
At 9:13 AM , Anonymous RJ said...

Something'no one has mentioned, is that your brain doesn't switch off when you're not working. At some level, it's pondering things - like the grant. Marcia Reynolds has a new book out called Wonder Women, and her blog Burden of Greatness has recently covered just that topic.

If you do 8 hours a day, on some level your brain will be preparing you for the next task, whether it be writing, mentoring, or researching. If you don't take the break, have time to get perspective and let your brain work on its own, you won't get the benefit.

That's why the rule 8 hours work 8 hours sleep, 8 hours leisure is optimal.

 
At 1:29 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I work about 55 hours, with short lunches and almost zero time doing anything but work when I'm here. And I can barely get done what I need to get done. I'm fairly organized and I don't think I waste much time. Maybe I'm just not as bright as you. Consider yourself fortunate that you were born intelligent enough to work 40 hours a week and still have a family. I can't, so I won't praise you.

 
At 11:26 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm late, but I can also testify that I am also Dr. Mom, in academia, work 40h/wk only, no nights and weekends and like you got 3 federal grants funded, graduated one Ph.D. already, published enough papers and so on. I thought you're describing me:) I don't discuss these issues with anybody, but I firmly believe people waste a lot of time and get involved in too many useless/non productive activities. Efficiency is the key.

 
At 3:21 PM , Blogger Hannah said...

Hi. I know this post is quite old, but I just wanted to say thank you. I literally teared up as I read this.

I am currently a PhD student. All my life I have dreamed of being a professor. But as I've gotten older, I have realized that having a family (and actually spending time with them) is also a top priority. I simply am not willing to work 60-70 hours every week. My family is too important.

This realization has been depressing the crap out of me, as I looked around at the faculty in my department I thought "there is no way I can do this and work normal hours. I have to give up on my dream of academics."

Thank you for speaking up and providing an example of having it all. Please do not be ashamed of your success. You are so much more inspirational than all the other faculty members that work crazy hours at the expense of time at home.

 

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