Zeta the Betta Demands a 40 Hour Work Week

I spent the day out of the office with Little Isis, who had the day off in observance of MLK Jr.’s Birthday. We had a hilarious day together. We went to the library and then shopping so that he could buy a fish. In our new house, Little Isis has his own bachelor pad on a different floor and he’s been saying that he’s lonely and needed a fish. He saved his allowance and today acquired Zeta the Betta. He was very proud of his punny name choice.


As is common among kids his age, he then spent the next several hours learning in the hallowed halls of YouTube University. Since concluding his studies, he’s been trying to explain to me that you can “get your fish to come” and is generally perturbed that this makes me giggle like an adolescent.

Speaking of non sequiturs, it really chaps my ass when I find myself in the middle of discussions over whether it’s ok to write with a pseudonym on the internet. Some how I got tagged into some Twitter discussion this afternoon that included a discussion of whether pseud opinions are relevant to a particular topic. This bitch has 99 problems, but those trolls ain’t one. I don’t lose a lot of sleep worrying about whether my opinion is trustworthy or relevant.

mariah sell her album

But, the general topic I was tagged into was still interesting. Ish. Ok, not really, but I got called to the yard, so…

Some dude at Caltech sent his postdoc the following letter:caltech.png

The predictable discussion ensued about whether it is appropriate to ask for more than a 40 hour work week from trainees, although I rolled my eyes a little and needed a cocktail over the fact we’re discussing a letter from 1996.

mariah tea

Now, this letter is a little a wacky and I have been a long time advocate of “work-life balance” or whatever the heck that means, but I also don’t believe that our jobs can be done in 40 hours. Many of the lab tasks that are learned in the my field require repetition. Sometimes experiments have to be tended to in off hours. There has to be time for reading the literature and intellectual discussions.  The question was then posed as to whether my training life was still “fun”.

Yeah,my life was pretty fun. I ate a lot of buffalo wings and drank a lot of beer. We had some rad parties. I hopped a fence and ended up swimming in a fountain. I fried oreos and sat in a dunk tank and helped throw a grown ass woman a quinceanera. I made out with a chick to get her to help me take @I_is_for_Indian home after our shenanigans got out of control. You might say I had too much fun.

But, I have frequently spent weekend morning hours catching up on my field and I can’t remember a time as a trainee where I consistently worked equal to or less than 40 hours.  Many times now, dinner discussions turn to experiments or grants or papers. Those sneaky hours, where science infiltrates our daily lives, become work hours. The blessing is that I find this all intellectually gratifying. My kids get my undivided attention when we are together, and I regularly reschedule my day to accommodate them, but science is a harsh mistress and she gets many of my hours and much of my mental energies.

Jobs for young faculty members certainly cannot be done in 40 hours , at least not in the current funding environment. As I recently explained to a teenager with an interest in science careers, my job is 40% teaching, 40% research and 20% service. My time devoted to service and teaching don’t really change, but as grants become harder to come by, the only way to get grants is to write more grants and the only way to write more grants is to work more. Even when you get to the point where you can reuse grant material, you still have to submit them. My dean doesn’t care how many hours I’m working, she just wants results. That’s how most professional careers work, though, and I suspect that I have always been harder on myself than others were on me.

I’ll grant that there are some folks out there  who push their trainees unrealistically hard and make obscene demands, but I also wonder how much of this conversation is because of self-imposed expectations that are then  attributed to “PI expectations.” This post on a recent Harvard job search is informative and worth a read. Apparently there is a large self-selection because of what trainees think the expectations are, and it’s simply not reality.

I don’t know where all of this pressure comes from – whether its external or internal, but I’ll keep working until the job is done.

-20F and the $1000 Emergency Fund

I think that we have only barely survived this weekend’s “arctic blast.” With wind chills in MRU town of -20F, I warned the Isis children that their mother is from a warm weather state. So, we would be hunkering down for the weekend and subsisting on whatever could be cooked together in a single pot. The kids were generally good sports about it, but this afternoon Little Isis started to come off the rails a little bit. He asked, “Can we go to Pancheros and get some normal food?” “Are you willing to risk going outside and having your butt cheeks freeze together?” I replied. The threat of a frostbitten rear end was enough to convince him to veto the trip to Pancheros. Instead, we cooked a pot of fish, beans and rice. Cooking like this lately as been reminiscent of being a kid, when the only choice really was to cook everything you could find in a pot and add rice.  I also felt a little relieved to not have to ponder giving Pancheros my money. As StrangeSource has put it, I have become a “cheap ass bitch” lately.

There has been a lot of beans and rice, rice and beans lately and a lot of adjustments over the last year. Dipping my toe back into the blogosphere, I’m still not sure how much I want to share about the last year, but a cornerstone has been the quest to get Sallie Mae out of my life. I deferred my student loans while I was a graduate student and a postdoc, and then made the minimum required payments for the next couple of years as the pressures of job and family squeezed tighter. I didn’t struggle to make the payments, it felt selfish to pay more on them when there were so many things my family “needed.”

Then in August some things hit me in a major way. I watched someone close to me have a bit of a mental meltdown over their finances . I also seriously started going through the process of budgeting as a single mom with two kids in daycare and have sports and need clothes and do all the things that two kids do. I had negotiated a summer salary for the first few years of my time at MRU, and I started to realize that, if I didn’t get enough funding to keep covering my salary, things were going to get tight. I started to really resent the student loan payments I was making, and that they would contribute to my budget’s tightness if I lost my summer salary.  I also calculated how much wealth I was losing by giving the money to Sallie Mae instead of investing it.

It’s funny, because I have listened to Dave Ramsey for about 15 years. I listen to him just about every afternoon as a sort of white noise and have otherwise taken pride in living debt free. But I hadn’t really thought about my student loan as being in the same category as the other types of debt he talks about. When I started listening to him, massive student loan debt wasn’t a problem and he frequently spoke to people who had car loans, subprime mortgages, home equity lines and massive credit card debt. I didn’t have consumer debt, other than a conventional mortgage. When I had taken out my student loans years before I found him, I’d been convinced by my college counselor that they were an investment and would return much more than their cost.

As everything started to churn in August, I started to hate my monthly loan payments and, more importantly, what they represent. Federal student loans are the one debt you can’t discharge in a bankruptcy.  If you default, the federal government can make your life miserable. The amount of debt students are currently accruing is obscene, with stories of hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt floating around. This is, in large part, because there is no debt-to-income calculation that happens in student loan lending. If you tried to take out a similarly sized mortgage with no job and no income and no equity, the bank would laugh you out the door, yet we saddle students with more debt than they can bear. I started to hear friends talk about being relieved that they could have their student loans forgiven after 25 years. 25 years, when their most important wealth building years have passed. And, the return on investment for taking the loan out in the first place may not be worth it. My student loan started to feel like the same sort of predatory debt as a subprime mortgage or high interest credit card. I didn’t have a lot of debt, but every time I looked at it, it felt like a tick and I abhorred everything it represented.

So, I decided that we were going to be gazelle intense and get it out of our lives. The idea of gazelle intensity comes from Proverbs 6:4-5, which says Allow no sleep to your eyes, no slumber to your eyelids. Free yourself, like a gazelle from the hand of the hunter, like a bird from the snare of the fowler.” The gazelle can outrun the cheetah by swerving and turning. It’s that intense because it’s the only one in the race whose hide is at stake. Sallie Mae is the predator, but there’s always something else to catch. The gazelle is running for its life.

Importantly, Sallie Mae and her lending buddies prey the hardest on people that are the most vulnerable – underrepresented populations, those that come from economically disadvantaged families and first generation students.

Me and the Isis family have worked together to pay off half of the student loans since August and we should be done this summer. It’s been an incredible lesson in contentment. What do we really need to be happy? When the TV went out, we didn’t replace it. Half of the light bulbs in the house are out, but we joke that it’ll lower the electricity bill. Little Isis laughed when he heard a song that said “budget” in the lyrics. We’ve played a lot more board games and eaten a lot more meat-free meals, but we’ve had a lot of fun. Importantly, I think my kids understand the reason for everything and we’ve had some important discussions about money and debt and saving.

I realized tonight that, for as proud of myself as I have been, I have one “child” who hasn’t benefited from these lessons.  My youngest brother, who you may remember lived with me a couple of years ago, called me in a panic tonight. He was full of anxiety because, for the first time in his life, things were going well for him and he was bracing himself for everything to fall apart. He was terrified at the prospect that things would go bad. I realized that his insecurity was coming from a lack of a safety net and that he needed to stop living paycheck to paycheck and start tucking away an emergency fund. Kids from our barrio hood don’t learn how to handle money. They learn how to survive and he’s ready to move past that now.

So, baby steps. One baby step step at a time.

Thoughts For a Wednesday…

I think it’s Wednesday. I don’t know. Fucking grants make everything blend together…

I am finding the discussion of postdocs and overtime and salaries and alternative careers tiresome. Here’s why…

1)  I am tired of the supposition that postdocs are underpaid compared to the amount of work that they do. The average medical resident salary is $55,300. When you consider that more than half have >$50,000 in educational debt specifically from medical school, the postdoc salary looks more fair.

2) I am tired of people who throw around the words “most” and “usually” when what this means is “In my limited experience, based on the people I see directly around me.” Looking at one or two samples and saying “everything is broken” relects bias of the worst type. Aren’t there any places where things work?

3) I am also completely exhausted with how out of touch with reality most of these arguments are. For example, someone purported this morning that because the median salary for people with greater than a masters degree is $66K, postdocs should be paid on par. That’s patently ridiculous and magical thinking. A median of the entire population is the wrong number because the median salary is essentially the same as the salary of the person on the next rung of the ladder. Especially when many of us are still getting letters that, despite the improvement in the economy, say “Sorry, but we’re in a budget shortfall and there’s no room for raises (even though your cost of living is going up). We thank you for your understanding and continued commitment to the service of the university’s mission.” Making this argument only reflects your complete ignorance with how economics works.

4) Finally, I am totally exhausted with the exploitation narrative, which only works if there is a universal bad guy who always stands in the way of treating you fairly because it benefits their evil plot. I’ve thought about this whole work hours/salary/overtime shenanigans. I like the idea of work/life balance and have replied to many that I would advocate for a 40 hour work week. That’s not what many of these people want. They want to continue to work however many number of hours they please, complain about being overworked, and get a bigger salary for it. But, see #3.

If a Postdoc Farts into the Wind, Will Their Cries For Overtime Pay Be Heard?

That title makes absolutely no sense, but it made me laugh. Good enough.

Over the last few days, Drugmonkey has been whipping the disgruntledoc-a-tariat into a frothy, foamy lather on his blog. Following Obama’s announcement of new overtime rules for non-exempt employees making less than $50,000 per year. Apparently some postdocs have interpreted this to mean that either a) they’re in for a windfall of overtime pay or b) they’re going to get $50,000 raises. I have not read all of the comments, but they are copious and unto this interpretation I say…

There’s no fucking way either of those things will ever happen because it would be absolutely contrary to economics.  Here are the two postulates for the derivation of our theorem,  here in titled the Why Your Asses Ain’t Getting Paid Theorem or the WYAAGP Theorem

Postulate one:  Being a tenure-track professor is still really, really thoroughly good. Trust me. It is. People still want to be professors deep in their wee, wee hearts. Shitty grant funding isn’t deterring people from trying to follow their dreams.
Postulate two: Professor positions are limited and there is a substantial excess in the number of postdocs for each position.

Bargaining and other such labor tomfoolery only works when you can hold the man by the balls and twist. Postdocs aren’t in such a position. Sure, many places have established postdoc groups and unions, but these groups are frequently populated by a limited number of go-getters and change is slow to be had. Since postdoc positions are temporary (as they should be) and unstable, what incentive do the masses have to fight for change? And what real weapons do they have at their disposal? A strike? That only works when job tasks require quick production and there is no other group that could perform the task.

Furthermore, because of the glut of postdocs and the number of people willing to take on the position in order to get their dream job, there’s no real incentive for management to change practice. I  predict the following course of events…

Postdocs: Hey! Obama says we get overtime pay if we work more than 40 hours a week!
PIs: Ok, then don’t work more than 40 hours.  I’m going to need to see a weekly account of all your time worked. Enjoy your two weeks vacation, just like all the other plebes.  Also, I’m really still impressed by good,hard work when it comes to writing recommendations and things.
Postdocs: Awesome! How fair and generous!  Speaking of recommendations, will you help me with my job search in a year? What do you think the desirable qualifications will be for the positions?
PIs: Since the job of PI didn’t change with Obama’ss new rules, I imagine exactly what they are now. CNS papers and funding, etc. Hope you can get that all done in your “40 hours.”
(some Postdocs): We’d better hang around beyond those 40 hours to make sure that we are highly competitive!
Postdocs: Oh shit!! Some people are working more than 40 hours and doing more! Fuck those guys, but we guess we’d better hang around too!

It’s the exact same thing that pushes professors to work more than 40 hours a week. It’s why I’m writing a grant at 8:30 on a Friday night instead of doing body shots and riding a mechanical bull (Or, you know, whatever the hell I’d be doing. Likely watching Netflix).  There are many mouths at the trough and not enough slop. For postdocs, it’s jobs. For PIs, it’s grants. You can’t effect change through bitching when there’s another mouth behind you ready to step up and take your place.

For postdocs, I fear that it’s going to have to get shitty enough that many more people are going to decide that the (allegedly) shitty postdoc pay and uncertain career path just aren’t worth it, and it’s seeming less likely to get there. They might feel it’s bad, but not bad enough to quit en masse. Much like medical residents who are willing to take shit pay for long hours (given their post-school debt) and the hope of a desirable job (see here), postdocs might be in for the long haul.

Thoughts on Letters of Support…

After some experiments this afternoon I came back to my office and saw this tweet…

I figured it was worth a quick post to note my thoughts. Humility is a hell of a thing, especially if you’re a woman. We are often taught to be humble and not publicize how highly we think of ourselves. That’s the real kiss of death in science.

99.9% of the time I ask for a letter from someone, whether it’s a recommendation or letter of collaboration or whatever, I always provide a draft. I tell the person, “I would appreciate a letter of support for Project/Award X. Because I realize how busy you are, I took the opportunity of writing a draft.”

This makes sure that the person says all of the amazing things I want them to say and that they say everything I need them to say. How much effort are they devoting to the project, how will we interact, why am I their favorite red-headed scientist, etc. I have never had anyone be anything but grateful and I have never gotten a letter back that wasn’t as nice or nicer than what I originally sent. The thing about getting senior is that the more famous you are, the more letters you are asked to write. Busy people appreciate when you do some of their leg work for them. It also makes it less likely someone is going to forget to write or send your letter.

When people ask me to write a letter, especially letters of recommendation for students, I always ask them to provide at least an outline of what they want included in their letter. You just can’t expect people to remember every accomplishment of every person and leaving you letter in someone else’s hands puts you at risk of having the one important thing that makes you an outstanding candidate left out of your letter.


Make yourself relevant.