As graduate students, we often hear the admonition,
This “hustle” attitude extends beyond the scientific sphere and is common in high-pressure fields such as finance, computer science, athletics, and music. In fact, many high achievers often credit their productivity and satisfaction to a total immersion in their work. Spacefaring tycoon Elon Musk famously said that “Nobody can change the world on 40 hours a week”. In China, the 996 workweek—9 to 9, six days a week—has become the norm in tech, with Alibaba billionaire Jack Ma opining, “If we find things we like, 996 is not a problem … If you don’t like [your work], every minute is torture.” On the cynical side, Youtube “wealth gurus” prey on this feel-good psychology of the hustle to market themselves and sell an unattainable lifestyle.
For this issue of IMMPress, “Work to Live or Live to Work”, I compare the culture of motivation and workaholism in our academic labs to those of other fields and conclude that hustling harder could be effective only when combined with sensitive and equally dedicated coaching and championing on the part of the faculty.
In medieval times, peasants worked from dawn to dusk—sixteen hours in the summer and eight in winter. But their work was also highly seasonal, and the calendar was filled with numerous saints’ days and holidays, so that they probably worked only 120 days per year. Christian philosophy conceived of work as a punishment for original sins but also of wealth as an opportunity for generosity and charity. Indeed, some have advanced the view that the ‘Protestant work ethic’ of the Puritans was the direct precursor to Muskian workaholism. Certainly, this subconscious attitude of self-sacrifice for a greater goal is still present in our research labs and serves as a powerful motivator through tough times.
Funnily enough, the aspiration of Marxist thinkers of the Industrial Revolution was to create a post-capitalist world in which everyone had ample leisure time for artistic, creative and scientific pursuits. The Soviet economist Kropotkin famously wrote that “After bread has been secured, leisure is the supreme aim”–but in the same essay he mentioned that “when man has the possibility of varying occupations, and especially of alternating manual with intellectual work, he can remain occupied without fatigue, and even with pleasure, for 10 or 12 hours a day,” suggesting that our profession—the trade of science—is admirable and worth dedicating our lives to.
Fast forward to 2022, and our post-covid world is run by the gig economy, by Uber drivers and e-scooters, and by Amazon trucks—hardly the socialist utopia imagined two centuries ago. The “Great Resignation” is seeing workers quitting en masse or switching to work-from-home or more creative ventures. Fatigued from robotic online covid-school, Gen Z has less hope and motivation than ever for their future career prospects. What will we offer them in the scientific sphere when they come of age in five to ten years? Will we treat them like gig workers, exploiting their scientific labor for publications they will never see their names on, or will we champion them, closely invested in their immediate success?
In China, the backlash to the relentless drive to achievement—there amplified by deeply ingrained aspirations of national glory—has been extreme in another direction. The term “involution” (neijuan) describes how employees faced with impossible demands develop schemes and loopholes to hack the system. These tactics range from humorous (think Office Space or Dilbert) to severely corrupt (think entrance exam cheaters or milk powder scandals). The term was coined in the ‘60s by an agronomist in the Dutch East Indies and describes how an increase in input does not always linearly lead to an increase in output.
Academic science in our own department also risks becoming “involuted” if students end up expending most of their efforts simply to satisfy the requirements of committee meetings, reports and scholarship applications (not to minimize the importance of such things!), instead of actually performing cutting-edge science that will be appreciated by the world. At the extreme, our cult of Puritan overwork could even drive students to spend long hours in the lab with little idea of how they could effectively be working, simply out of fear of letting their professor down or out of a belief that self-sacrifice must necessarily lead to success. But of course this sort of hustling will only lead to wasted lab reagents, unpublishable data, more self-doubt and eventual burnout.
Moreover, even research topics themselves can become involuted, when stiff competition for grants and a publish-or-perish mentality might prioritize incremental research in minimum publishable units. In some cases, this has led to the rise in predatory publishing houses that offer to pad CVs with low-effort papers. The European Research Council has recently tried to break out of this habit by offering a “non-incremental” grant that rewards ambitious projects in order to rejuvenate their research scene.
The most nihilistic of China’s youth go beyond pretend-working and have instead created a counterculture that fully embraces laziness. “Lying flat” (tang ping) is the philosophy of those who prefer the certainty of mediocrity over the possibility of seeking excellence and failing miserably. Their rallying cry is: “The leek that lies flat is hard to chop down”. The Chinese government, for its part, banned the practise in August 2021 as part of their “common prosperity” campaign that aims to redistribute wealth from the country’s ultra-rich. Whether or not a “lying-flat” phenomenon exists in our country’s academia is unknown, but it certainly has parallels to the doom-inducing imposter syndrome with which we are all too familiar. Many students in the life sciences today have little hope for their scientific future. Only a small minority consider it possible to become a professor, and even fewer have the will to do so. Indeed, the large-scale 10,000 PhDs study by our own Biochemistry department’s Dr. Reinhart Reithmeier found that only 15% of UofT life science graduates become professors, a result he characterized as “shocking”.
Even some previously coveted lecturer positions at universities are becoming less secure, with some authors describing these as a “gig economy” of its own. Of course, our department has made great strides in encouraging and preparing our graduates for rewarding and exciting careers in industry, science editing, communication, journalism, technical support and sales. Our GPD course, as well as the newly debuted introductory course IMM1200, challenge students to consider the practical and professional steps they can take to build their own personalized dream job.
However, we must not forget to support those graduates of Immunology who do intend to pursue careers as faculty members as well. Perhaps keeping some emphasis on the practical steps to achieve a career in basic research, as well as on exciting alternatives, could help stave off symptoms of aimlessness or “lying-flat”.
For example, committee members and supervisors can prioritize students’ early publication in top-quality journals, which is increasingly required for tenure-track positions. A cursory look at the contents of Nature or Science reveals that the most impactful papers are short, well-presented, high-throughput, and above all, collaborative, with most contributors specializing in a couple of experimental techniques at most. PhD students in immunology should be allowed and encouraged to work in solidarity with other lab members to multiply their efforts and result in speedier publication, rather than working tirelessly in isolation.
Nevertheless, students who overwork for five to seven years but never think of their career prospects and goals are doomed to come up short after graduation. Students should be coached on strategy for selecting postdoctoral labs and on communication with leading experts in other countries, before being allowed to defend their thesis. In that way, our department could produce world-class scientists who are, in practical terms, real contenders for top spots in academia in Canada and around the world. Otherwise, Canada may see its students abandoning the field of science or “lying flat”, especially since degrees in the creative subjects, business and computer science may be a better investment.
The Olympic Winter Games have reminded us that another class of students are also dead-set on success: those amateur athletes that strive for excellence in the physical sphere. These games have brought out the worst and the best in humanity: from the social Darwinism of the Russian figure skating team to the success stories of Nathan Chen, Su Yiming, Max Parrot and Eileen Gu. Certainly, all the entrants have hustle and drive, but if there is one thing that distinguished these two extremes, it is the presence of authentic, loving, dedicated coaches: accomplished athletes in their own right with a vested interest in championing the success of their protégés.
So maybe we ought to ask ourselves, what can we learn from these role models? Do we provide the support necessary to generate graduates that can compete at the highest levels—on par with the Bostons and San Diegos of the world? Can we become a research powerhouse in the next decades? If we want to, for sure all we students need to keep hustling. But I think we will also have to seriously nurture our talent in the same way Rafa Arutyunyan mentors Nathan Chen—selflessly, practically, with a focus on publication and a care for the student’s career over the professor’s—rather than like Eteri Tutberidze, whose factory for churning out child figure skating stars leads to their burnout at the age of 17 and to countless tears and scandals.
The point of this essay is not to accuse or demoralize, since the concepts mentioned are emergent properties of large social systems. Instead, I hope to inspire a broader perspective in both students and professors, to look to the horizon rather than involuting, to imagine what our university could be rather than get bogged down in its problems. As the prayer goes, “Look not on our sins but on the faith of thy church”. After all, the successes of our future students will reflect on us all.
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