The week of the cry

OR
Is it worth it?

A few days ago I came home for lunch and had one of the biggest melt downs I’ve had in ages. Not one of those little tearies that might happen after you stub your toe, but a full on, family pet died kind of crying session. Why? Because I could not solve a problem at work. All morning I had tried and tried to fix this small issue, and it simply would not budge. I was frustrated at myself and the world, and the only non-violent way to deal with it was to cry. Don’t tell Tim Hunt.

After some hugs and some food (both of which help most situations), I was able to go back to work, ask for some more help, and get to the bottom of my problem. Of course, at the bottom of that problem was two more problems, but that’s the way things go.

However, I did wonder why this problem had gotten me so worked up. Was it really worth crying over? Obviously, getting that upset at or about work is not great, regardless of your gender or vocation. I know I’m not the only person, whether they are in academia or not, who needs a little cry in the work bathroom every now and again, or who takes the stresses and strains from work home with them.

But in academia especially, there seems to be a culture that rewards extreme dedication, like responding to emails on a Saturday night, or staying at work until 10pm, or giving 110% to every task that you do. Regardless of whether or not you are trained to do it.

Now of course, to be a good scientist, I believe, you need to be determined, passionate about your work and probably a little bit stubborn and/or crazy. If you aren’t going to be passionate about what you study, then who will? And one of the great things about being in research is that you get to learn new things all the time. In fact, I remember a paper stuck on the wall at my old uni that suggests feeling stupid is an essential part of being a scientist. If you stop learning in any job really, then it’s probably time to leave.

Does this mean by extension that if you treat your scientific job as a 9–5, and don’t take it home with you unless you absolutely have to, are you a failure? Or if you have the luxury of outsourcing any part of your research to more skilled individuals that you are not good enough?

This question feels particularly pertinent as an early career scientist. Every week I seem to read a new article about the sucky nature of being a postdoc, and how hard it is to find work in research. That terrifies me into thinking that I’m actually not working hard enough, and that I should be crying more! But is it really worth it?

A good friend who is not a researcher once told me, when I was questioning the contribution that my research makes to society, that academics are a valuable community resource. Not everyone has time to read all those papers and learn all those things, and so academics take on the position of knowledge keepers in a way. That thought really heartened me as I went back to my office to muddle through some confusing code and respond to some administrative emails.

Because that’s the thing isn’t it? We researchers don’t spend all our time communicating what we have learnt and being a useful resource. We don’t even spend all our time doing science!

Perhaps I am generalising here, but most of us, especially in the climate science field, spend large chunks of our time on things that are only sort of related to the work we want to do. Science-adjacent tasks. These things generally include paperwork, upskilling in technical languages, and data preparation. A colleague recently estimated that she spends around 60% of her time accessing and preparing climate data for analysis. My problem of the other day was related to combining two datasets. Nothing to do with assessing their quality, nothing to do with what they could tell us about the weather and climate, just mooshing them together.

If I was a trained computer programmer, or had 10 years of experience in my current programming language, then this would have taken 10 minutes. But I am not, and only have 6 months of experience in my current language. Yes, it is very satisfying learning how to program, learning different methods of dealing with data and solving problems. But again I have to ask, it is worth it? Is it the best use of time and resources for me to struggle through doing tasks that I find very difficult, but that even someone partially proficient in that field could do easily? I know you need to work hard to grow and develop as a person and a scientist, but if I move universities or another better language comes along, aren’t I just going to have the same problem? And isn’t that problem related more to science-adjacent work, rather than actual science?

Maybe when I got upset the other day it wasn’t just that I was frustrated at my coding problem, or too hungry to realise that I was hungry at all. Maybe it was that I became afraid that this was the reality of research life. That I was toiling away, neglecting my partner, friends and family, just to bang my head against a problem that I was not trained for, instead of addressing problems that I got into research to solve.

Or, even more likely, I was afraid that I did not have the determination to commit to this seemingly inefficient method of working, and was not good enough to be a scientist at all.

Or perhaps I just need to lighten up, and eat my lunch earlier.

I don’t know.

What I do know that I have had Missy Elliott’s catchy question in my head for a week now, and I still don’t have an answer.

So what do you think? Honestly, really, is it worth it?

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7 thoughts on “The week of the cry

  1. Is it worth it? That is something that you can only answer for yourself. The labour conditions sure are terrible. The reproductive rate among scientists is so low, that a science radio moderator once quipped: if science were a zoo, it would be a sign of bad keeping conditions and it would be closed down.

    Just some practical advice from an emotions fearing male colleague.

    Does this mean by extension that if you treat your scientific job as a 9–5, and don’t take it home with you unless you absolutely have to, are you a failure? Or if you have the luxury of outsourcing any part of your research to more skilled individuals that you are not good enough?

    I feel it should be possible to do science as a 9 to 5 job. This probably mean that you should be able to curtail your ambitions. I know a professor who it truly brilliant. If he would work longer, he would be one of the biggest names in the field. He prioritises his family and works 9 to 5 and does not travel much and does a darn good job in that time.

    Science is a creative field. Thus the time not working is as important as the time you are working. Einstein used to get up at 10 and take a long hot bath. They say. Sounds like a good recipe for brilliant creative work. Good ideas come when you are not at work. It is good to have dedication, that your brain knows the scientific problems are important. Then you can take your work home and solve them in the back of your head, while eating wonderful Spanish food or hiking or showering or whatever.

    If you do not outsource part of your research you are not good enough. Trying to master any skill is very inefficient.

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    • Thanks Victor! You’re right, science is a creative field. I guess it depends on your personality, and whether or not you can enjoy Einstein’s flexible hours while still maintaining some sense of distance. I have my best ideas walking home at the end of the day! But by Friday I need to think about something else, or I will let a bad week of buggy code fog up my brain and not allow other ideas to creep in.

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      • Interesting; everyone is different. I do not notice consciously that my brain is solving such problems subconsciously. Some moment the solution just jumps up. (Good to have some paper ready any time.) Once a complete algorithm (well just 5 lines of code) suddenly popped up, which also showed me that we do not think in words, then it would have taken longer to “read” the code.

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  2. I like this short article by Jeff Leek that articulates some of the difficulties with data science: http://simplystatistics.org/2015/03/17/data-science-done-well-looks-easy-and-that-is-a-big-problem-for-data-scientists/

    In essence the argument is that the ‘science’ part is made much easier with sufficient time and effort devoted to the data preparation part, so much so that:
    > “After a ton of work like that, you have a nice set of data to which you fit simple statistical models and then it looks super easy to someone who either doesn’t know about the data collection and cleaning process or doesn’t care.”

    I might suggest that those of us doing this sort of work can also convince ourselves with hindsight that we should have been able to do it in 10mins. The reality is that’s very unlikely to be true most of the time, so don’t beat yourself up over it. The problem we can create for ourselves is that we probably consistently underestimate the effort involved in such data preparation tasks in funding proposals and project plans and then beat ourselves up about how long they taking and put in the extra hours to get the “science that we’re supposed to be doing” delivered on time.

    We really shouldn’t see data manipulation tasks as being adjacent to doing science, they are a fundamental part of it – but I know that’s easier said than done, especially when in the depths of battling a particularly annoying process.

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    • Many thanks for the encouragement Mark, it’s nice to hear from a more patient data cleaner. Of course, data preparation is very important, and I really agree that the time and dedication required to do a good job is underestimated (probably especially by myself!). That article is one to remember when I’m six months into checking 20 years of hourly observations 🙂

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  3. I’m working on teaching our high school science students about data and how to manage it. It’s a fundamental science skill and nobody gets taught it as part of a science education – at least not in this country! That has to change. You have done an amazing job getting this far, and it’s an indictment on the system that a fundamental part of your job is doing stuff you’re not trained to do, in order to do the stuff you signed up for! It’s so common, and while it creates fabulous collaborative opportunities for my year 11s :), it seriously needs fixing!
    You’re not alone in this, in fact you are part of a huge, worldwide community where every member is hiding under the table afraid to admit that they are actually part of the community, that code is something they weren’t trained for and that they don’t just “get” without a huge amount of effort to get good at it. Plus even experienced coders get stuck and need help sometimes. I think it’s an awesome thing that you have written about it and gone public with this coder imposter syndrome that is SO common and treated so often like a shameful secret. I was talking with a biologist today who has the same problem!
    Maybe the next step is to create a community, to share the trauma and the triumphs, and to make a space where it is safe to admit that this stuff is hard? Just thinking aloud here, but the key point is that it’s not just you!

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  4. Thanks Linda! And thanks for your support too — I’m a bit embarrassed about my response/meltdown to be honest, but I know it happens to lots of people. Perhaps a PhD student will google “Why does coding make me teary” one day and this post will let them know that they are not alone 🙂 Hope you are well! xx

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