DendWrite

10+ Year Member
Oct 19, 2008
333
1
Status
I don't mean for this to be offensive, but it's just based on my observations of the lab where I've been working this summer.

Almost everyone working here spends a minimum of 60 hours per week in the lab. One particular PhD I know regularly arrives at 9am and does not leave until midnight. He is married and has a kid, and he has to commute about an hour each way to get to the lab; according to him he regularly gets home when his wife and kid are asleep and, since he often works Saturdays (like a lot of other people in the lab), he only sees them for a significant amount of time Sunday, which he often spends doing housework / yardwork / etc.

Here's the thing. I love science. From my experiences so far, I could not see myself being strictly a clinician. The work I've done in labs so far as an undergrad (even the scutwork like running gels and preparing samples) has been fun for me. I love the intellectual challenge and having the chance to apply things that I've learned in class to real world problems that are often vastly different and require ingenuity to solve.

But I kind of think that at some point in the future I will want to get married and have kids. And I could not life with seeing my wife one day a week, never spending time with my kids, and all this for not too huge a salary.

My question is basically this: is it possible to balance having a real life outside of the lab with being a productive, successful physician-scientist? I understand that obviously the period when you are earning your PhD and the first maybe 5 to 10 years of your independent work will be pretty intense hours-wise. But does it ever get to the point where you can work say, a max of 50 hours per week and still keep up with the field, make contributions, be valuable as a scientist (along with making ends meet financially)?

A lot of the people I know seem to almost enjoy the fact that they spend so much time at the lab. I like it too now, as a student, but I am pretty sure that in 10 or 20 years I won't be as enthusiastic about it. Does this mean MD-PhD is not right for me, or does it just mean that the people I'm currently working with are failing to strike a balance that is, in fact, possible to achieve?

Sorry for the long-winded post, but I appreciate any insight you may have.
 

mrsanator

10+ Year Member
7+ Year Member
Oct 20, 2008
61
1
Status
MD/PhD Student
Many people are further along than me (this is my 3rd year in) and can offer you a broader perspective, but I have a few thoughts as I worked for many years with physician-scientists both in lab and clinical settings before going to med school:

1.Attending (post-residency) physicians on average work 50-60 hours a week. This is fairly consistent among specialties, with a few outliers on the low end (Derm, EM, Optho) and high end (Neurosurg and CT Surg). See http://jama.ama-assn.org/cgi/content/full/290/9/1173#relation_type_129 I don’t think MD-PhDs have been studied specificially, but I doubt the average hours for MD-PhDs are much lower as running a research program isn’t easy. One big advantage you would have over your clinician-only colleagues is flexibility as to when and where you work when you are not covering a clinical service (see point #2).

2.Unless you have a really small lab, you are unlikely as a midcareer physician-scientist to be doing a whole lot of bench work. More likely you’re spending time writing grants, manuscript prep/review, meetings, teaching, assorted job-related BS etc. Much of this can be done from home. Most of the PIs that I know well with kids go home at 5-6, hang out with the family until 9-10, then put in a couple of extra hours either that night or early AM. If they want to take their partner on a date one night or go hang out with friends at a bar, they have the flexibility to do that. If their kid gets sick and needs to stay home from school, if they aren’t seeing patients that day it is often no big deal for them to stay home and phone in to any necessary meetings. They work a lot of hours, but on their schedules.

3.When things get bad, you can trade money for free time if you are willing to cut spending in other areas. In our town, the grocery store only charges us $5 a week to do our shopping for us, services exist that will prepare a week’s worth of meals for you at a time so all you have to do is heat them up. Contracting with somebody to come into your house every 2 weeks and dust/vacuum for a couple of hours is surprisingly affordable, as it a basic lawn maintenance arrangement for mowing / leaf raking / etc. If you are earning MD money, even the relatively anemic salary of an academic MD-PhD in a non-procedural specialty, you don’t have to spend every Sunday doing lawn work if you don’t want to (although this might mean accepting living a smaller house, driving an older car, or traveling to less exotic destinations than you think you deserve).

Compared with your typical “(5d x 8hr) / 1 wk” job, being an physician-scientist is, on average, not a lifestyle friendly choice. Promising a certain number of hours per week is impossible because of differences in clinical responsibilities between different hospitals and specialties, research interests, and personal goals (what’s your definition of “productive, successful?”). In addition, the workload can vary hugely from week to week, and yes, relationships of all sorts do fail as a result of all of these factors. However, there are definitely people who manage to balance life outside of work as they choose to define it and a physician-scientist career.
 

SaltySqueegee

El Rey de Salsa
10+ Year Member
15+ Year Member
Jul 10, 2003
1,261
3
www.studentdoctor.net
Status
MD/PhD Student
I would have to say there a couple of phenomena that are associated with people that have long work days. 1) Lack of efficiency in performing a task, and/or 2) being a 'yes' person.

1) When at work, you are being paid to work, not talk about your weekend, not being buddy buddy (a few minutes is fine, but some people drag it on for hours throughout the day). If you aren't designing an experiment, working on analyzing your data or working on a poster/manuscript/grant, you aren't being efficient.

2) Know your limits and discuss these limits with your colleagues and/or advisors. If they are not understanding, then it will just make your life harder, and will translate to stress in the home life.

That being said everyone has their own schedule, but personally, I find I'm more productive if I start promptly at 8a and wrap up at 5pm (my brain starts to shutdown at 5pm anyways). The funny thing is, in the back of my mind, I'm still churning away at work while not at work. When I'm at home throwing the ball with my dogs or eating dinner relaxing I'm jotting down notes on a piece of paper I keep with me as work thoughts pop up. The next day that paper becomes my priority to do list, or items to incorporate into the manuscript/grant/poster. Doing this does not takeaway time from family/other life priorities.

You don't have to ignore your family to do your work as a scientist/physician.

Exception: A few kinetic/time-point studies that require sleeping on a cot in the lab a few days out of the year for some of us.
 
Jul 7, 2009
21
0
Status
MD/PhD Student
it probably depends a lot on the specialty and the research. if you do clinical research, then you spend time on the irb and enrolling patients, then waiting on the results. you don't really need a phd and a statistician can put the numbers together for you. if you do bench research, certain areas are more competitive than others and may take more time to be really up to date and think of new ideas. despite the md/phd dream, not a whole lot of basic research really meshes well with actual clinical practice. if your designs are all in mice, you design well and your postdocs/students build and it takes a while to get the results as well. i don't work in bioengineering but it's different as well. certain specialties are more flexible, like pathology or dermatology, because you're not the primary team on inpatients. but even on internal medicine, some md/phds do two months in the hospital and 10 months in the lab. everybody has to work it their own way. beyond that, in my experience working smart is better than working hard, and being right is better than working smart, and being super-powerful in the field is better than being right. supposedly when you get a job the head of the department sizes you up and decides how much of your salary will be clinical vs. research/grant-based, and you kind of set yourself up around that.
 

bd4727

10+ Year Member
Jul 17, 2008
361
26
USA
Status
Attending Physician
I would just note that the phenomena of people trying to move up to "high positions" working long hours is not specific to medicine. A lot of my friends are in finance at major firms, and they work the same hours as a resident, for about the same money, hoping to ascend the ladder, make partner, then make the big $. This isn't really any different than medicine (although the big $ might be relatively less big, in some instances).

Furthermore, you will notice that once people do reach top positions in their field, they continue to work crazy hours. IMO, its an inherent property of people who have an incredible personal drive to be at the top. If you are comfortable with just being middle management (finance) or a good but not superstar researcher who publishes in mid-tier, field-specific journals at a good but not great medical school, then its not unreasonable to think you can have a 8-6 lifestyle. If you want to be CEO or HHMI, you are going to have to compete with people who are willing to work 12 hour days 6 days per week to outcompete you. If you aren't willing to put in the time, you will be out-competed by more qualified people.

I don't like the insinuation that is often on this board (I'm not referring to the OP, just in general) that it's "the system" inherently set up to make physician-scientist's lives miserable; its the extremely competitive nature of the people in this field. On the whole, it is this intense competition that has placed and keeps US biomedical research among the best in the world.
 

SaltySqueegee

El Rey de Salsa
10+ Year Member
15+ Year Member
Jul 10, 2003
1,261
3
www.studentdoctor.net
Status
MD/PhD Student
I would just note that the phenomena of people trying to move up to "high positions" working long hours is not specific to medicine. A lot of my friends are in finance at major firms, and they work the same hours as a resident, for about the same money, hoping to ascend the ladder, make partner, then make the big $. This isn't really any different than medicine (although the big $ might be relatively less big, in some instances).

Furthermore, you will notice that once people do reach top positions in their field, they continue to work crazy hours. IMO, its an inherent property of people who have an incredible personal drive to be at the top. If you are comfortable with just being middle management (finance) or a good but not superstar researcher who publishes in mid-tier, field-specific journals at a good but not great medical school, then its not unreasonable to think you can have a 8-6 lifestyle. If you want to be CEO or HHMI, you are going to have to compete with people who are willing to work 12 hour days 6 days per week to outcompete you. If you aren't willing to put in the time, you will be out-competed by more qualified people.

I don't like the insinuation that is often on this board (I'm not referring to the OP, just in general) that it's "the system" inherently set up to make physician-scientist's lives miserable; its the extremely competitive nature of the people in this field. On the whole, it is this intense competition that has placed and keeps US biomedical research among the best in the world.
Yes.
 

mercaptovizadeh

ἀλώπηξ
10+ Year Member
Oct 16, 2004
6,887
987
Status
I would just note that the phenomena of people trying to move up to "high positions" working long hours is not specific to medicine. A lot of my friends are in finance at major firms, and they work the same hours as a resident, for about the same money, hoping to ascend the ladder, make partner, then make the big $. This isn't really any different than medicine (although the big $ might be relatively less big, in some instances).

Furthermore, you will notice that once people do reach top positions in their field, they continue to work crazy hours. IMO, its an inherent property of people who have an incredible personal drive to be at the top. If you are comfortable with just being middle management (finance) or a good but not superstar researcher who publishes in mid-tier, field-specific journals at a good but not great medical school, then its not unreasonable to think you can have a 8-6 lifestyle. If you want to be CEO or HHMI, you are going to have to compete with people who are willing to work 12 hour days 6 days per week to outcompete you. If you aren't willing to put in the time, you will be out-competed by more qualified people.

I don't like the insinuation that is often on this board (I'm not referring to the OP, just in general) that it's "the system" inherently set up to make physician-scientist's lives miserable; its the extremely competitive nature of the people in this field. On the whole, it is this intense competition that has placed and keeps US biomedical research among the best in the world.
But again, we have all this great research, but how improved are clinical outcomes? Some random biomarker like CRP or hemoglobin A1C that the clinical researchers find may mean a lot more for individual lives and controlling disease progression than the basic science output of 10 HHMI PIs. So much money is being poured into biomedical research, so many tens of thousands of post-docs, grad students, technicians, and PIs are involved, and the pace of research that actually makes a difference is shockingly slow.
 

malchik

New Member
10+ Year Member
7+ Year Member
Jul 19, 2006
413
12
Status
Resident [Any Field]
I don't like the insinuation that is often on this board (I'm not referring to the OP, just in general) that it's "the system" inherently set up to make physician-scientist's lives miserable; its the extremely competitive nature of the people in this field. On the whole, it is this intense competition that has placed and keeps US biomedical research among the best in the world.
I would insinuate that yes, competition is a good thing, but there's competing to be at the top and there's competing to survive, to have a job. I like the idea of intense competition at the higher echelons of any field. I dislike the idea that one has to compete to the tune of 90% grant failure rates just to get funding and get started in a career. If intense competition makes our science great, would you be in favor of getting rid of tenure in the name of fueling more competition among the comfortably tenured types?
 

bd4727

10+ Year Member
Jul 17, 2008
361
26
USA
Status
Attending Physician
But again, we have all this great research, but how improved are clinical outcomes? Some random biomarker like CRP or hemoglobin A1C that the clinical researchers find may mean a lot more for individual lives and controlling disease progression than the basic science output of 10 HHMI PIs. So much money is being poured into biomedical research, so many tens of thousands of post-docs, grad students, technicians, and PIs are involved, and the pace of research that actually makes a difference is shockingly slow.
Agreed, but I believe this is a different issue that relates more to how we fund Biomedical research in this country (publically). People receiving public funding have no incentive to take major risks with their research. If you spend 2 years going after some paradigm-shifting experiment, developing a new drug, etc but produce no results in the meantime, you aren't seen as a productive researcher when it comes to grant-renewal time. This is why tenure came about (one of the reasons, anyway). NIH is now trying to address this problem with some grants that support more risky problems. But anyway, yes I agree that this phenomena does somewhat stiffle incredible jumps in fields, because it is safer to get refunded if you just toe the line of your field and publish not-exciting results in okay journals a lot.

IMO, private research foundations and pharm companies are holding up the weight for the more risky projects. Pharm companies dump billions of dollars into drug/vaccine research programs that yield nothing, knowing that if they can get 1 out they can make up costs until the patent runs out.

So overall, I agree that the pace of discoveries may be a bit slower in the academic realm than in the private realm, but overall the great competition is still driving things forward. You say, "How improved are clinical outcomes," but compared to what? Compared to times before we had biomedical research in this country? Well they are 100% better than that. What else is there to compare to? It is the only way research has really ever been funded on a major scale in the US, and to my knowledge in Western Europe as well. So I think its easy to complain-- and there are certainly changes that could be made to advance things-- but its also important to take a step back and see why things are they way they are and what progress has been made because of that.
 

bd4727

10+ Year Member
Jul 17, 2008
361
26
USA
Status
Attending Physician
I would insinuate that yes, competition is a good thing, but there's competing to be at the top and there's competing to survive, to have a job. I like the idea of intense competition at the higher echelons of any field. I dislike the idea that one has to compete to the tune of 90% grant failure rates just to get funding and get started in a career.
Competition is competition, you can't have it magically appear at some set level of quality. At the top, the intensity is just higher because better people are competing with each other. And the ramifications are if you are competing for HHMI you are definetly working longer than someone who is satisfied with just running a small program somehwere. That's fine, its up to the individual. It can be disheartening if you are one of the people competing and you don't do well, but its not like there is some conspiracy behind it, there just aren't enough resources. As a country, we have agreed on how much money we are willing to set aside for biomedical research. If more people are wanting to get at that money than there is money to go around, you end up with 10% funding rates. If you don't like it, don't go into research or push for more funding. What are you supposed to do? We can't spend 100% of the budget on NIH so that everyone who graduates with a PhD gets their own lab. Its a distribution of resources issue, and like in any market the people peddling the best product (grants) will put others out of business. For whatever reason, more people want to go into research than there is money to go around. This is a great thing for the field of biomedical research. In theory, money isn't wasted on unqualified people.

Are there issues within the grant system such that politics plays a role and its not always the best science getting funded? Sure that happens, there is corruption in every human endeavor. But aside from trying to control that, all you can really do is make your research better. And I truely believe this is a great thing.

If intense competition makes our science great, would you be in favor of getting rid of tenure in the name of fueling more competition among the comfortably tenured types?
Yes, in theory. In reality, I recognize that tenure does have a place in promoting people to take risks (see above post) in a system that does not reward risk-taking research. I would tweak tenure such that you had to re-apply every 10 years or something, so that you couldn't get too comfortable ever and lapse into a complete waste of money that can't be gotten rid of.

Again, all was trying to say is that the issues of grant funding competitiveness that get discussed on this board are not specific to science. Every field of work that you can go into has the same underlying principle of competition to it, just within its own realm. We don't complain that Microsoft and Apple have to compete with each other for a finite amount of money that people are willing to spend on computers, because it makes the computers being produced better. It is the same way with NIH funding, except the "consumers" are taxpayers and you and I are Microsoft and Apple (I call Microsoft).
 
Jul 7, 2009
21
0
Status
MD/PhD Student
yes, basic science is really expensive, and there is a lot of crap out there, but clinical research doesn't really produce huge advancements, mostly just comparisons of treatment x with treatment y. it's still a tiny fraction of what we spend killing iraqis. and it's not like we get rich doing it. basic science md/phds take a massive (like 2x) pay cut compared to an md. phds would make more as the manager of a mcdonald's. if you really want to save some wasted money, stop paying farmers to NOT grow crops. drug companies take different risks on different projects. in theory they apply some basic science to a clinical problem, in practice they lobby politicians into making us pay for the erections of senior citizens. tenure was originally meant to protect people with unpopular opinions, like civil rights activists. peter duesberg doesn't believe hiv causes aids. tenure either protects his opinion, or it makes him a dangerous quack that african countries use when they don't want to spend money on an hiv program. tenured professors still have to be productive to compete for grants; no grants = no lab. anyway this thread has been hijacked.
 
Last edited:

malchik

New Member
10+ Year Member
7+ Year Member
Jul 19, 2006
413
12
Status
Resident [Any Field]
Competition is competition, you can't have it magically appear at some set level of quality.
Yes, you can. It's easy to imagine a scenario where everyone of a certain level of position gets a minimal amount of money regardless of what they do. Then have a smaller pot of huge money (your HHMI example) that more ambitious people compete for. I'm not proposing that, just trying to illustrate that the world is not binary, competition vs. no-competition; quantitative differences in competition can have large effects.

Take for example the late 90's compared to now. Funding was more available, bright people were drawn into the expanding research industry, and one could more afford to be risky. Now, funding is less available, people are arguably more cynical about their science, lots of bright people are leaving science. Was it competitive in the 90's? Yes, but less so, and that difference was enough to make it feel like a different career. And where are the data that show that the discoveries in today's uber-competitive environment are better or more plentiful than in times of lower competition?

People at the top will always compete because of their desire to be the best, they don't need a grant competition for that.

"We can't spend 100% of the budget on NIH so that everyone who graduates with a PhD gets their own lab. . . . For whatever reason, more people want to go into research than there is money to go around. . . "

Why not? Stop handing out so many PhDs, for one. This is actually an unintended consequence of the mismanagement of the massive funding increases of the 90's. PhD programs multiplied and postdocs were brought in from all over, only to find when funding leveled off there were no jobs for these people. MSTP programs are universally trying to expand, then they scratch their heads when they find that less than half of their graduates stay in science.

Agree that excellence in every field in our society requires competition, and I agree that is a good thing. But the degree of competition matters enormously, and the current degree is ridiculous.
 

bd4727

10+ Year Member
Jul 17, 2008
361
26
USA
Status
Attending Physician
Yes, you can. It's easy to imagine a scenario where everyone of a certain level of position gets a minimal amount of money regardless of what they do. Then have a smaller pot of huge money (your HHMI example) that more ambitious people compete for. I'm not proposing that, just trying to illustrate that the world is not binary, competition vs. no-competition; quantitative differences in competition can have large effects.
Um, how would this be a good thing?

Take for example the late 90's compared to now. Funding was more available, bright people were drawn into the expanding research industry, and one could more afford to be risky. Now, funding is less available, people are arguably more cynical about their science, lots of bright people are leaving science. Was it competitive in the 90's? Yes, but less so, and that difference was enough to make it feel like a different career. And where are the data that show that the discoveries in today's uber-competitive environment are better or more plentiful than in times of lower competition?
No, I have not seen any data and don't personally believe that research in today's "uber-competative" envirornment is producing anything more than in 1990s. So we are agreed that now vs. 1990 has the same results. We are spending a lot less now then in the 90s. So less money has increased competition, and forced only people with the best ideas to be funded. We have the same results, and that extra money, which produced nothing extra, is now going elsewhere. Am I missing something important? We should be subsidizing research that adds nothing to science/medicine so that researchers don't feel like they are in a competitive field?

People at the top will always compete because of their desire to be the best, they don't need a grant competition for that.
Then why would you want to propose this system: "It's easy to imagine a scenario where everyone of a certain level of position gets a minimal amount of money regardless of what they do. Then have a smaller pot of huge money (your HHMI example) that more ambitious people compete for."

We should give the people who do the best work less money so that we can subsize researchers who dollar-for-dollar advance the field less? Isn't that just contributing to what you describe below as an mismanagement of massive funding increases in the 90s?

"We can't spend 100% of the budget on NIH so that everyone who graduates with a PhD gets their own lab. . . . For whatever reason, more people want to go into research than there is money to go around. . . "

Why not?
Come on. I love science too, but let's be real. We have to have roads and stoplights to get to the lab, don't we?


Stop handing out so many PhDs, for one. This is actually an unintended consequence of the mismanagement of the massive funding increases of the 90's. PhD programs multiplied and postdocs were brought in from all over, only to find when funding leveled off there were no jobs for these people. MSTP programs are universally trying to expand, then they scratch their heads when they find that less than half of their graduates stay in science.
Yes, this is a direct consequence of supply v. demand. There is an over-supply of PhD scientists compared to the demand (and I use NIH grant $ as a proxy for demand). Whenever that is the case, competition is increased, and only the strongest survive. Its not magic, this happens in every realm in a free-market-based society.


Agree that excellence in every field in our society requires competition, and I agree that is a good thing. But the degree of competition matters enormously, and the current degree is ridiculous.
I guess I am not really sure what you are getting at overall. I am sure we are basically in agreement, and I appreciate your discussion. I recognize that it is frustrating when qualified people are driven out of a field by competition because the demand just isn't enough to support them. But I disagree with some sentiments on this board that somehow this is unqiue to biomedical science and that it is inherently "unfair" to us. I mean 50% of all new restaurants fail within the first year, and I have eaten at some damn good new restaurants lately.
 

bd4727

10+ Year Member
Jul 17, 2008
361
26
USA
Status
Attending Physician
yes, basic science is really expensive, and there is a lot of crap out there, but clinical research doesn't really produce huge advancements, mostly just comparisons of treatment x with treatment y. it's still a tiny fraction of what we spend killing iraqis. and it's not like we get rich doing it. basic science md/phds take a massive (like 2x) pay cut compared to an md. phds would make more as the manager of a mcdonald's. if you really want to save some wasted money, stop paying farmers to NOT grow crops. drug companies take different risks on different projects. in theory they apply some basic science to a clinical problem, in practice they lobby politicians into making us pay for the erections of senior citizens. tenure was originally meant to protect people with unpopular opinions, like civil rights activists. peter duesberg doesn't believe hiv causes aids. tenure either protects his opinion, or it makes him a dangerous quack that african countries use when they don't want to spend money on an hiv program. tenured professors still have to be productive to compete for grants; no grants = no lab. anyway this thread has been hijacked.
Wow that made me dizzy ;)
 

malchik

New Member
10+ Year Member
7+ Year Member
Jul 19, 2006
413
12
Status
Resident [Any Field]
So we are agreed that now vs. 1990 has the same results. We are spending a lot less now then in the 90s. So less money has increased competition, and forced only people with the best ideas to be funded. We have the same results, and that extra money, which produced nothing extra, is now going elsewhere. Am I missing something important? We should be subsidizing research that adds nothing to science/medicine so that researchers don't feel like they are in a competitive field?
No, we are not spending a lot less than we were in the 90's. NIH budget 1999 was 18 billion. NIH budget 2008, 29 billion. We're spending the same amount on what I think is an inferior product, because of too much competition. The quantity of publications is up, at the expense of quality, reproducibility, and novelty.

My point is simply that some competition is good, too much is bad. There is a benefit to researchers not feeling too competitive. There is less BS science, less fraud, more risk-taking. Which is why I think tenure is a good thing, but only if I end up getting it.;)

You may feel differently about how great competition is later when you see a lot of very bright people forced out of a field AFTER they have put in a good chunk of their productive life training in it. The competition should be way stiffer at the entrance door to training, and way less at the PI level.
 
Last edited:

jherbert

10+ Year Member
Jan 8, 2008
21
0
Status
Pre-Medical
Just my two cents... In our lab, we have one MD/PhD student and two PhD students, and they work about nine or so hours a day, and come in for a few hours every few weekends. So it's definitely possible to have a normal social life. This may vary depending on the field, though (we work on cancer therapeutics).
 

CielloStelatto

Non-member
10+ Year Member
7+ Year Member
Mar 18, 2009
1,675
1
Status
My post-doc (wow that sounds possessive) works ~9-4 +- a few hours. Very rarely weekends.
 

Pepipanda

10+ Year Member
7+ Year Member
Dec 20, 2008
95
5
Status
MD/PhD Student
The MD/PhD students (and everyone else, really) in the BME lab I'm spending my summer in work 9-6 or so(I leave at 5, so I'm not sure when they all leave, but I get here at 9 and am usually the first one here), and I don't think they work weekends. Also, more than half of the people here are married, and almost all of the married ones have kids.