Yes, you can

Postdocs and graduate students working with me often act surprised when they ask me if “it would be OK” if they, um, were to, “be absent for a short time”, like, er, uh, maybe “two weeks at the very, very most”, and my answer to them is “sure, no problem, do you need to take more time ? Feel free to take three weeks, if you need to.”
What is wrong with me ? Do I not care if they work or not ? Would I just let them slack off indefinitely ?

Well, I do not know how far they would be able to push things with me, but, I suspect it would take a lot for me to get to the point of, say, summoning someone in my office to request that (s)he show up at the office regularly. Fundamentally, the idea is that “being there” and “working” are two separate concepts.

Clearly, the fact that my research group is engaged in theoretical, oops, sorry, computational research (nudge nudge, wink wink), makes my situation very different from that of a scientist running an experimental program. It is a simple fact that experiments can not be carried out at home, or in the office. Some parts thereof, like data analysis, or the design of an apparatus, may be doable remotely, but for the most part experiments and laboratories across all scientific disciplines require constant human presence and supervision. That inevitably poses restrictions and limitations on one’s ability to take time off, especially on short notice (that includes principal investigators as well).

But theoretical research can be carried out at home, in complete isolation, and in fact very often one’s home proves a better milieu to maintain the necessary concentration to write a piece of computer code, or go through a complicated calculation. Space limitations affecting most university campuses make it often necessary to cram graduate students and postdocs into offices shared among two, three, or even more of them. No matter how conscientious and respectful of other people’s space everyone is (and not everyone is), distractions inevitably abound.
I can see it for myself. If I am in my office at the university, an office which I do not share with anyone, and I keep my door open like most of us do, I am frequently interrupted by colleagues, students, secretaries, telephone… all of the people who look for me have legitimate reasons for doing so, of course… and even if sometimes all they want to do is, say, shoot the bull, hey, it’s OK, I do it to them too. I can have privacy if I wish, of course. I can lock the door, I can avoid answering if someone knocks, and I suppose I could switch the light off to make it look as if I am not there, but… at that point, why be there in the first place ?
Graduate students and postdocs have to focus on their research. If their physical presence is not required (e.g., courses, or meeting with their advisors), and if they can work from home, it is often the case that they can get more work done there than at the office [0].
This is only one of the many reasons why I am not getting any time soon in the business of telling anyone in my group to be at the office from 9 to 5, much less checking whether they are or not.

Students and postdocs working with me are typically the kind who come to the office regularly, but that is not because I tell them to, and it is not one of my top criteria, when it comes to evaluating their performance — in fact, it is arguably no criterion at all. Their bottom line is to get solid research work done, in order to build a credible research portfolio, most likely to propel them toward the professional places where they aspire to end up later on.
If they can achieve that goal by spending most of their time at home, more power to them; conversely, if they cannot complete a single piece of publishable research work while under my supervision, the fact that they have shown up at the office regularly will make little difference. My letter of recommendation on their behalf will be based largely, if not quite exclusively, on the quality of research work that they have been able to carry out.
I assume that people working with me understand all of the above, which is why if they come and ask me for permission to take time off [1], I just say yes. Even if they do so at a juncture where their presence might be recommended (e.g., a prominent scientist is visiting our university, to whom they might be interested in talking), I just assume that they have compelling reasons for taking time off, or they would not.

But does all of the above mean that graduate student or postdocs working with me can just stay home all the time ? Can their interaction with me amount to regular (say, weekly) remote conversations and e-mail messages ? I think that that would be a mistake on their part, even though I shall not oppose their decision to do so, if that is what works best for them.
I do believe that the interaction with fellow postdocs and graduate students, as well as with scientists other than one’s direct supervisor, is a very important part of the experience of a postdoc or graduate student, and that is only made possible by regularly spending a significant portion of the day at the place where everyone else is.

A university is a tremendous resource for a young aspiring scientist. Not to have any interaction whatsoever with, for instance, other scientists engaged in similar research, who could serve as one’s professional references later on, is tantamount to wasting an opportunity.
It is in the best interest of a postdoc or graduate student to attend, for example, weekly group meetings, as well as departmental focused seminars and colloquia. Not only will all of this generally be useful in practical terms, i.e., positively affect one’s work by providing ideas for research projects, and even valuable suggestions to overcome specific technical problems that they may be facing in their own research; perhaps more crucially, it will allow his/her supervisor to form an opinion on their overall scientific knowledge, and their ability to interact with others, and participate fruitfully to a scientific discussion, e.g., based on the questions that they ask at seminars, or the comments that they make.

And yes, there is a social aspect as well. It is my experience that being part of a group, a department, in which there is some interaction at the social level (e.g., a bi-weekly group lunch meeting) tends to make for a better overall experience, not only from the personal but also the overall educational and training standpoints.


[0] Students engaged in computational research, requiring regular access to large-scale computing facilities (often off-campus), can do virtually everything they need to do from home, if they have internet access — which most people do, these days.

[1] Time off is never really such anyway. Even while away, my graduate students and postdocs come online to check their jobs or call me to discuss research — again, not because I expect or tell them to, they just do it. Countless conversations with colleagues of mine have led me to believe that this behaviour is actually the norm, not an exception.

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8 Responses to “Yes, you can”

  1. Schlupp Says:

    “Countless conversations with colleagues of mine have led me to believe that this behaviour is actually the norm, not an exception.”

    This is clearly wrong: You are writing about Academia and EVERYONE KNOWS that the people working there are a bunch of slackers who only work the bare minimum and show no initiative AT ALL. Really……

  2. Massimo Says:

    Damn, Schlupp, were you not supposed to be traveling somewhere ? And here I thought I would get away with such a ridiculous lie… what was I thinking… OK, fine, let me go back to my internet surfing…

  3. Phelippe Says:

    Massimo, I agree with you. I’m a grad student on computational physics, and I usually stay at home at least one day a week. Saves me over an hour in commuting time, part of which I can use for a siesta. Also, I share my office with 7 other grad students, and the number of buddys and girlfriends dropping by the office is ridiculous. It’s a work place for pete’s sake!
    Another thing is, at my current institution the school of physics is spread over four buildings. Even though there is a staff tea everyday, grad students are not encouraged to meet regularly. In the end one interacts with people in their own group, but have no clue what the guys next door are doing. Not very good for me, but that’s the system here.
    In my previous institution, even the experimental grad students started disappearing from the department, to the point that the head had to write a letter to everyone reminding them that the scholarships were not totally free of obligations, and of the consequences to one’s career if they didn’t get enough work done. I wasn’t there anymore at the time, but i wonder what took the students to give the department this impression.

  4. transientreporter Says:

    But theoretical research can be carried out at home, in complete isolation, and in fact very often one’s home proves a better milieu to maintain the necessary concentration to write a piece of computer code, or go through a complicated calculation.
    Somebody doesn’t have kids…

    Interactions are also important to get you excited about the research again – especially when things are not working. Another reason to be attending conferences.

  5. Cath@VWXYNot? Says:


    Field-specific cultures etc etc etc blah blah blah, you’ve heard this all before from me!

    Cath, chained to her desk…

  6. JaneB Says:

    But I do let my mainly lab based lot set their hours – SeniorStudent works broadly ‘normal’ days, between 8 am and 6 pm, OverseasStudent works an odd hodgepodge of hours often starting at 3 pm and going home at midnight… as long as they produce a decent amount of work in a month, and follow health and safety rules (e.g. when using very-nasty-chemical there should be at least one other person trained in what to do if it spills in the lab with you, to help deal with an accident), and turn up at lab meeting every few weeks, it’s up to them to construct a schedule that works for them (yeah, field specific in that we pretty much work on our own stuff, a ‘big experiment’ might requrie 2 or 3 people for a few hours, but there’s no mass scheduling issues. And yet other people in the same field insist that everyone must be in between say 9 and 5, evey day, or they aren’t working hard enough – there’s a difference between being in and working!

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