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Friday, 22 December 2017 16:23

TWiV 471 Letters

Written by 
Published in Letters

Andy writes:

Hi Twiverinos,

As someone who recently received a PhD in microbiology and who often receives remarks from peers and PIs praising me for the sheer amount of work I have produced in my time in grad school, I could not disagree more strongly with the notion set forth by Jon Yewdell that you have to work insane hours to be successful. Not only do I find his claims lacking in scientific merit, as decades of psychology research show precisely the opposite of what he claims, but I find his general message absolutely toxic and detrimental to future scientists. PIs who put enormous pressure on their students and postdocs to work long hours, in my experience, are fast-tracking them for stress, anxiety, burnout, other mental health issues, and a quick career change!

My own experience aligns very well with recent and historical research on the relationship between productivity, creativity, motivation, and hours worked. I have spent, on average, about 3-6 hours per day doing very focused lab work. When I’m in the lab, I have a set plan, and I do not do anything other than perform my experiments. I also work on multiple projects (2-4) simultaneously, so that all downtime steps from one project are spent doing lab work for another project.

While there are certainly days that I have spent 10 hours in the lab, they are the exception. I do constantly read the scientific literature, but this is at most an hour or two a day, and on average is far less. Like Dickson says, I do have days where I am obsessed with something, and it occupies my thoughts all day (and night), but again this is the exception. I get 7-8 hours of sleep every day almost without fail.

While Yewdell claims that data showing diminishing returns from extra work hours may only apply to factory work, and not creative work, this flies in the face of the evidence. A famous example is Charles Darwin, who only spent an average of 4 hours per day doing focused work, despite being a prolific writer of more than 19 books, which obviously had extensive creative merit! This same trend is repeated throughout history and the research on this subject is summarized nicely in the book “Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less” by Alex Pang.

I think a key trait for being successful is not how long you work, but how smart you work. I find many PIs do not spend enough time thinking about the risk to reward ratio of different projects. If a project has high uncertainty or is even likely to fail, especially if it has only modest potential for reward, spending 70 hours per week working on it is a waste of time. Giving such a project to a new grad student or postdoc as their sole task is irresponsible and damaging, and yet I see it happen time and time again. Knowing when to cut your losses is very important! High risk/high reward projects are often very exciting and sometimes lead to important discoveries, but to focus exclusively on such a project is to gamble with your career and sanity. John Church summarized this nicely in an interview on reddit when asked about the factors critical for his lab’s extensive success. He cites the following: ” An environment in which we can fail fast, analyze and try again. Teams of 3 people. Two projects per person, one full of passion and risk, a second which is safer — not due to mediocrity but due to maturity of the project. Aim for radically open sharing and radical cost reduction.”

Finally, I also find the workaholic mentality espoused by Yewdell to be implicitly tinged with sexism. If you’re putting in 60-70 hour work weeks to get an edge on your competitors while also having a family, this presupposes that you are delegating a lot of your home and family responsibilities to someone else. I find it unsurprising that it is a male scientist suggesting this, and I imagine this idea does nothing useful to help encourage prospective female scientists, though I’d love to hear what others think (especially those without a Y chromosome)!

If you’re curious, in my 4.5 years in the lab, I’ve written 5 first author papers, and am working on or finishing up another 3. I’d be amazed if I work more than 40 hours a week. So yes, you can have a life, a family, and other hobbies and interests and be a successful researcher! My advice: don’t worry about how much you’re working, but instead focus on doing cool and interesting science! The best source of motivation comes from your own passion within, not by comparing yourself to other people!

It’s 80F here in Arizona. I’m still wearing a t-shirt and waiting to remember what cold weather is like!

P.S. Thank you all so much for everything you do! I love your podcasts, and I have gotten many other students, grad students, postdocs, and PIs listening!



Brandon writes:

Hello TWiV,

My name is Brandon, and I am from Fresno, California. I am also a sophomore in community college. As of a few days ago, I have applied to transfer to a four-year university. I’m hoping for the University of California in San Diego or the University of California in Berkeley (but, who knows, I may end up at Davis)!

In my first semester of community college, my cell biology professor, Dr. Stephanie Coffman, introduced my class and I to your podcasts! And I’m very grateful for that; I’ve learned a lot from your podcasts, especially about the world of academia!

Now, it’s time to get to my question because I could talk forever. Since your recent TWiV episodes have been accentuating the dismal nature of academia, I’ve been rethinking my education and career aspirations. For awhile now, I’ve been premed and have been taking the appropriate prerequisites. But after getting involved in a couple student research projects and listening to TWiV, I’ve seriously began to contemplate obtaining a PhD and going into research, in hopes of becoming a PI.

Essentially, I would love to hear everyone’s thoughts on MD vs. PhD.

Also, could you all elaborate on why academic journals are so expensive? To me, it appears that charging the public for scientific knowledge is criminal; Knowledge should be free and open to everyone! Also, who decided to give Nature and Cell a monopoly!

And one last question, if you all don’t mind. I self-identify as gay, and I am wondering what the political climate is like in science. Do you guys (and girls) work with many openly gay professionals? Is science a safe career to be open about your sexual orientation?

P.S.: I am a first generation college student, so, more or less, college is extremely enigmatic to me. Therefore, this is me trying to figure it out because my parents don’t even know what a Bachelor’s degree is. Thank you for reading this long and convoluted email!

Warm regards,


(a kid who loves science but has a passion for writing and has no idea what he would like to do with his life)


Kimberly writes:

Dear TWIV crew,

Writing from San Diego where the weather is a clear but “frigid” 13 degrees C (57 degrees F). Humidity 72%.

Is/are there reason(s) for influenza activity being so high in Louisiana at the moment?

Always love the show and how most excellently vaccines are supported.


Kimberly Sprague MD

Children’s Medical Group


Mikhail writes:

Hello TWiV crew,

it is my second time writing to TWiV. I am a regular listener, subscriber, and a patron. It is time to start participating in the book giveaways. Also, here are my $0.02 regarding few topics covered in recent episodes.

Borsch is a traditional Ukrainian and Russian soup that is not served cold. Instead, it is served hot, and is made of beef stock, cabbage, beets, potatoes, onions, carrots, and sometimes beans added. In Ukrainian tradition, it is served with “galushki” (small dumplings). In Russian cuisine, galushki are not necessary. But borsch is always served with the sour cream.

Cold beet soup that Amy referred to may be the cold beet soup, also called “svekolnik” (literally “from beets”). It is usually vegetarian, however ham may be added to the mix. It is a great dish for the hot summer day. Usually served with the sour cream as well.

The funding situation that was in the post-doc years of Dr. Yewdell and the current state of affairs are quite different. While I understand the talk about passion, love for science, 80 hour a week effort etc., these words are hardly compelling for someone whose salary is not sufficient to support a family. I am not even talking about the challenges that foreign post-docs are facing – from cultural shock to the power over a postdoc that H1B visa gives to the PI. Also, the idea to practically abandon your family in order to succeed in science is preposterous to me. I very much agree with Dr. Dove that current system has failed, and people who has power to change it are the ones that benefit from the current situation.

In the most recent episode, you discussed the letter from Raihan about the challenges he faces in his scientific career. I don’t like to talk about myself, but have to use my personal experience as an example. I was not ready for the intensity, competitiveness, pace of the scientific endeavor in the US. At some point, I had to admit that I am not suited to become a research faculty here. This actually was a liberating experience – I realized what I do best (teaching) and pursued this path. The result – I teach now at the community college and I love it. And there are always opportunities for small research collaborations if you really want them.

All in all, self-criticism and sober and honest self-evaluation are critically important for the timely career decisions. Not everyone is suited to be a scientist – and it is OK. Loving science is just not enough. There are components of luck, mentoring etc. that also play a role. For instance, I love running, but will never run marathon in under 3 hours. I still can enjoy it though.

Thank y’all for your podcasts – they are entertaining, thought-provoking, and help me to stay on top of the game (I teach mainly Microbiology).

With kind regards,

Mikhail “Mike” Khoretonenko, PhD

Assistant Professor

Department of Biology

Lakeland Community College


Scott writes:

Hello Again TWIV Team,

You may not remember, but I wrote in a year (from ago expressing my fandom and telling of my woes in trying to get into graduate school. I was very disheartened with the rejection I had received those months previous, but y’all gave wonderful words of encouragement and I’m happy to say that I am finishing my Ph.D applications as we speak. In all honesty, I was very close to resigning myself from the Ph.D hunt. I felt it was quite a tall feat, one which I had already ruined my chances of completing (primarily due to my low undergrad GPA). I have now been employed as a Research Microbiologist for for nearly two years and even run my own micro lab now. With this experience, along with some coding in R, my genomics experience, and my high MS GPA, I’m cautiously optimistic for my chances this round.

In my last email I explained that it was because of your podcasts that I decided to make the transition from genomics to virology. When writing I didn’t expect to get such warm advice and words of encouragement. I have been waiting for a good opportunity to write again and express my thanks, and I think this book opportunity fell at the right time to give me the kick I needed.

This email falls in with the myriad singing the praises of TWIV. It is a wonderful podcast and a true gift to science. You make virology more accessible than I would have thought possible, and I still tell everyone that will listen all about TWIV.

On a separate note, I really love the picks of the week. They are the primary way I get new talking points with which to annoy my wife (not because they aren’t interesting, but because I won’t shut up). I have read EO Wilson’s Letters to a Young Scientist, and think it was a fabulous book. It is not only pertinent to starting scientists, to answers Vincent’s question about its relevance. My favorite chapter of the book discusses the the categories of thought within which scientists typically find meaning. It’s truly fascinating.

I also have my own listener pick to add, it may have been mentioned already but a search of the TWIV page didn’t bring anything up so here it is: “Why Vaccines Matter” by Cynthia Gorney. It was featured in the November issue of National Geographic. I thought it was a very good piece that illustrates the issues that so many in first world countries seems to have forgotten. (link at the bottom)

If I was awarded a second listener pick (maybe to make up for the one I didn’t give last time) I would suggest The Song of the Dodo by David Quammen. I know Spillover was already suggested, but The Song of the Dodo was the first book I read of his, and I think it is a great book. The book is about community ecology, island biogeographic theory, and extinction events. I think these theories are very pertinent to virology and the study of human microbial flora, for each person acts as an island of isolated individuals with random interchanges of microbes from one island to another.

Thank you again for all of your hard work,

Scott D. Silvis

Senior Research Scientist I


Columbus, GA 31907

Last modified on Friday, 22 December 2017 16:26
Vincent Racaniello

Vincent Racaniello, Ph.D. is Professor of Microbiology at Columbia University Medical Center. As principal investigator of his laboratory, he oversees the research that is carried out by Ph.D. students and postdoctoral fellows. He also teaches virology to graduate students, as well as medical, dental, and nursing students.

Vincent entered the world of social media in 2004 with virology blog, followed by This Week in Virology. Videocasts of lectures from his undergraduate virology course are on iTunes University and virology blog. You can find him on WikipediaTwitter, Facebook, and Instagram. His goal is to be Earth’s virology professor. In recognition of his contribution to microbiology education, he was awarded the Peter Wildy Prize for Microbiology Education by the Society for General Microbiology. His Wildy Lecture provides an overview of how he uses social media for science communication.




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