Skip to main content

Graduate School


Stuart Cantrill’s blog pointed me to an online copy of this article, “Researchmanship”. I was given a copy of it from the (now defunct) ACS Chemtech in the 1980s, while I was in grad school, so it had a great effect on me. It recounts the techniques of one James J. Pudvin for getting through his degree program:

All professors expect a student to have an all-night session in the lab once in a while. Perhaps they feel that if they as students did so, the present generation should suffer in a like manner. Do not disappoint your professor! Pudvin “worked nights” at least twice a month, and his simulation of suffering was so successful that often his professor told him to “go home and get some sleep before you have an accident.” Pudvin’s approach, which is by no means the only one to take, was as follows.
In the afternoon Pudvin would announce his intention “to make a night of it.” He would sign up for the preparative GLC unit for the hours 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. (How else can I get 25g of starting material?”), and would decline all invitations to go to the movie, play bridge or pool etc., preferably when the professor was within hearing distance. When everyone was getting ready to go to supper, the professor included, Pudvin was seen carrying flasks, GLC receivers, syringes, coffee pot, radio and a green eyeshade to the GLC room. Next morning at 9.00 when the professor arrived, Pudvin would be found, haggard, pale, noticeably thinner, proudly displaying a 50 ml. flask of colourless liquid. “100% pure” he’d cheerfully tell the professor. After such concentrated devotion to duty it was not unexpected that Pudvin was not seen in the lab for the next two days.
Actually Pudvin’s nightly exertions were spent in strenuous, but pleasurable activities not related to chemistry in the remotest way. At 8.30 the previous evening he had left the laboratory, being careful to leave the lights on and a sign on the door (“BACK IN A MINUTE”. The radio played all night, and the coffee pot remained on “reheat” until Pudvin’s return at 8.00 a.m. The flask that he so proudly displayed was filled with 100% pure ethyl acetate.

Some of the advice is a bit outdated – waiting for the JACS to come back to the bindery, for example – but a lot of it is (for better or worse!) timeless.

27 comments on “Researchmanship”

  1. Anonymous says:

    This didn’t work for me. My thesis advisor told the lab that he wasn’t impressed when he saw people working late or coming in on weekends. He said it just told him that we weren’t focused enough to get our work done during the weekdays.

  2. Jacob says:

    I had a different problem with displaying my dedication in grad school. I lived at home and in the mornings I would take my mother to work. She liked to be in at 7 am, and as my school (which shall remain unnamed to protect the guilty) was only five minutes farther down the road, I was frequently at the lab by 7 or just slightly later (or slightly earlier depending on the traffic!). This was fine with me since I then taught the 8AM recitation and I could take the early morning NMR time slot and have three or four hours to run 13C or HSQC or whatnot.
    The problem was that my professor was a total lush and usually rolled into the lab after his hangover went away at 2:30 PM. By 2:30PM, I had been around for nearly 8 hours (or more) and I was done for the day and I would leave by 3 or 4 most days. My professor accused me of never being in the lab/never doing any work. So I started leaving a report on his desk every day. He still accused me of not working, and I asked him about the daily reports I was leaving him. He said “what reports?” And I pointed out the foot thick stack on his desk.
    He made group meetings at 6PM. I hated that.
    Needless to say, I left that lab after a year.

  3. Anon says:

    I was also in grad school when this came out–I remember it well! It brings back good memories, except I actually had to do a few overnight prep GC runs…

  4. John Wayne says:

    Ahh, those were the days. They weren’t necessarily good days, but I’ve got some amusing stories; I’ll share one today.
    I was running a large column (2 kg silica) and things went poorly. The requisite product came off way slower than I anticipated, and I ended up staying very late to get this stuff concentrated and into the -20 freezer before I went home (never turn your back on an aliphatic aldehyde.)
    Well after midnight my adviser, who was writing a grant renewal, burst into the lab in a cloud of printed articles with structures scribbled all over them. He walked up to the chalkboard, started frantically drawing a transformation and asked me, “What do you think of this?” We talked about this proposed reaction for a few minutes, then he looked around and asked, “Where is everybody?” I replied, “It’s two in the morning.” He looked startled, checked his watch, and said, “Why are you still here?” I pointed at the huge column; he continued, “My wife is going to kill me.”

  5. Anonymous says:

    Why is this insanity a phenomena within chemistry? I recently went to grad school in engineering and didn’t ever encounter the PI absurdity that gets posted ever so often on this blog. Hours were mostly 8-5. Every once in a while I would have to come in on the weekend for a few hours, and maybe once a year, had to stay late until 2 or 3 AM in the morning, but that’s about it. Virtually no one was in lab during the weekends in the entire building. Would be nice if the PIs were honest and told their students that all those hours, weekends, and holidays would yield nothing more than terrible job prospects.

  6. Anonymous says:

    @5 I agree! Even in industry, some managers have this mentality since I went through it my underlings will too, so they feel obligated to torture their chemists.
    I worked at one CRO and remember working 16 hour days for at least 5 days straight. It’s the nature of the business, but I was pressured to demonstrate my process and deliver. One night at 10pm an accident happened (I was there since 6am) and I went to the hospital. My boss came in to help my coworker finish the step until 2am. A month later I switched departments and then quit for a better job. I never regretted my decision to leave. No one should sacrifice health or family for a job PERIOD.

  7. Nick K says:

    I never managed to get to do the “strenuous but pleasurable” activities unrelated to Chemistry when I was in grad school, more’s the pity.

  8. a. nonymaus says:

    It’s also true that working harder can reduce productivity once you get haggard enough. See, for instance:

  9. Anonymous says:

    @5 no one is really going to talk about the time they went home at 5 o’clock and had a nice relaxing evening

  10. Anonymous says:

    @5 I don’t know about chemistry, but you can’t always set your schedule in biology. Sometimes you need to wait for you mice to get sick enough to finish an experiment or collect timepoints every however many minutes/hours.
    Also, I wish we were in an economy where people could sacrifice their job without worrying about their health or their family.

  11. Anonymous BMS Researcher says:

    My doctorate is in biology. One fellow grad student whose clothing and grooming standards were even worse than most grad students. He had to run an experiment all night; one of those take a reading every 30 minutes for 24 hours things, so he took a sleeping bag and alarm clock to the lab. Well, about 4AM a cleaner thought he was a homeless person and called the campus police who in turn called the professor to verify his claim to be running an experiment.
    I only slept in the biological sciences building a few times myself. Those were the days. I’ve never slept in any BMS building!

  12. E J Snorey says:

    A few things being missed – you should do research because you enjoy it so working long hours should not be a chore. If you don’t enjoy it, it will be tough no matter what hours you do and why would you? Second and more importantly, as a PhD student, you work for yourself, not your professor, and working hard to get results benefits you more than anyone else. That said, I worked with a bunch of people who did really long hours but spent most of it messing around and some who got far more done in shorter hours.

  13. London Chemist says:

    @1 I knew of a TA manager in the labs of a large US pharma in the SE of England (that closed a few years ago) who had the same attitude: he’d cycle in about 9-30 or 10 (and never shower–but that’s another story) and then look unfavourably on anybody who left before 6, even if they had been there (in one case) since 7…..Even to the point (hearsay, not proven) of marking them down in appraisals…..

  14. Old Timer says:

    @EJ Snorey: That’s how I always looked at it. Overnight is stupid, but long hours are necessary to meet the 10,000-hour-expert rating in fewer years!

  15. Anonymous says:

    @14 I don’t know, to me staying up late is a lot less unpleasant than having to get up early!
    I’m pretty sure that I have Delayed sleep phase disorder, since I feel terrible all day if I have to get up before noon.
    Good thing my PI doesn’t care about what time you come in. That’s probably why I’m doing OK in grad school; sure, the hours are long, but it’s way better than a 9-5 because the 9 part of that is completely untenable for me.

  16. Matt says:


  17. HFM says:

    Off topic, but @15: I was the same way, until I discovered the wonders of blue-light blocking glasses. (No, I don’t sell them! And yes, they are dorky as all get out, but they work.)
    I tried all manner of schemes to adapt to business hours, from Diet Coke by the liter, to polyphasic sleep (did for 5 years, then crashed spectacularly), to sleeping every other day. Now I wake up at 8 am without struggling.

  18. Hap says:

    Try having kids (if you’re of a mind to).
    It kind of interferes with the acquiring 10K hours of experience, though.

  19. Dylan says:

    @13 I think the pretty much universal rule in just about every work environment is that you’re supposed to get in 5 minutes before your boss and leave 5 minutes after (as long as that 5 minutes before is enough time to get settled in enough that it looks like you’ve been there for hours…)

  20. gippgig says:

    Off topic but may be of interest:
    Frontline on PBS (Tuesday at 10PM on channels 22 & 26 in Washington, D.C.; check your local TV listings)
    The spread of pathogens in chicken and why the food safety system has not stopped the threat.

  21. MTK says:

    @19, spot on.
    I didn’t learn the importance of “face time” til later but it is. Let’s face it, grad school is only partially about learning. A large part is to leave with a good recommendation, so perception is important.
    One thing not mentioned is that in my experience the correlation between hours worked and productivity was haphazard at best. The correlation between how early someone came to work and productivity however was pretty good. The early people were, as a whole, much more productive than the late arriving ones. I guess it’s just one of those “habits of successful people”. If you arrive early every day you probably have structure and discipline to you life that extends to your science.

  22. A Nonny Mouse says:

    Nick, that’s true but the vast amounts of alcohol that were consumed alleviated that (you did, as well, attend most of our parties even though you were supposed to be working in a different building).
    Only did one all-nighter when I had recently started a post-doc in the US and was not getting on well with the work. The supervisor came in at 9.30pm to ask how it was going and I was so pissed off that I stayed and got several things done overnight (including a mega scale LAH reaction!). He came in at 9am and asked the same question (as he always did) and I blew up, told him all I had done and, out of nowhere, I told him that we were doing it all wrong and drew an alternative process out on the board. He laughed at me and left.
    2 weeks later he came back to me and said “do you remember that route we were discussing?”…….. Six months later we completed the project that had taken about 5 years before that.

  23. Kent G. Budge says:

    Regrettably, my doctorate was in astronomy, and there was no pretending to be at the telescope while not actually being at the telescope. At the very least, you had a night assistant there, and usually at least one colleague and often the professor you would fain have impressed with your diligence.
    There was no hiding the yawns, and nodding off and overexposing the image was not smiled upon.

  24. Anonymous says:

    Got a PhD in biology and saw a lot of similarities. There was something “noble” about working nights and weekends in the eyes of the PIs. One night I was doing a furious night of writing and I was in the lab at 2am. The co-PI of the lab (who used to roll in a 4pm, go to dinner, then come back at 8pm and work all night) popped in, smiled and said in a cheery voice, “Glad to see you working. I’ll think you’re doing well.” He never said anything remotely as kind to me before or after during normal working hours.

  25. Anon says:

    @10 “Also, I wish we were in an economy where people could sacrifice their job without worrying about their health or their family.”
    I don’t mean to be blithe – you can’t always quit on a moments notice – but you gotta take care of you. No one else is responsible for you. Despite the economy, the position of Aries in Mars, or anything else. You.

  26. barney featherson says:

    My favorite quote from one of my less inspired colleagues in grad school:
    As he sits down for his morning coffee he utters “Ahh, Tuesday morning, another week shot to hell.”

  27. Semichemist says:

    These stories are really making me miss academia

Comments are closed.