0 comment Monday, July 7, 2014 | admin
I was having an interesting discussion the other day with a friend (over beers of course) about why we're in science.GrAdvisor is fond of saying, "Nobody gets into this field for the money."He's right, but he's also in a position where it's pretty easy to say that money doesn't matter. He's a well-established tenured PI who owns a very nice house and a very nice car and makes enough to continue living this rather comfortable lifestyle. Not to mention that his salary is secure.It's a different view from where my friend and I are at. We both really love doing science (or we wouldn't be here), but it's not so easy to be flippant about the pay. I'm starting to get kind of anxious about the next few years as a post-doc. It will certainly be a pay raise from my student stipend, but most or all of that increase will go towards paying off my (rather sizable) student loans. Our stipends here are under the estimated cost of living and I have no savings as a result. This doesn't keep me from wanting to continue in science, it just makes it pragmatically more difficult. I worry about how this is going to impact my future career (will I be able to afford to move to a new position? will I have the financial freedom to take a job that I like better over one that offers a higher salary?), and my life (like will I by able to buy a house before I'm 50? will I be able to save for retirement or will I have to work til I'm dead?), and just general stability (pre-tenure there's really not much in the way of job security - without any savings I can't afford a gap in employment).My friend just started a new post-doc. She's loving it. Her new PI is the polar opposite of the former one, and the difference in management styles and people skills has had a marked impact on her happiness in the lab and most importantly her motivation. We were talking about how some PIs subscribe to the idea of competitive motivation - let people compete within the lab and you will encourage better faster work by offering authorship to the one who gets the results first. I've seen this backfire. Sometimes it results in fraud. Sure, falsifying data is a decision that the individual makes and that individual should be held accountable, but it just doesn't make any sense to me to foster an environment where falsification might appear to be a valid option. PIs who employ this "competition" management technique seem to believe that they are incentivizing hard work. That might work for some people (probably those that "win" the race), but what about those who lose? Seems to me that if you pit three post-docs against one another in a race for data, you're establishing a gamesmanship dynamic. Personally, I'm not interested in playing under those conditions and I suspect I'm not alone.Other incentivizing techniques I've seen are less carrot and more stick. "If you don't get this paper/fellowship application/data set submitted by [arbitrary deadline] I won't let you attend conference/keep your job." Now, sometimes those are just the real life constraints and when that's the case them's the breaks, but I've also seen examples of people employing these kinds of threats just because they think it will make their trainees work harder.It's these sorts that make me want to beat them over their heads with a clue-by-four. Most of us are not here because we're offered awesome material rewards - if that's what we wanted we wouldn't be doing trained monkey tasks for peanuts. We're here in the lab because we're curious. We want to figure things out. We want to make a career of figuring things out, so we're willing to make material sacrifices now to give ourselves the best possible chance of letting that happen in the future. In short, we're intrinsically motivated. Which is why sticks don't work any better than a competition for carrots. Personally, I find it rather insulting if someone implies that I'm not working hard enough, and even more insulting if they believe that chasing me around will make me want to work harder. I'm not a donkey. I'm too smart to be happy being a pack animal. I like to work for and with people who get this and who appreciate that this is why I'm here. If those people want to throw me a carrot from time to time I certainly won't complain. But I'm doing this job for myself, my future, and my own curiosity, not for the peanuts, the cookies or the carrots, or to escape punishiment.I think that this video sums it all up rather nicely. Have a look - you won't be sorry.Dan Pink makes the point that the best way to motivate people who perform creative problem-solving tasks under poorly defined or unknown rules towards a non-specified outcome (gee, sound like experimentation at all?) is to foster autonomy, mastery of skills, and a sense of purpose. This is in stark contrast to what motivates people to perform well on mechanical (non-thinking) tasks with narrowly defined rules towards a "right answer" type of outcome. Carrots and sticks work rather well in those cases, but very little of what we do actually centers on these kinds of tasks. This is all backed up by robust empirical data. (Squeee! Data!) I think it's something that most of us "know" intrinsically, but when so much of our managerial experience (from either the manager's or the managee's position) relies on the carrot-and-stick model it's hard for people to break out of the pattern.It's also worth noting that relying on intrinsic motivators to inspire good work requires that the conventional extrinsic motivators (like pay) be "taken off the table". This does not mean that we shouldn't worry about paying people. It means that the people we're paying should adequately and fairly compensated for their work. If you are paid fairly and adequately then you're not spending your time worrying about making the rent or competing for the next big bonus, and you can focus that time and energy on (wait for it...) YOUR SCIENCE. Not only that, but once you're relieved of those pesky distractions like crap/unequal/unfair pay and inane competitions for worthless payoffs and pacifying the makers of obtuse demands or else!...you're more likely produce some really pretty good and innovative science.Revolutionary!