A short essay on Koechner’s Criterion and its relationship to success in Grad School

During a layover at DFW airport, I opened Twitter to find a lively discussion spurred on by Terry McGlynn, @hormiga, who (and I paraphrase) encouraged grad students to seek mentors who encouraged living normal lives, using the specific example that Saturday work days should not be mandatory.

The thread quickly expanded into one about work/life balance in academia, many of the arguments and counterarguments (in the form of tweets and counter-tweets) appeared to hang on definitions both of success and what “normal” looks like or should look like in a better world. All of it had the subtext that bubbles under many such discussions—“Am I working hard enough?”. In my experience, there are few more troubling questions to an academic scientist, or any creative person.

I dedicated a blog to this and related subjects in the (my gawd) late 2000’s called “Getting Things Done in Academia” (rebranded “Survive and Thrive in Grad School”) that is moribund but still out there, and hopefully moderately useful.

So there I was, sitting in the airport, waiting for my flight to OKC, and reading tweets and counter-tweets on an important subject that I obsess about. What was I to do?  I tweeted the longest thread of my TwitterCareer, I think. Three whole tweets. I started with the proviso that Twitter is a mixed bag for holding such discussions (Boy Howdy, nothing like leading with understatement). Then, because I found it an intense distillation of one view, I quoted EO Wilson’s comment from Advice to a Young Scientist, that said for a real scientist, every vacation should be a “working vacation”. I ended with my thoughts on that key question “How hard should I work as a grad student/academic?”.

I thought I’d add a few observations. In the spirit of Twitter, they will not be organized into a coherent whole ;-). I suppose I could blast out a thread, but it is easier to get some thoughts down in one place, as a blogpost, and link to them. (I wonder if such a stratagem, once things get hot, might be a productive way to carry on the discussion. As good as Twitter is for starting a discussion, I would rather read one continuous argument).

Assumptions and Definitions

1) The best definition of a successful life, that I’ve yet heard at least, is from the comedian David Koechner, @DavidKoechner, who said

“If you are doing what you love and have someone to share it with, congratulations, you are a winner.

I think this should be called Koechner’s Criterion. I mean, does it set up a discussion of work-life balance, or what?

2) Scientists are scientists because they are intensely curious about how Nature works, and want to discover new stuff and share those discoveries with others, particularly those that are curious about the same stuff. The most successful scientists, however we define them, do this discovery/sharing stuff more and better than others. They also have a higher probability of getting jobs where they are paid to do science.

3) We live in a stochastic universe where sheer dumb random luck can be important and bad luck is rampant.

4) There are skills,  mental attitudes, and societal tweeks that, once achieved, improve our chance of being successful.

5) We spend much of our lives pursuing 1, desiring 2 as part of 1, fearing 3, and seeking 4.


1) There are as many formulae to being a scientist (or artist, teacher, craftsperson) as there are people. But I think that all routes to mastery include a passion for the subject, an aptitude for it, and a desire to create the opportunities that will allow one to develop and prosper. For many people, this leads to a more or less single-minded devotion early in their careers to master a difficult task. However, the diversity of humankind guarantees that there are other folks whose sheer brilliance will allow them to succeed without breaking a sweat. There are still others who are amazingly effective, doing a lot with less time, because of, not in spite of, their strong relationships. Against that diversity of approaches all are judged by a common outcome: the discovery of new things and sharing them with an interested audience.

2) There are also a lot of ways folks decide to share their lives together (including living alone), and the best institutions honor that variety. Family leave, maternity leave, equal pay for equal work, are all hallmarks of a civilized society, in no small part because they help each person fulfill their potential.

3) The happiest biology departments I know find a way of of making steady progress toward maximizing Koechner’s Criterion for their faculty, post docs, staff, and students.

Conclusions in the form of suggestions to Grad Students

1) A key task in a young scientist’s career is to find a mentor who is the best match for the way they seek to develop their career and maximize Koechner’s Criterion. The single best way to find that match is to talk to the graduate students and post docs of possible mentors.

2) It is an old, but true adage that its not just the time you put it, but how you use that time (i.e., working hard versus working smart). If you haven’t already done so, read these two books: The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey, and Getting Things Done by David Allen. Seven Habits focuses on the strategy of designing a creative life, GTD is about tactics. There’s work-life balance baked into both of them.

3) Unplug. Daydream. Daily. One key element of Zen Meditation is to calm the Monkey Mind. Twitter and Facebook are the Monkey Mind incarnate. Your best ideas will come to you when you release yourself from the data stream. That also means your best ideas will likely come to you on vacation, so don’t forget to bring a notebook.

4) One good way to center yourself and set your own expectations is to read memoirs of scientists. Sapolsky’s A Primate’s Memoir, Fortey’s Trilobite, and, of course, Jahren’s Lab Girl are all awesome and different.

5) I would be remiss if I didn’t conclude this essay by plugging EO Wilson’s Advice to a Young Scientist. Since when does one read an advice book in which you agree with everything in it? The book presents a series of chapters that have got a lot of discussion going  (one review). Find a new or used copy, or check it out from the library. Or start with Wilson’s Ted Talk on the subject.

2 Comments on “A short essay on Koechner’s Criterion and its relationship to success in Grad School

  1. Pingback: I’m not expecting unreasonable time commitments from other academics | Small Pond Science

  2. Pingback: Friday links: impost-R syndrome, RIP Axios Review, open access groceries, and more | Dynamic Ecology

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