The Night Shift

January 8th, 2013


That is not a photo of a Best Buy on the last day of shopping before Christmas. It is the parking lot outside of the chemistry buildings at Caltech, on a Monday night, at 9 pm. Well, it’s not really a parking lot, either. It is a loading area where campus parking restrictions are not enforced after the close of business. There are no marked parking stalls, but every single space in which you could conceivably fit a car without blocking the path of traffic is taken.

At 9 pm. And this pretty much happens every night.

If the NSF ever finds itself looking for a simple way to communicate the value the public gets for each dollar that goes into fellowships and stipends for grad students, a photo of this parking lot might be as effective as any shot taken inside the labs.

16 Responses to “The Night Shift”

  1. Curious Wavefunction Says:

    I can see about eight cars in that photo. Were there more?

  2. Paul Says:

    I should’ve gone to the roof to get a wide shot. There were probably around 20.

  3. Chemjobber Says:

    A remarkable reminder of the sacrifices that grad students and postdocs (and not a few PIs) make to stay competitive in their fields.

  4. Ian Says:

    Don’t forget the parking lot in front of Noyes and the teaching labs. If you didn’t get your parking spot there by 6pm, you were SOL until 10 or so! I kind of miss it. Around here, it gets lonely after about 6.

  5. NSF boss Says:

    if the students/postdocs can afford cars then surely we aren’t getting enough ‘value’ (I like to call it ‘blood’ or sometimes, ‘meat’) for our money?

  6. Reverend J Says:

    All I see is the law of diminishing returns, how many people there are producing quality work? I remember working late night at grad school and how it was like trying to think with a brain full of molasses, I stopped after I realized I wasn’t getting anything done. I think they’re better off getting a good night’s sleep and working with a clear head the next day.

  7. bad wolf Says:

    I think you should pass this along to Scott Kern:

  8. eugene Says:

    I worked the night shift regularly for a while after it turned out that the guy in the fume hood next to me was toxic for me. Instead of causing a scene, I just started coming when he left. I switched back to day shift when he quit as soon as I could adjust my internal clock.

    Maybe those workers are just night people for whatever reason. Doesn’t mean they work more. Plus, there is a huge amount of free parking space in that lot by the standards of my current institution. Here, if ten more cars needed parking space in that lot, they would easily find it. That’s why most cars here have small dents and scratches on them actually.

  9. Chemjobber Says:

    bad wolf: +1.

  10. Ken Says:

    Eugene: +1

    Great reason to work the night shift when I was in school was increased access to equipment. Not waiting in line for a rotovap or an NMR were two big advantages over working a 8am to 8pm type shift.

  11. Special Guest Lecturer Says:

    I worked the night shift often in graduate school and discourage it if at all possible. I think it’s a good way to fool yourself into thinking you are working hard, it’s unsafe, and it limits your interactions with fellow scientists.

    A student of mine tried to defend the nocturnal schedule. I said, “So, you will work Monday night, Tuesday night, Wednesday night, Thursday night… but what about Friday night?” He immediately realized that the nocturnal schedule actually robs you of a day of work (even if you plan on working 5 days instead of 6) unless you legitimately plan on working all night Friday or Sunday night as well (or both to work the equivalent of a 6 day/week schedule). I don’t know anyone on the nocturnal schedule who was legitimately more productive because of increased access to instruments. They were far more likely to be depressed and/or exhausted however.

  12. Lyle Langley Says:

    Excellent point Eugene. The great graduate student fallacy – I’m here late a night, thus I’m working “hard”. Most of those probably did not get in until noon – and then wasted hours to make sure they are there late to make some point – kind of like this initial post. I would say check the early morning workers and you’ll see a bit more dedication – and probably people using their time more wisely.

  13. eugene Says:

    I think it was SGL who made that point, but I agree. I found myself less productive when I worked at night overall, even though I loved having instant access to the NMR and I’m incredibly alert until 2-3am. It was better than the alternative, since I didn’t bump into the black hole of negativity and hostility that was my co-worker, but it all became better when he left and I could go back to working during the day. I’m not an early morning person though. I prefer late morning to late afternoon.

  14. Unemon Says:

    This won’t convince the public, many of whom I find have a sardonic view of academics and higher degrees. Perhaps the best thing to do is just try to make more with less. Anyone who has gone through grad school knows how beautiful it can be. A few things that need to be preserved for future generations: funding for grad students/post-docs, jobs for PhDs, reverence for education outside the east and west coast.

  15. RB Woodweird Says:

    That is one good advertisement for getting a degree in something else.

  16. Lyle Langley Says:

    Unemon, I hope this doesn’t convince the public because it doesn’t say anything about the “dedication” of graduate students. Simply because the parking lot at a graduate school building is full at night proves nothing – regardless of what Mr. Bark is trying to prove. That is like saying those that work the 3rd shift are more dedicated than those working the 1st shift.

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