Achieving work/life balance comes hand-in-hand with understanding yourself and your identity as a researcher, says Justin Chen.
Contributor Justin Chen
During my third year at MIT, I began playing basketball with a small group of graduate students. The weekly games, casual and sloppy, were a chance to talk and catch up. During a break, a friend confessed that he felt guilty for spending a few hours away from lab. “But then I tell myself exercise is good for my research,” he said. “It clears my mind and helps me focus.” I had heard similar justifications for having hobbies and found them puzzling. “What about saying that exercise is good for you?” I asked. To what extent can we separate our personal identity (or a comprehensive view of who we are) from our research? I joked, “soon you’ll be saying eating is good for my productivity or breathing is good for my research.”
The question of identity is linked to the issue of work-life balance. Most of us have a broad identity consisting of several things like mother, runner, writer, wife, daughter, baker, musician etc., but researchers usually have one identity: their job as a scientist. Among professions, science is unique in that some researchers choose their projects. As an undergraduate in a developmental biology lab, I was captivated by embryos. They were not much more than three layers of tissues flattened together in the pellucid shape of an animal. While looking under the microscope I began to wonder how a single cell becomes a complete animal and eventually applied to graduate school to find out. This decision, in one sense, freed me to follow a passion but in another way my research became a shadow or alter ego constantly trailing me.
For myself and many other scientists, this passion/shadow is not a frenzied, romantic feeling but a subtle compulsion that gathers momentum and takes hold of life. According to Whitehead fellow Silvia Rouskin, “when I start thinking about something, I always think about it. I think about it at home. It’s actually a problem of mine to go to sleep and stop thinking about it.” In research, there is always the ever-receding promise of the next experiment or small insight held in the unread paper, the urge to find out what happens next, the need to better describe something beautiful that draws scientists further into time.
Another source of compulsion is failure. It is a paradox that scientists, who are largely meticulous and high-achieving, choose a profession where success is rare. For biologists, two months of negative or inconclusive results are normal. More broadly, discoveries often require long periods of struggle. Andrew Wiles took 150 pages and seven years to prove Fermat’s Last theorem. After forty years of toil, physicists proved the existence of the Higgs Boson. During the slow grind of research, highly regarded hypotheses are grudgingly modified and then discarded. Technically challenging experiments go through cycles of precise, incremental adjustments. Scientists are often in two modes: either trouble shooting an experiment or feverishly collecting data before moving onto the next recalcitrant assay. Many researchers, feeling a general sense of inadequate progress, devote more time to lab.
On an individual level, work-life balance is possible when a scientist recognizes and addresses his/her compulsion (consisting of a passion for the project and a disdain for failure). However, researchers exist in the larger context of a laboratory and institution. These environments intensify the sense of compulsion already inherent in scientists and select for the few who fully identify with their projects. As Dennis Kim, associate professor of biology at MIT, told a work-life balance panel, “I have hobbies. I mean I definitely think that doing experiments is my hobby. It’s definitely the best.” Given the excess of postdocs applying for principal investigator positions, the researchers who stay in academia are usually those who don’t need another life outside the dense complexities of science. In this system, work-life balance may be sustainable for a few days or weeks at a time but it is not possible in the long run.
Justin Chen is one of the Naturejobs Career Expo journalism competition runner-up, and currently a graduate student at MIT, using frog embryos to study craniofacial development. Throughout his scientific career he has worked with frog, zebrafish, sea urchin, mouse and opossum embryos. To him, there is something mysterious and almost occult about how cells migrate and position themselves to form a complete organism. Outside of lab he enjoys running along the Charles River, listening to This American Life and reading short stories.