Take breaks to maintain manageable stress levels
Contributor Emily Porter
Is there a defined time and a place for science? Does science only happen at work and then you switch off when you leave the lab for the day? I don’t believe that for a second, and the majority of you will agree with me. There isn’t a distinct work/life balance for an academic researcher; science is a part of our lives, our passion for it defines who we are and we believe that we are honoured to have a career that allows us to feed our inquisitive nature and the need to solve problems.
There is no defined line between work and life for a scientist. Instead it is a series of intensities. Ranging from a 14 hour day working non-stop in the lab, to meeting with other academics and talking science, to chatting to someone at a party who asks what you do for a job, to discussing your day with your significant other, to total preoccupation with something else entirely.
The most important thing I learnt from my PhD is that it is ok to take a break. How can you expect to perform to your greatest potential if you are tired and stressed. In fact, my PI insisted that his students took time off. For me, this was sometimes as simple as finishing early on a Friday afternoon or taking an extended lunch break in the sun, or it could be a three week holiday planned for the summer. In between my PhD and my postdoc, I worked as a self-employed dog walker for a few months, giving me the chance to take a step back from science. The space this gave me made me realise that no other career was going to allow me the privilege of asking how and why on a regular basis.
That said, I have cancelled on friends as an experiment has taken longer than anticipated, I’ve missed out on pre-work gym sessions to get into the lab early. And it doesn’t end when you go home. You fall asleep dreaming of tasks you need to do tomorrow, or work until midnight to meet a deadline. This is fine, but you must have interests outside science too.
The ‘perfect’ work/life balance is dependent upon personality or personal drivers; some people thrive on working flat out, some work hard and play hard, whereas others take an overall more laid back approach to life. Understanding how you work contributes to a successful and happy work/life balance, for example, I am more than happy to work flat out when we have an important experiment running, but I often plan a treat for the weekend so I know that I will have time to unwind afterwards. Whatever your preferred work ethic, here are my top tips for staying sane and continuing to enjoy work without resenting it taking over your life:
- Have an escape; whether this be physical exercise, creative writing, scuba diving or playing tiddlywinks, you need something to help you unwind and release that pent up frustration that your experiment didn’t yield the results that you hoped it would
- Make a rule not to check emails after a certain time at night (unless you are writing your thesis – then you read and write emails to your supervisor at 1am)
- Figure out when you are most productive; my lab mate leaves at 4pm to ride her horse, then comes back at 6pm and continues to work for another couple of hours
Monitor your working hours and make sure that you generally don’t work more than a certain number of hours each week. No one can sustain a 60 hour week in the long term.
Often, work/life balance only becomes an issue once you find yourself becoming increasingly tired and stressed, so it is vital that you recognise the warning signs. It is not a sign of weakness to acknowledge that you need a time out, if anything it is the opposite. It shows that you are confident enough in your ability to be a successful researcher that you can begin to take control of the work/life balance on your terms.
Emily Porter is one of this years Naturejobs Career Expo journalism competition runner-up, and a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Bristol, working on on swine influenza virus. Her main focus is the virus-host relationship, but she also interested in gut microbiota in pigs. Outside the laboratory Emily enjoys training and competing for her local rowing club, experimenting (not always successfully) with new recipes in the kitchen and playing with her cat. Although a relative newbie to science communication, she has vowed to do a lot more from this point onwards, as she believes it is vital to try and remove the stigma that science is done behind closed doors.