As well as an opportunity to relax, time away from the bench might bolster creativity, says Grigori Guitchounts.
Contributor Grigori Guitchounts
About a year after graduating from college, I interviewed for a lab technician position with a postdoc who was gearing up to start his own lab. Chatting in Cambridge’s hipster Area Four coffee shop on a disappointingly freezing March day, I was trying to assess what kind of lab environment I should expect. After all, a highly competitive top-notch institution such as his was notorious for producing overworked, stressed people. “I work about one hundred hours in the lab every week,” he said, “plus another twenty in the clinic. And I have a kid at home.” Noticing my incredulous expression, he added, “science does not wait.”
I couldn’t help but imagine all that this young scientist was missing out on. At the peak years of his ability to explore life, this man was spending every waking hour digging deeper and deeper into ever more esoteric areas of science, and the protruding belly and baggy eyes couldn’t hide that the hours were taking their toll. Clearly his schedule did not allow for anything resembling a work-life balance, which is typically taken to mean the moderation in time spent working that allows one to engage in leisure activities daily. Taking the time to engage in activities outside the lab might not be for everyone; some are happy to be doing experiments sunrise to sunset. But besides being a way to relax, leisure activities can often reset one’s mind and inspire. Taking a break from the lab can often be the extra push needed to complete a difficult task. More importantly, time away from the bench might bolster creativity, which is crucial to the progress of science. Why then is a work-life balance so elusive for scientists? Why do so many feel that in order to succeed, they must immerse themselves completely in experiments?
There is no doubt that the pressure on young scientists to produce results is as great as it’s ever been, making traditional work-life balance – limited daily hours in lab and regular days off – virtually impossible to achieve. And so if work-life balance is unrealistic, how does one manage to stay productive and inspired in the long run? Scientists must seek sources outside the lab to re-fuel and find creative energy, remembering that the mind needs replenishment as much as the body does. Those sources will inevitably be different for each person, but for everyone the common thread must be that inspiration will come from taking one’s mind off work.
The reality of doing science is that experiments need constant attention, with meticulously planned steps and numerous repetitions. Succeeding in science seems in part to rely on putting in the hours. After all, as Woody Allen famously said, 80 percent of life is just about showing up. But the paradox is that this un-balanced life is not a sustainable way to make scientific progress. The seemingly obvious way to get more work done is simply to work more. Despite scientists’ reputation for being smart and analytical, they commonly fail to recognize the diminishing returns of working more hours. Every one has a limit, but few are able to recognize theirs. There is no point spending all day in lab when nothing gets done past a certain hour. Similarly, it does not make sense to work 17-hour days if you will burn out after a few years. Overworking isn’t just an issue of burning out; focusing on one thing alone ultimately drains one of the creativity and inspiration that are critical to doing good work. Albert Einstein once said that the greatest scientists are artists as well. Some artists did their best work outside of their regular working context. Beethoven, for example, sought inspiration while far away from his piano, taking long strolls through the woods. If artists go to great lengths to find creativity, then scientists should too.
Perhaps if scientists are to achieve any balance whatsoever, it will only be apparent on longer timescales, with chunks of obsessive work punctuated by moments of decompression and relative freedom. It isn’t uncommon for a graduate student to essentially disappear from the lab for a few days after meeting a deadline or finishing a project (although this might be a luxury that some lab heads wouldn’t sanction). While this modus operandi has a touch of unhealthy binge-like behaviour, it might be one of the few ways to stay fulfilled and productive in the long term, especially for those who challenge themselves with learning new types of experiments.
In the necessary moments of freedom, one must seek peace and inspiration outside their expertise, whether through family activities, hobbies or travel. We must not forget to explore the world. After all, isn’t that why we’re scientists? And exploration shouldn’t be limited to scientists: lawyers, doctors, investors and others in stereotypically overworked positions must not forget to experience the world in their limited lifetimes.
One prescription for work-life balance will never capture every person’s experience. For some, working 120 hours per week is the best life they want to lead. For others, if 80 percent of everything is just showing up, then the remaining 20 must surely be spent going on long walks.
Grigori Guitchounts is a 2015 Boston Naturejobs Career Expo runner-up and a PhD candidate in neuroscience, studying mechanisms of visual perception in David Cox’s lab at Harvard University. Grigori spent the first ten years of his life in Moscow, Russia, and with the exception of a brief stint in Maryland, has been living in the Boston area since leaving Russia. He is happy that his lab is in close proximity to the music building, which he frequents to practice his fading piano skills. Grigori also enjoys writing about neuroscience on his blog at guitchounts.com. His life ambition is to one day finish Infinite Jest.