Flexibility is the only viable way to remain competitive as a scientist while still juggling a life, says Igor Zlobine.
Contributor Igor Zlobine
Are we living to work, or are we working to live? I’m not certain as to how many scientists have delved deep into their souls to ask this question, but I think it’s pertinent that we all do.
Work/life balance, that mystical unicorn, remains an elusive goal for undergraduates, graduates, post-docs and professors alike. And as I am about to embark on a PhD, I’m thinking about how I can manage my time to make sure I stay relatively sane. I’ve heard too many horror stories about people half way through their PhD going for a “coffee break” never to be seen again.
For me, flexibility is the only viable way to remain competitive while still juggling a life. I’ve set hours for myself, centered approximately around a 9-5ish type of schedule (typically including some work at home on Sundays) but I break them if absolutely required, if for example we are finishing a paper, or when I was close to completing my thesis. We need to move away from the notion of “work” and “life” as two separate entities that exist in parallel universes never to interact with one another.
Our perception of time is a human-made creation. Each week is composed of 168 hours, no more, and no less. It is up to us how we decide to divide those hours. We are encouraged towards the idea that 8 hours of sleep is optimal, yet the average American only gets 6.9 hours a night, leaving us with only about 120 waking hours to play with. As with many hotly debated topics there are opposing schools of thought.
In the United States this type of schedule started in 1916 with the blessing of President Wilson. More than two decades later this 40-hour a week schedule became the legal standard, and is something scientists still strive for. Many commonly work double that amount, including Harvard entomologist E.O. Wilson, who claims to consistently work 80-hours a week.
Principle investigators don’t want to come across as slave-drivers, but often it’s inevitable. It seems that students are expected to work hours that are more-or-less similar to those the principle investigator sets for themselves. Take the example of Dr. Quiñones-Hinojosa, who’s a neurosurgeon at Johns Hopkins University. Students in his lab admit to working 20-hour “days”. This is not surprising as Dr. Quiñones-Hinojosa attests to having committed 140 hours a week (with 10-minute naps) during his time as a resident at the University of California, San Francisco.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology chemist Dr. Stephen Buchwald firmly believes that each lab member should take a yearly one month vacation, allowing his students a chance to recharge their batteries and plug themselves back into the world of academia. I make sure to allocate every Saturday to spend with my partner to take her on dates, and to see my friends. I also go on a vacation to a new country each year to explore the world outside of the cell culture hood and the smell of 70% ethanol.
Early on during my Master’s I would, at times, work in the lab up to midnight – although by that time I was a mindless zombie apt to waste my time by making enough mistakes to ruin the experiment anyway. To prevent this from happening to you (yes, I know you do it!), set non-negotiable boundaries for yourself in the lab. Keep your hours at the bench and in the lab flexible, but make certain cut-offs and boundaries for tasks that may interfere, such as the amount of conferences you participate in, seminars attended, or projects taken on.
It is not really work/life balance that we are after; in reality we’re after happiness. More often than not we will end up “working” more waking hours than doing anything else. Thus, we must truly love what we are doing. As cliché as it sounds, we only have one life to live, so why race to the finish line where our minds and bodies are reduced to dust- is this what we really want? I constantly remind myself of this, and remember not to rush through life always striving to work harder and faster without enjoying it. What’s left over after all this time and effort are our ideas, our accomplishments, and our legacy. It is up to each of us to decide how many hours we are willing to spend at the lab each week. It would be no good to end up on our death beds having wished we had not worked as hard.
Although it might feel like work/life balance is a mystical unicorn that we can only hope of seeing, it is possible if you remember to balance your work and private life so that your stress levels are minimised (you may find solace with exercise or reading a book) until you’ve found your own happiness and mastered this teeter-totter that we call life.
Igor Zlobine is a runner-up in the 2015 Boston Naturejobs Career Expo journalism competition who recently completed his Master’s degree in Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of Alberta. He will continue his studies as a PhD student at McGill University this coming Fall. During his time as a Master’s student he looked at the cell signaling mechanisms governing omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids. Although he is very passionate about academia, he hopes to gain more experience as a science writer as well. He enjoys balance in his life, so outside of the lab Igor plays tennis recreationally (he plays better if an experiment in the lab didn’t go as planned). He also took up snowboarding in the Rocky Mountains, and he enjoys watching documentaries on a wide variety of topics.