To be a top performer you need to be happy – something academics tend to forget.
Naturejobs journalism competition winner Elisa Lazzari
Scientists spend a lot of time trouble-shooting. Every day we work on our protocols, and if something doesn’t work, we try again and again, until we fix it. We keep track of all the factors and accurately measure all variables, to find the perfect combination of parameters that work. If there is one thing we can claim after getting a PhD, we’re definitely great at problem-solving. Can we also trouble-shoot our way out of the everlasting dilemma on how to find work/life balance?
Start asking yourself what would make your life better. What are the deal-breakers and what can you compromise on? Do you need to pick up your children from school every day? Or do you need lab-free weekends to play with your cover band? Would it be OK to have a full-time nanny? Do you need your dinner to be home-made pasta, or would a warmed-up burrito be just fine?
Make a list of what things are the most important and honestly work out what you can go without. Chances are that to have an academic position you’ll have to compromise on your personal time, just like other high-profile professionals. As scientists, we’re high-achievers by training, a double-edged sword that can put us at risk of feeling that we should be always completing more experiments, grants, and papers.
Something that isn’t talked about enough is how much brilliant scientists have to give up. In retrospect, some sacrifices seem a small price for a scientific breakthrough, but would you be willing to take that risk?
If your answer is ‘no,’ then the balance needs to be reached by modifying the other variable of the equation: your job. Eventually, it comes down to your happiness and well-being, so put aside any lurking feeling of failure or guilt and explore all of the possible options. You can have a successful out-of-academia job and a fulfilling life without ditching science. Ask around.
In any case, whether you leave academia or not, long hours are sometimes unavoidable. It can help to make sure you’re working smarter, not just harder. Keep track of how you manage your time. Define the tasks you should complete every day and double check what you achieved and how long it took you. There may be an activity that absorbs a lot of your time or distracts you, such as checking emails as they come in.
Another trick is to break down your project goals into discrete steps, like a to-do list. This will help you to plan reasonable deadlines and to assess the actual progress you’re making, and it’s always satisfying to scratch something off of your list. Lastly, make time to analyze your data, keep up with the literature, and think about your research. These are legitimate working activities, and must be treated as such, instead of squeezing them between your other work.
It is time to turn the computer off and give your cover band a call.
Elisa Lazzari is a postdoc at the Health Sciences department of the University of California, San Diego.
She balances her time between researching mechanisms of drug resistance in haematological malignancies, baking muffins, and reading (not always in this order).