Saturday, February 18, 2017

What is work/life balance in science?

There was a very lively discussion on Twitter today started by this tweet by Terry McGlynn @hormiga who has been a wonderful advocate for diversity in academia.
This opened up a discussion on how much academics work in different continents, but also whether a 40hr/week is actually feasible in US academia. I have never worked a 40hr/week in my life, as a grad student or a postdoc or a faculty member. Now that I have to manage people I have to take a very hard look at my productivity and my people's productivity, and I'm always wondering if I am being unfair in my expectations. The rub here is "How do you decide how much you are supposed to work?" This is not a trivial question and it is really critical at the faculty level.

I know students and postdocs think they work a lot. I thought I worked a lot then, but I had not idea of A LOT was until I started my faculty job. The work never ends. It's no longer "I have to finish this set of experiments" "I have to write this paper". There are mountains of work and deadlines and obligations that pile up. There are things I have to do now, things I can postpone to next month and things I can postpone to two months from now. As deadlines approach, tasks get reshuffled as necessary, so that there are things in my to-do list from 2015...not a priority, but still in the to-do list because at some point I would like to get to it, maybe next year. So everyone has to decide when to stop working and when to start again, how to set internal deadlines and when to press the pause button.

I have never fully understood the concept of work/life balance. My science is my life. I define myself as a scientist and everything I have ever done in my life has been for my science. I have moved countries and cities for my science and I will go wherever my scientific interests are nurtured, so work and life are not two separate things. I believe that a single handed focus, the ability to learn from one's mistakes and move forward, to never-ever give up are the keys to success. But what does success mean? Who sets the parameters of success?  My therapist as I was dealing with depression in graduate school used to say "You are too grandiose. Your expectations for yourself are too high and you are never going to be happy, if you don't revise them". Yet, aren't all scientists grandiose? Isn't one of the primary reasons that we do what we do the fact that we thing we are uniquely suited to solve our scientific problem of interest? And that this passion, this bottomless curiosity cannot be sated? This megalomaniac streak has pushed me to achieve things, I would not have otherwise achieved, and I have taken it as companion, but I have also learnt to tame it. Mostly gone are the days of emotional cutting on know, when you Pubmed the people in your cohort and see how much better they are publishing than you? It's a really good alternative to looking up old boyfriends on Facebook!

At any given time there will always be someone doing better than you, even if you are Bill Gates. So, the million dollar question is "What does success mean FOR ME?" I finally realized that this is a much more important question to ask than "What do people expect for me?" "What do I have to do to graduate? Get a job? Get tenure?" As a student and postdoc there was a sense that I had to measure up to others in my class/lab, but assistant professor is a very lonely job...unless you're in one of those places where they hire 3 people for 1 tenured-spot and you have to worry about besting the other 2.

So, what does success mean for me? I want my research to have an impact on people's lives in two domains: I want to significantly advance biomedical research and I want to train the next generation of scientists. This is why I stay in academic science. All I care about is my research program and my people. If you mess with my research program or my people, you will hear me roar. Tenure doesn't mean much to me because if I cannot pursue my research and I have to fire my people. I don't care about a stable job.

It took me a long time to divorce my thinking from the societal/academic expectations. Does this mean I do not play the game the way it's supposed to be played? No. Does this mean that I do not have a list of things to check off? Of course, I do. But the focus has shifted. The issue is not getting a glam paper at all costs, but actually continuing to do good science that impacts people's lives. When I veer off course and fall back into old mental tricks, I have to come back to what I really want.

What does this mean for you, or for my trainees? It means that you have to find what you want and they have to find what they want. Then it's not the issue of 40 or 60 or even 30hrs/week. But how we can coordinate what I want and what they want so that we move forward together. It is possible that individual wants may not fit with each other, but isn't that the issue in any job?

PS: Just to stress that my favored approach is an unstructured schedule which allows for lots of flexibility here is an old post on my philosophy and an even older one on running a Results Only Work Environment. Also I never advocate for ANYONE spending all their time in the lab. You have to spend however much time you want in the lab and however much time you want doing everything else that is important to YOU. While I was working this entire holiday weekend, I also went to the symphony, the movies, our for dinner with friends, shopping and out on a run...


  1. NewPI hi. I'm an academic and now in my 6th year as a PI. Your attitude towards this life scares me. As beautiful as science can be, I promise you, it's not as beautiful as a life lived freely, and without stress or burden.

    Ps. Anything that is from 2015 that is still on a list, should be removed. Honestly, nobody will notice.

    1. That's interesting. Why does it scare you? Are you worried for me? I think I'm doing my best to manage and try to keep the stress under control. Last year was hard and I had to develop strategies to cope better. As far as I can tell in any competitive high pressure career stress and burden are par for the course. I have friends in banking and law and pharma and they are working as hard or harder, but with the added burden that unless they are the boss, they have no control of their time or effort as deadlines are imposed by others often arbitrarily. I work because I want to and when I'm tired I rest. I would work as hard in any job, even if I left academia....I come from a very long line of workaholics, dating way back to my sharecropper great-grandfather.
      The 2015 item on the list is patient data analysis and nobody in my lab is able/willing to do it. I still want to know the answer, so at some point I'll get back to it or find someone to assign it to. I hate when I cannot give answers to families. The families notice. I have experiments from my PhD I still want to know the answer too....someday. :)

  2. Who ever said that "science" (= academic PI?) was "a normal 40-hour-per-week job"? Many jobs aren't -- being a PI, or a CSO or CEO in industry, or even a small business owner. OTOH, there are other jobs involving scientific research that are largely 9-to-5. So pick your poison....

    I resent those who are trying to remake "science" in ways that suit themselves in the name of "marginalized colleagues."

    1. While I completely agree that science is NOT a 40hr/week job and that one must enter into it knowingly. There are laboratories where there is an expectation that there will be no God other than the lab. When I was an undergrad we were forbidden to leave before a certain hour even if we were done with experiments and the boss would do spot checks on Saturdays to make sure people were there. I routinely missed dinner at the main cafeteria, and my school agreed to transfer me from the dorm into a graduate apartment so that I could eat...This is crazy! I almost dropped out of college. And this was in Europe, not the US. I had multiple friends through the years work in similar situations and leave the lab. The attitude is particularly hard on women and POCs who think there is no other way. I was very lucky for my PhD and postdoc to have mentors both male and female that combined exceptional devotion to their research as much as to their families and if necessary came up with creative solutions to make it all work as well as it could.
      The point I was trying to make is that the definition of success can vary. You may choose to teach at a liberal arts college and run a great undergrad lab or you may work at a community college and really to your best to develop minorities in STEM. The success of those scientists is not less valid...students are often not told that. :)

  3. Luminiferous AetherFebruary 20, 2017 at 1:48 PM

    I don't mean to say this in a snarky way at all, but I think if/when you have a significant other, family, etc, your priorities might change. As you know, I am a new PI. But I really haven't drank the kool aid about academic expectations. I have three simple goals: 1) do and publish the best science that I can 2) submit the best grant proposals that I can and 3) go back home to spend some quality time with my wife. One year into my first faculty position, we are doing very good work, we have three separate projects that are progressing well, and we are writing our first two manuscripts already. I feel happy and satisfied when I go home everyday. So far so good.

    On that note, I also think that worrying about trainees' time is pointless. I have seen enough time-based shenanigans. From day 1, I made it explicitly clear to my trainees that I don't care how much time they spend in the lab, but I will track their progress based on their projects' progress. They work on their own schedules and once a week during lab meeting they have to update me on their progress. I find that after one year, they are doing quite well and also seem to be happy in general. Win-win for everyone. Could I squeeze more out of myself and my trainees? Sure. But I am not going to unless I have a very compelling need to do so.

    1. Definitely! The first thing I tell the people in my lab is that I do not care when they show up as long as they are productive. My issue is how to handle the non-productive ones and figure out why they are not productive and what can be done to fix that. I had to fire some people for this reason. Some people do no handle the lack of structure well and they need to be guided more closely, which becomes a problem when I'm busy writing. It's always a balance.
      As far as priorities, I know things may change, but I have to focus on my happiness right now. I never wanted to give the impression that I don't do lots of things outside of lab and that I do not tend to the activities that nourish me as a person. This said, I never had a role model who worked 9-5. My dad worked 12hrs a day and his parents also worked all the time...the question my grandma asked me when I left for the US was "Is this what you need to do for your job?" I said yes and she just said "Well, then, that's what you need to do." I should come up with some kind of genetic test for the workaholic gene...I would work as much as I work no matter what job I do. I do not expect my people to work as much as I do, but I do expect them to be as productive as they can.

  4. Spot on, New PI
    This blog's best post ever.

  5. I agree with you that you have to make it work for you, and no one else. I also run a results-oriented lab where I make no specific demands on my group members' time (just expectations of progress). I find this makes for a much better lab environment.

    One way to maximize time spent outside of work is to actually work when you are physically at work. Almost none of the people who claim they are working 80 hours per week are actually doing work for that amount of time, though they may be physically present. That actually only gives you 88 hours per week (12.5 per day) to commute, eat, sleep, shop, pay bills, and do the chores of life, let alone enjoy anything outside of work. When I was finishing up my PhD and had to work hours like that for a few weeks, my partner shopped for me, did my laundry, brought me my mail, brought meals for me, and took care of most of life's details, because I had literally no time for it. It is not sustainable (without a stay at home partner, I guess).

    Outside of crunch time, I don't work with living things, so I have pretty much always been able to set up my schedule so that I don't need to routinely come into the lab on the weekends (true as a grad student, postdoc, and now professor). I do work at home on weekends on writing, my teaching, analysis, etc. But no lab work, and I have always been productive. It is definitely possible to set things up to help you maintain your outside life, and the freedom in scheduling of academia works well for this.

  6. Just wanted to say that you're not the only one who stalks their contemporaries on Pubmed and then feels like crap about it afterwards!

  7. As a graduate student, I also genuinely did not understand the "life-work" balance concept. I found it puzzling when people would tell me that I "had no life", since I felt that I had a very exciting life of "24-7" science/lab. I am not ashamed to say that I literally had no hobbies outside of lab, unless you count occasional drinking binges as a hobby.

    Then as a postdoc, I had children and that philosophy became unsustainable. Not because I internally became less of a workaholic, but because someone had to take care of them and I couldn't just dump it all on my partner. Now as a 5th year PI, I "work" essentially from the moment I wake up to the moment I go to bed, but only 40-50 hours/week of it are lab-related work. The rest is work to make sure my children are alive and fed and semi-clean and at least somewhat well-adjusted. So the stress, uncertainly and the overwhelming work load of academia has to be carried alongside the anxiety and the work load of raising children.

    So my point is that when you are a tenure track PI (or a trainee) and have dependents, it may not be so much a "choice" to work 40 hours a week, but a necessity. Especially if you are a woman, as I am. I say especially a woman, because whether society likes to admit this or not, mothers ON AVERAGE tend to be more intensely invested into their offspring. When you mentioned that your father worked 12 hour days and others in your family did too, who was taking care of the next generation of workaholics? So when we look down upon 40-50 hours a week as insufficient effort in science, we are effectively excluding women with children, or at least women with children and with a healthy maternal instinct.

    Should we care that we are pushing mothers of young children out of academia via the workaholic standards? I don't know. But this reality certainly supports the diversity argument of the work-life balance debate. And I personally resent those who idolize those standards at the expense of increasing diversity.

    Don't get me wrong. I have been obsessed with science like any good academic should be, and there are days when I wish for nothing more than spending 12 uninterrupted hours at the bench or my computer. But I simply cannot do that at this point in my life. I imagine others in my situation feel the same. If you have all the time in the world, work as much as you like. But my fellow scientists, please don't make my already barely functioning life harder by undermining the work-life balance idea. In the case of PIs like me, it's less about "finding a balance" and more about "maintaining sanity and not dropping dead from exhaustion".

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