Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Musings about work ethics and unstructured schedules

After a very though year, I decided to take it easy this summer, which got me thinking about work
ethics and the kind of role model I want to be for the lab. One of my goals as a Principal Investigator (PI) and manager is to promote a work environment where people can be productive and happy. It is a very tall order and after 18 years doing research in different labs and institutions my thinking on what is an appropriate work load for a scientist continues to evolve.

I have been in places that were so stressful you would find people break down and cry in the women's bathroom every afternoon; and I have been in places where nobody cared about your progress but yourself. I have been thinking for a long time about what makes people productive. I remember one night in grad school (around the time the infamous Mu-Ming Poo letter on work ethics was leaked), when a new PI came up to our lab at 8pm and asked us: "Why are you here? Your boss left at 4. Why can't I get my people to stay longer on their own?" We were kind of clueless...all we could tell him was that we were there because we had work to do. Whether our boss was there or not, it did not matter.

At the same time, the 12-14 hour workdays in grad school were only productive to a certain extent. I had friends who took lots of vacations and still managed to publish great papers, and I sometimes felt that working too hard was more counterproductive than anything. The exhaustion and the emotional drain would actually cloud my thinking. A post-doc friend down the hall blew me away with his philosophy (imagine an Australian accent): "You know, I only stay late when everything is working well. If something is not working, I just leave, even if it's 3pm, and come back the next day with a fresh mind". Ha, such a hedonistic concept, mate. But could he be right in some way?

I think at the end it depends on what motivates you and on the structure you want in your life. The beauty of lab-life is that it's flexible. As the single mother of a self-sufficient feline, I have no constraints on my time, but friends and colleagues with kids have come up with a multitude of strategies. My postdoc lab was a great place to have a baby, since my boss was incredibly supportive of family time. Some people would work very hard from 8am to 4pm, others would work 10 to 5 and come back at midnight once the little ones had gone to bed. The only pressure you had most of the time was the one you put on yourself and they all managed to be productive. I like that approach.

Last year I discussed my desire for making the lab a Result Only Work Environment, a place where schedules are self-regulated and where all that counts is producing results to meet specific deadlines. I clearly tell my people that they can come and leave when they want, as long as they get their work done and they let me know if they are not going to be around during work hours. Some senior investigators have warned me that I could get into trouble by letting technical staff dictate their hours, but it's a risk I'm willing to take. So far, I am the only lab on the floor where people are still there at 8pm. Sometimes they are stressed when I really need data for something, but most of the time I think (I hope) they are just there because they want to be. I always try my best to find the self-directed people during the interview process. I laughed when my lab peeps told me that, when asked by interviewees what my biggest pet-peeve is, they always answer "She gets really annoyed if you are not self-motivated"...and it's true. I think it's awesome that they lay down the law for me.

Vernazza (Cinque Terre) is just a couple of weeks away
Culture is better implemented when upper management provides the example and your lab may mostly be a reflection of the culture you set, but people in the lab have to embrace it. I don't really believe in work/life balance in academia, since I don't know any scientist who doesn't email at midnight. The first year of being a PI cured me of any expectations of ever having a reduced workload. However, I realized that, to survive this crazy ride, science has to be in harmony with your life. Some days I dream to take the afternoon off to catch up on the journal table of contents in peace, or plan a foreign vacation including a visit to one of the local scientific institutes because it would be fun. Other days I watch six hours of Orange is the New Black instead of working on a grant, or take a three hour lunch break to watch the World Cup. Call me crazy, but in the end it's all about enjoying what you do.

Note: A great post on burnout from blogger Psycgirl!


  1. Dr. Noncoding ArenayJune 25, 2014 at 11:22 AM

    I am a die-hard follower of the results-oriented work environment. I always followed that through grad school and postdoc (luckily both PIs were cool) and I think it yields the best results. I have a very decent publication record in leading journals in my sub-field and also obtained a predoc fellowship and other awards. Agreed, there might be more lax time in such a schedule than one would like, but on the other hand some of my colleagues who were proud that they came in early used to be browsing sports sites or fooling around for quite some time, which really beat the purpose of coming in early...I mean if you come in early to work it makes sense. If you do that just to feel good then you are only fooling yourself.

  2. Amen, Dr. Arenay! I think the ability to set you own schedule is such a treat.