On Balance and Grad School

Aug 05 2010 Published by under Academia, Uncategorized

Sci noticed that Lab Spaces held a small carnival of sorts (or maybe it was synchro-blogging), where they all blogged about something near and dear to their hearts and minds: work-life balance. Sci thinks this synchro-blogging thing is a GREAT idea, and might co-opt this for Scientopia, kind of like zombies. Only about stuff other than zombies. Though maybe zombies sometimes.

Anyway, there produced a good and very thoughtful series of posts, which Drugmonkey has a complete listing of. I definitely recommend that you read all of them if you're interested in this topic. If you're not...well don't read them.

But anyway. Sci read them all...and noticed that there was very little BALANCE in the work life balance.

Like this:


This makes Sci sad, because when you're a grad student (as many of these bloggers are, wassup guys! Do not fret! If Sci made it through, SO CAN YOU!) and beyond, well, a lack of work-life balance can leave you looking like this:


So Sci wanted to talk a little bit about this, and see if we can come to something that looks a little more like this:


I would also like to take this opportunity to recommend heavily the post Southern Fried Scientist wrote, giving advice to first year grad students. It is full of excellent 4th year wisdom, as SFS is a very wise fish. I will draw on some of this as well as my own experience.

I would also like to include a disclaimer: My experiences are only mine. My observations are only mine. At the end of the day, none of this may apply to you. I by no means mean to disparage or put down other people's choices.

'Cause here's the thing. If you don't figure out how to have SOME work/life balance in your grad school (or post-doc, Sci's mostly figuring it out in the post-doc) years...it gets harder and harder to go clawing after it. There's a TON expected of you in grad school. Experiments, papers, thesis, more experiments, sometimes grants. When you get to post-doc, take all that, and take out the thesis. Instead, add in more grants, doing the stuff for your boss's grants, more papers, and all the papers you didn't get done in grad school. When you get on the tenure track, take those grants you have to earn and multiply it by enough to run a whole lab, plus MORE papers, and...you get the idea. The more you achieve, the more people will expect of you in the future.

And it's hard. There's a LOT of pressure coming in to do this RIGHT NOW, and what do you mean you're not ALSO planning for that at the SAME TIME and why haven't you DONE THIS YET, and don't you realize YOU ARE SO BEHIND?!?!

And this is the kind of environment where a lot of grad students (including Sci) kind of thrive. We LIKE fulfilling and surpassing expectations. We LOVE being the best at anything. Many scientists go into science for the pure love of discovery and and wonders associated with hypotheses formation (and of course everyone SAYS that they do this), but the fact is, we are ALSO some competitive hardass motherf**kers, and you HAVE to be, to get through grad school and onward.

And that's when you get the pernicious little competitive voices that speak in your head. Sci has had them, and she has seen them speaking in the eyes of other exhausted grad students who say, with a mix of exhaustion and pride, that they just pulled an all-nighter. Those voices say "I can work more than ALL of you! I will work the MOST HOURS of any grad student! I will be the MOST PRODUCTIVE! I will be the BEST GRAD STUDENT YOU EVER SAW!!" And to many grad students, the "best grad student", is the one who is getting no sleep and spending way too much time in the lab, and is pallid and wan and seriously malnourished.

And the problem is, there are some (thank goodness not all) advisers and bosses who will...endorse this. Who encourage, tacitly or overtly either by praise or censure, those long hours. Who tell you stories about all they suffered while writing their thesis. They say it with sadness. But there's a little background of pride there, too. The pride that says "yeah, I went through hell. I can TAKE IT for science. Can YOU take it?" And there's the slightest implication that if you DON'T want to take it for science, and if you DON'T want to give up your life for the scientific enterprise, that you are...not as good. You aren't the BEST scientist that you could be.

And don't you want to be the best scientist? Of course you do!

If that's what you want, if science drives you passionately and you want more than ever to be the best grad student, or the best professor, and that's what you want, then more power to you. But though I am passionate about science, and I am fascinated by what I do, I...need more than that.

I didn't start out that way. When I started grad school, I was going to be the best grad student ever. I worked hours upon hours. I worked more hours. I worked weekends and holidays and every other day in between.

And around the middle of my 2nd year I realized I was completely miserable. I had no friends, I barely knew the town I was living in, and I couldn't keep a relationship to save my life. Worst of all...my brain felt boring. I can't really explain it. I knew tons and tons of science. But I completely failed to amuse myself anymore.

I realized I couldn't do it. I needed...some balance. Sci was that donkey floating up in the air.

And I did what SFS advocates. I got a hobby. After a while I got two. Then being the massive over-achiever that I am, I got more than that and now I'm juggling four, which is probably too many. I also got Mr. S, who is not in science and who is great about letting me know when departmental politics are consuming my life.

And I know that I may not be the best scientist ever. I will probably never win a major prize. I may never be as successful as those who really devote themselves to science. To someone as competitive as I am, learning that was a very bitter pill to swallow. But I think, in the end, I'll be happier.

For me, the work/life balance gets a cut-off (so far) at around 60 hours a week of work. For other people, the balance is higher, and for some, it doesn't exist. It's all about what works best for you, and where you find you achieve what you want at work with being who you want to be in life. But my take home message is this: you do not HAVE to listen to those voices, internal or external, telling you you have to be better than anyone and the best scientist in the world. You don't have to give in to them unless you want to. If you want to, then do it. But if you don't, don't let yourself feel guilty.

Here's a series of bits of advice, none of which you have to take:

1) It's ok to cook yourself something healthy to eat. It's ok to take time from the lab to work out or do something you love. Your mental and physical health is worth your time.

2) It's ok to take a vacation. Yeah, maybe that cell culture will take ages to come back up, and maybe that experiment will have to be halted for a while. But if your sanity is going to be on the line, schedule something in. Your life and your science will probably thank you. Sometimes you have to schedule it in many months in advance. That's what I do.

3) Most of the time, the experiment doesn't have to be finished RIGHT NOW. You shouldn't have to pull an all nighter for your work unless it's for a specific method that calls for it, or if it's the last few days before you turn in your thesis.

4) Do not let other people tell you what you should value, and that if you don't move to the middle of nowhere you will ruin your career, or if you don't work 500 hours a week you will ruin your career. The only thing you will ruin is their idea of what your career should look like. (Keep in mind that this can bend when one has a fanatical adviser, but Sci highly recommends seeking outside help from your committee or the grad school in that case).

All this is not to say that we should all work 40 hour weeks and take a ton of vacation. First off, it's grad school. Secondly, that's not what we do. We DO love our work and we DO want to get stuff done, find some cures, and publish some papers. And so our balance may never be 50/50. But there does have to be enough balance (whatever that balance is for you) to keep you happy.

12 responses so far

  • Excellent advice, Sci. My grad adviser could be tough, but he also recognized (and stressed to me) that a week or a month away from the lab was not that much time in the grand scheme of things.

  • Geknitics says:


    Good advice, all of it. My situation starting grad school was a little different. I was married with a toddler, so I went in knowing I was not going to be one of those always-at-the-lab grad students. I was balancing not just my needs outside of grad school, but those of my family. Despite some major life challenges along the way, I made it through, defended last year, had my second baby, and started a postdoc. And you're right about the postdoc workload. I thought having a "real job" would be less work than grad school. I was obviously delusional.

  • Great post! And very true.

    "3) Most of the time, the experiment doesn’t have to be finished RIGHT NOW. You shouldn’t have to pull an all nighter for your work unless it’s for a specific method that calls for it, or if it’s the last few days before you turn in your thesis."

    That was the hardest thing for me to learn. One day is not going to make that big of a difference in the grad scheme of things, but getting a good night's sleep will make huge difference in my life.

  • Woo! My first Scientopia linkback! Thanks Sci, sage advice. You too are a very wise fish.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Face time is total bullshit. what matters is productivity.

  • physioprof says:

    I will work the MOST HOURS of any grad student! I will be the MOST PRODUCTIVE!

    It's important to point out that these two things are only very loosely correlated, if at all.

  • Erin says:

    You just made me feel better about going home and cooking a ton of veggies for dinner. Grad school is tough, and I demand some solid nourishment!

  • Maggie says:

    Am I the only person who thinks 40 hour weeks should be normal for a grad student? You do realize that in the Real World, that's a full-time job? I don't understand why scientists should be expected to work 1.5 to 2 times as much as the rest of the world. I love science, and in grad school I worked 40 maybe 45 hours/wk on average. My husband is a grad student too, and puts in maybe 40 hours, and granted it's going to take him 7 years to graduate, but I see no problem with this! And no, neither of us is planning to continue on in academia, where certainly we would have needed to put more hours in, published more papers, etc. But lest we forget, some people actually get PhDs so they can get 9-5 jobs in industry or consulting or teaching or whatever.

  • Mike says:

    Agreed strongly, Maggie. It's like scientists take pride in being better than those "normal people" who only work 40 hours and erect boundaries between work and the rest of their life. It's a monastery mentality, and it's harmful to everyone.

  • [...] “Worst of all, my brain felt boring.” — Scicurious on crafting a work/life balance in grad school. [...]

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