Work-Life Balance: You keep using those words...

Jul 23 2012 Published by under Academia, Uncategorized

...but they mean much more than most people think they mean.

People on blogs talk about work-life balance a lot. We talk about working "only" 60 hours a week. We talk about having a hobby. We talk about having kids. We talk a lot of balance.

But there's one big aspect of academic life that is talked about less frequently, and is definitely an issue of balance. It's one that makes me both angry and sad every time I see it come up. And I see it come up at least 3-4 times per year, as someone moves from their current position to a new one.

I call this issue the classic "but you will ruin your career if you don't move to Kansas".

Disclaimer: I haven't really got anything against Kansas per se. It's just the example I tend to use.

I see this issue ALL the time. Heck, I had this issue. I got a postdoc interview with a truly prestigious and great one of the worst possible locations for me and Mr. I did the interview. I smiled my way through it and talked some great science. But oh, oh oh did I NOT want to go there. I expressed my misgivings, and my grad advisor looked at me seriously and said 'if you don't go there, you are ruining your career'.

Recently, a good friend had something very similar happen to them. Super prestigious lab vs an up and coming lab. The prestigious one was in a horrid location, the up and coming in a better one. And their boss took them aside and told them gently that they would ruin their career if they didn't go to super prestigious lab.

The number of times I have heard this makes me think that all scientists, to show TRUE DEVOTION to science, need to be ready to pack up and move to the North Pole on a moment's notice to pursue their careers in immunology. Don't worry, it's for science! I'm sure you'll look ADORABLE in a snowsuit and property values there are very reasonable right now!

And the move, whether it's to grad school, post-doc, or TT position (or other), thus becomes the crux of the question: how devoted are you to science? How devoted are you to your career? The undertone is clear: if you were REALLY devoted to science, you would go wherever it took. You would move thousands of miles from your family and friends. You would move your family whether or not they would be happy. Why? Because it's science that is important. You don't want to ruin your career, do you?

Work/life balance my ass. When it comes down to it, we can work/life balance our butts off in the work week, but in the end, we have to prove we love science more than where we live or our spouse's ability to get a job or our child's happiness in their current location. Don't worry kid, you'll love South Dakota. I know it's different from NYC and you don't have a driver's license, but you'll be FINE.

But your career is not ruined if you don't do it. And I'm sick and tired of being told that we need to pick up our lives, our significant others, our children, and our pets (and sometimes extended family or other dependents), and haul them all to Cambodia OR OUR CAREERS ARE RUINED. Never mind that your significant other can't get a job there, the schools are terrible, and there's no green grass for your bunny for hundreds of miles. This is your career. Aren't you devoted to science?

Here's the thing. This phrase. This "you will ruin your career if". It's false. It's a total, complete lie. And it really upsets me to watch so may young, promising scientists agonize and fall prey to it.

Because the correct phrase is not "you will ruin your career if", the correct phrase is "your career (in a TT position at an R1 institution) will be a lot easier if". Yes, your career in your tiny slice of field doing a hybrid of what your grad and postdoc advisors did will be a heck of a lot easier to get started if your postdoc advisor is a complete badass who happens to be located on the other side of the moon. Your career will have a good start if you set up your TT position in a super horrid city with roving packs of wild dogs and with a really good department and loads of startup cash. It will be EASIER.

But not going will not ruin your career. It will make your path different. It might make it harder to become a tenured faculty at a research R1 institution (a job, that I am told, we should all want, and which is implied to be the measure of success, no matter how much lip service is paid to alternate careers). It might make your career track different, in the end. But it will not RUIN anything. Because your career is only ruined when you say it is, not when you decide not to take a position. And I think we need to make that clear. Because we are none of us moving in a vacuum. We all have pressures, we want to please our current and future bosses. We want to be seen as successful. We want to BE successful. But we also want balance. And happiness. And we none of us want to make our families miserable for the sake of $500,000 start up in bumf**k Nowhere. Not all of us can move to Oz and I'm tired of being told that we should.

So those of you who might be agonizing: find the career, the move, that's right for YOU. If what you know you want is an R1 career getting grants from the NIH, go for it. If you think you might want something else, go for that. But what you pick needs to be right for YOU. Not what your grad advisor would have picked, what your mentor would have picked, or what your grad school friend would pick. Right for you. And then make your career happen. If you can and want to put your R1 career first, do it! But if you can't, don't give yourself guilt. You can, and will, make it work.

43 responses so far

  • Janne says:

    I did move once. Not quite to the opposite side of Earth, but at least to a different continent many, many hours away by plane.

    Turned out I really like it here. Got a family now and a personal life. So I'm not moving again. And yes, it has hurt my career in the sense that I no longer have one. In order to stay here I've been doing serial post-docs while forward moving job offers all have been in different cities or countries, and by now the window for career advancement is all but closed.

    And I don't care. I realize that what I love is _science_. Which is fundamentally different from a science _job_. I understand now that I could be working the night shift in a convenience store, and be happy as long as friends are still willing to co-author papers and perhaps spot me a few hours on a computing cluster now and then. I could do science as a hobby and be just as happy - perhaps happier - as when I do it to pay food and rent.

  • Pharm Sci Grad says:


    I got all the advice of you "should go *here* and work for *this kind of doc* to be *successful* and what I had to remind myself that my definition of success is different that grad PI's definition of success. Grad PI's success is being grad PI, and getting that sort of position has always been the goal, it's why I got the PhD in the first place, but I've never been the conventional sort.

    For me, success will be getting to the other side of postdocdom with my love of science intact - having witnessed too many abused and mistreated postdocs, I went to a place where I thought the odds of bad behavior were lower than the average institution. This did not please Grad PI, as it was not *here* or with *this kind of doc*. In many ways, this was a very good choice for me. Some things are less than ideal, but hey, that's life.

    What will ruin your career is trying to please everyone but yourself. Guaranteed. Hear stories of PIs who make it through their tenure review then quit a few years later? Yeah. I have to give them credit for having the strength to finally walk away from something that wasn't making them happy but that everyone told them was what they were supposed to want - how many more of us are walking that same path each day but are afraid to admit it to ourselves?

    If the choice I made means that I will never end up being a PI myself, I can accept that. If those are the rule of the game, and if that is the only way to win, then I have opted out of playing that particular game and will just have to find another. That is the loss of academia. I will say that again. That is the loss of academia.

    If membership in the good ol' boys' club is what is required for admittance, perhaps it is simply best for me to opt out anyways. I work down the hall from a lab full of card carrying members of the club (thanks to their demigod PI) and as an outsider to the field I can say that I see no better science coming from that lab than any other in our department. There's no magic there - sometimes there's stuff I find distasteful. But working four doors down, for a PI who's never around, would change my career prospects immensely. That bothers me.

  • Allison says:

    I don't know. I've seen a lot of this in my time in academia. I myself did a BA in chemistry on the West Coast in 2004, a PhD in chemistry on the East Coast in 2008, and in 2009 took a postdoc position in bioanalytical chemistry designing novel diagnostics tests for brain tumors in Germany.

    It was hard at times to leave my boyfriend-at-the-time, but I did it so I'd be able to pay back all the loans I took out as an 18 year old girl to cover the coast of living at my small, private, fancy-pants undergraduate institution. I choose to specialize in biomedical spectroscopy because you can leave with a Master's and get any number of very decent paying Industry jobs in any major city in the world.

    The Germans already know all of the things you are ranting about. They insist you take at least 3 weeks of vacation. Their scientists in particular are paid way above coast of living, even PhD students.

    If I didn't have a huge amount of student loan debt, and the EU students do not since education is free out here, I'd stick around. I met a nice physicist over here, and I love traveling around on the trains to all the lovely old European cities and towns. But, I do have debt, so I need to get a job that pays enough to pay back my loans. I'll teach )(*$-ing high school chemistry if I have to.

    So, I'm not required to move just because I want to spend the next 30 to 50 years of my life working on deciphering the structural biochemistry and kinetics behind the phenotypes of living tissues. I have to, otherwise the banks will break my kneecaps........

    • Squishy Tomato says:

      Education is not free in the EU. A degree in the UK costs thousands and most students graduate with thousands of pounds of debt which takes years to pay off.

  • Yael says:

    You have to "do whatever it takes" for your career, except if you are a woman in a two-body situation! Then "family comes first". Makes my blood pressure go through the roof.

  • Zen Faulkes says:

    I understand that the main thrust of the post is about the pressure to do something that you don't want to, on the basis that it will help your career. But there is an undertone of privilege here. There are people for whom "bumf**k Nowhere" is their HOME. And using a term like that implies that they made a bad choice.

    • scicurious says:

      I'm sorry. I didn't mean to give that impression. I know many people who would feel just as much aversion moving to new York as others would moving to Kansas, and they have just as much right to feel that way! I really only meant that I am tired of hearing how we will always ruin out careers if we don't do x of y, even if it is incredibly againt our personal needs or preferences.

      • ^

        There is no way I am ever moving back to a big city. I love where I am, and I am making a file of other small town-big university combinations with awesome trail systems locally that I might be able to get a job in one day.

      • James says:

        This was a real problem for me as well reading through the post. It's frustrating because I agree with the main point you're making but kept wanting to pull my hair out over how it was constantly presented as "middle of the country == bad."

        I am actually in the exact opposite situation right now and struggling with the same issues. (I am being strongly encouraged to track down a post-doc in prestigious labs in big cities on the coasts. I have put up with big city life for four years of grad school already and I really, really want to find another option.) If I could find these awesome and well funded labs in Kansas or North Dakota I'd be overjoyed.

        But that aside, thank you for the post, it was really useful to hear stories of people putting other factors ahead of best-possible-lab-that-will-take-me.

        • Jonathan says:

          Flyover pride is all well and good, but having lived and postdoc'd in San Diego and Lexington, KY, there's no contest about where I'd rather live or which place has stuff to do that isn't college sports or horse racing.

  • I hate to copy people, but THIS.

    I took a postdoc in a location that is less than ideal for my career, but works the best for my family/life situation. My grad PI is disappointed (although he tries not to show it) with my decision. But, honestly, I don't want to try to raise a baby (now a toddler!) thousands of miles away from Dr. Man's family or mine for that matter.* Right now we're within driving distance of both families and that has made life sooo much easier (like two weeks ago when Dr. Man and I got both got a horrific stomach bug and literally could not care for Kiddo on our own). I think moving to wherever is perfectly fine _if that's what you want to do._

    Also, I really dislike the fact that I'm continuously being told that I shouldn't sacrifice my career for Dr. Man's, especially since it is not true. Both Dr. Man and I are making some sacrifices in our careers for our family (in Dr. Man's case-- as an M.D.-- he could have taken a high paying job in a location that is even closer to both our families that would have been great match for his career aspirations/the kind of medicine he wants to practice, but had zero job opportunities for me).

    *I know that a lot of people do this and my hat is off to you! I don't know how you do it!

  • Great article! I am on the tail end of my PhD (yay!) and these issues are now starting to come up for me. It is so important to make sure you set boundaries for yourself as to how much you are willing to give for your career - even the number of hours you work is important! It is also important to realize that there are other careers out there for PhD scientists than tenure-track positions at R1 Universities... Anyways, great job and keep up the great writing!

  • Roger Hyam says:

    My big brother took me to the side one day and said "It is a pyramid stupid". It doesn't matter how good you are at some point you can't go up any further because ... It is a pyramid stupid and there simply isn't enough room.

    It happens in your mid forties. You suddenly realize it is a lottery who goes to the next layer and then you realize it was a lottery all along and this crap you were fed about a 'career' is just some line to keep everyone flogging their guts out on something they don't love because they are going to like the next bit. Well you won't.

    Do a job you love and that you feel might make the world a better place. Be a rounded person who contributes to the world outside the lab. Never be motivated by the 'c' word only use it in retrospect.

  • Dr. O says:

    I agree with Zen, in that the decision to move to Kansas doesn't carry the same stigma for everyone. I myself wouldn't have been thrilled about Kansas, but I also didn't want to end up in a huge and expensive city. I totally agree with your point - that everyone has to set their own priorities when looking for their next position, and ultimately decide where they think they'll be happy, or at least content (especially for shorter term positions). I see no no rationale for the martyrdom of anyone's life in service to their career.

    • I see no no rationale for the martyrdom of anyone's life in service to their career.
      Me neither, and I even think that I'm way more productive when I'm happy. So to me it's a balance between finding a place where I am happy and finding a place that's good for my career

    • Emmers says:

      I myself wouldn't have been thrilled about Kansas, but I also didn't want to end up in a huge and expensive city.

      And the boldface, there, is what all the people complaining about the dig against "flyover country" need to focus on. It's not actually about where you're moving; the point is that everyone has someplace they'd really rather not go, or that would be bad for their family, and it's bad that we're forcing this decision on people. (Or we're forcing it on ourselves.)

    • scicurious says:

      Yeah, I know many people who want a good place to raise a family, which often does NOT mean a big city. I really didn't mean to give that impression exclusively.

  • DJMH says:

    Very much agree that it is wrong to define "success" in your postdoc as "being in the biggest, richest, Nature-est lab there is". Unfortunately that is how a lot of PIs define it, which perpetuates the nasty cycle of junior PIs having a hard time getting great postdocs, so they don't publish as much good stuff, so they don't attract as many great postdocs, etc etc.

    Also agreed that everyone's definition of ideal place to live is different (because duh!) but the gist of the post remains the same, that unless you are excited about moving to Kansas, you shouldn't go just because the lab there is HotPants.

  • Dr Becca says:

    I think this is a very different conversation when talking about taking a post-d0c position vs. taking a faculty position. Obviously, many, many people get R1 TT professorships after doing post-doc work with relatively unknown PIs, and the decision of where to do your post-doc should be based on where you're going to be happy in as many facets of life as possible. To tell someone that they "have" to do post-doc with captain fancypants or their career is over is just stupid.

    But what if you're in your 6th, 7th, 8th year of post-doc, and you get just one faculty offer, from somewhere you can't realistically build a home for your family? When I was on the TT market, I got two offers: one very good in what's generally considered to be a nice city, and one very bad in what's generally considered to be a terrible city. What if I hadn't gotten #1? #2 would have meant living a plane ride away from everyone I love, working with *way* sub-optimal funds and support, no hope of J finding a job, and most likely being supremely miserable on all fronts. I almost certainly would have turned it down, but that would have almost certainly guaranteed I'd never be a PI. Would I have ruined my career in the sense that I'd be jobless the rest of my life? Of course not. But would that decision have ruined my career goal of being a PI? Well...yeah.

    Like anyone in any job anywhere, scientists should make career decisions with their families and do what's best for everyone. But there are unfortunate realities to the academic job market that can truly mean that if Kansas isn't feasible, one line of work (PI at an R1) may be out for you.

  • Great post. So much I agree with. Personally, I am geographically limited (but luckily limited to a large city) because I want to be close to my significant other. Although it means that I can't/don't apply to great opportunities elsewhere, it's forced me to expand my connections here. Again, luckily, it's resulted in great un-advertised positions because people can get to know me since I'm in area.

  • Dr. Glitterbear says:

    I had many discussion with both my grad student and my postdoc PI's about where to apply for TT jobs. They all suggested places that I just refused to even consider for one reason and one reason only - same-sex marriage/civil unions. I lived in a state that recognized my relationship and I sure as hell was not gonna move to a state that didn't. At each stage, I asked my respective mentors several times, "Would you (postdoc PI were an opposite-sex married couple) move someplace where you two weren't married anymore?"

    So, no Kansas or Texas or Florida or NC for me. I was offered at one time a high-paying postdoc in Mississippi. I declined sincerely but internally I exclaimed 'Ahh, hell-to-the-NO'.

    Fortunately, I ended up with a great postdoc and an R1 TT position in states that recognized my relationship. I count myself fortunate for I know of many who did not have that "luxury".

  • Bashir says:

    Selecting the next move, be it to a postdoc or a TT position is a very personal decision. It's all about balancing the inevitable trade-offs. I agree that the "any situation for science!" attitude is too extreme. Though I have seen a few people really limit their options based on very little actual data about "bad locations". If you have an career opportunity at some location you don't know much about, you owe it to yourself to gather actual information to make an assessment, as opposed to relying on vague impressions. I've seen people do that avoid moving to "Kansas". That being said, sometimes "Kansas" really isn't your cup of tea.

  • Isabel says:

    I will happily move for a post doc as long as it is somewhere near the ocean on a large land mass within 100 mi of a large, cosmopolitan city.

  • JJ says:

    What matters is to be happy, wherever you are. The whole family should be happy about the location as well. How can you do a 60h week if your wife is waiting for you at home AND she is unhappy... If you want to carry out good work, you need to keep an happy family. Wherever you go, family first

  • Namnezia says:

    People have been moving to "where the work is" for centuries. Often the work is not where you'd like it to be but in many cases one does not have a choice.

    • scicurious says:

      This is true, but I think in many cases we going into postdocs forget that "work" doesn't necessarily mean "a postdoc/TT position in an R1 uni that will lead to an R1 uni position getting NIH money in the millions". "work" is more versatile than that, but we often forget it out of the fear of not taking the PI approved path. My point is the path that's right for YOU may not be the one that your PI deems the best or only option, and trainees shouldn't feel bullied and guilty in their decisions.

  • biochembelle says:

    Le sigh. There's also the more subtle, "There's nothing *wrong* with X, but I just don't think you'd be happy there." (Where X can be a locale or trajectory) .

    Regardless of flyover vs big city or R1 vs, well, everything else, this comes down to someone else making judgements of what's in "your" best interests. Don't get me wrong: mentors should provide honest feedback on options available. But it should also be objective, and statements such as 'killing your career' shouldn't enter the conversation. There are numerous ways to 'kill' a career - including taking that opportunity you'd be 'foolish ' to pass up.

    The bottom line - we each have our own definitions of success. Surely we can talk about the pros and cons of options without applying our own terms to other people.

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  • phagenista says:

    "And we none of us want to make our families miserable for the sake of $500,000 start up in bumf**k Nowhere."

    When my corner of science was even more of an old boy's club than it is now, some professors would arrange for their trainees to get TT positions at other schools. With or without the cigar smoke, a year or two before a younger scientist would be ready (in their minds) for a job, the PI would ask around which schools would be hiring, and arranged things on a handshake. Sure there would be an open search for the position, sure there would be ostensible interviews, but the outcome was a forgone conclusion. If the trainee in question didn't want to go to that department/location, if that trainee's partner didn't want to go there... well, that was usually the end of the trainee's R01 career path. Some of the people currently retiring in my field have discussed this openly with me, in response to the current PhD glut and 100s of applications for positions. 20, 30 years later they are still incredulous that a few of their trainees opted for a path other than the one the PI had created for them, placed their desires and needs before SCIENCE... and these near-emeriti think their arranged TT professorships was a better system than the one we have today.

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  • Pierre says:

    Thanks so much for this article. I'm in what's hopefully the last year of my phd, and worrying about this stuff is killing me as application season rolls around. Before, I've been willing to go wherever my career takes me, but things have changed in the last couple years now that I've gotten married. Now, taking her needs into account, staying in this location is the best for her, but then I worry about actually landing a postdoc in my field close enough that we wouldn't have to move. I could apply for positions outside of the traditional academic track...but then I wonder if my professors and advisers would still be supportive after spending so much time and resources helping me get my phd.

    The point is, these are exactly the issues that are stressing me out right this moment, and to hear your take on things was very helpful, inspiring, and most importantly, motivational.

  • Squishy Tomato says:

    I loved reading every word of this article and the associated comments - thank you. I already lived in 3 countries for the sake of my "career" as an academic, and I'm having a hard time explaining to my current and past PI's that I'm no longer willing to move to Crapville every 2 years and be Dr No-Friends with No-Life just because it offers X/Y/Z opportunity scientifically. I didn't try working in the US yet... for those who think europe is a piece of cake because the pay and holidays are better, you can factor in the problem that every country has a different language, so on top of working X hours per week you are expected to spend Y hours learning a new language, or put up with the ensuing social isolation (and snide comments about "How can you live in germany and not speak fluent german?" etc), as well as battle your way through the alien beaurocracy. Well anyway, I really like my postdoc work for 40 hours a week, and beyond that I don't care. I have hobbies and other interests and like to have friends to talk to and so on. Apparently this makes me not truly "dedicated" to science. Since I've not been "lucky" in getting funding in the places I want (or I don't belong to the appropriate old-boys-network), then I probably have to quit academia or I can never be happy. I feel a bit like a failure for doing this, because people think it's either lack of intellectual ability or lack of drive that makes me go down this path. It was good to read this article to know that I'm not alone in my experiences.

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  • zinemin says:

    This seems the basic question that we have to face again and again in an academic career. How much do you truly want to give up for your job? I find it worrying how the sacrifices start out small, but then they become larger and larger during a career. You have given up already a,b,c, why not also give up d?
    Everyone has their limit somewhere. The people with the limit furthest down the line seem the ones who survive. These are the future professors, and they will ask even more of the next generation.

  • Adrian Pyle says:

    It might seem pedantic to some, but…. One piece of language I’m trying to reform is the use of the term “work/life balance.” If language shapes our reality even just a little bit, then “work/life balance” – although its meant to be have positive connotations – must be reinforcing some negative views of life for all of us. Work and life are not somehow distinct “realities” that we can balance. “Work” is surely not meant to be devoid of “life.” Equally, considered, engaged and relational work can surely be part of a highly connected, health-ful life (even potentially a very big part of it). I know the term is coined to try to get us to live in a more “balanced” way but I suspect it simply allows those who see “work” and “life” as mechanically disconnected realities, to continue with that problematic viewpoint – and to continue tinkering with work to make it a “bit more friendly” rather than reforming the notion of work and its part in a whole life..

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