Thursday, July 23, 2009

Balancing act, Part 2

Some time after posting my take on balance in science I realized that:
  • it might come off a little preachy, for lack of a better word
  • some of my intentions may not have been very clear
  • and I just have more to say on the matter
Here are the major points from the previous post:
  • Balance is about fulfillment and renewal in four areas: physical, spiritual, mental, social/emotional
  • Many scientists (and people, in general) lack balance in their lives
  • Working longer hours does not necessarily mean you're achieving more
  • You can find ways to make time for what's truly important to you
These are hard lessons to learn. I know because I've been there and spent plenty of time banging my head against a wall. What I say here is based on my experiences and observations.

In graduate school, you probably are going to have to spend more time in the lab in order to be productive, especially the first couple of years. Whether you're coming straight out of undergrad or you've been working in industry for a few years, there is so much to learn and to do-classes, research, writing, etc. Even if you did research as an undergrad or worked in a lab afterwards, the way you approach research in grad school is completely different. Essentially you have to be retrained. And that means you're going to screw stuff up and have to futz around to figure out how to get things to work sometimes-which means more time in the lab.

If you pay attention, though, you may eventually realize how much time is lost with general screwing around. How often do you check your email? Do you respond immediately to every email-whether it's work or personal, whether it will take 15 s or 20 min to write a response? How much time do you spend on Facebook or blogs (ironic, I know) or other completely unrelated crap? How much time do you lose trying to figure out what you're going to do today? Was there something you could have done yesterday to expedite your experiments today?

During my last year of grad school, I recognized some HUGE time sinks, and I began making adjustments to reduce their size. I began planning out experiments at least a couple of days, if not a week, in advance. This gave me an immediate focus each day, so that I wasn't spending the first hour or so deciding what to do and how to do it. Plus, because I knew what I was doing tomorrow or later in the week, I could do the tedious, time-consuming, but oh-so-essential prep work (i.e. labeling tubes, making buffers, setting up calculations) a day or more ahead, saving only the time-sensitive prep work for the day of the experiment. Another small thing that pulled some time out of the abyss: Not reading my email until after I had initiated an experiment. Some days I wouldn't even open my computer for an hour or two after I got to the lab. Even if I did check my email, it was to see if there were any messages from Bear, his admin, or my department that would require immediate response and/or action. Otherwise it could wait in my inbox until I had a break in my experiment.

Making these adjustments to my day allowed me to accomplish more in a less time. I realized that spending one less hour in the lab a day (to make time for non-science things) would not derail my research if I used my time appropriately. During the last 8 or so months of grad school, I was taking off early one day a week to go gym climbing with a friend. It was a great (and very much needed) stress reliever. And I was still productive. I generated more than half the data for a manuscript during that time, despite also writing a massive review, a dissertation, and spending almost a month away from the lab not working on anything science-related*.

Some labs/departments/institutes create a culture that implies if you're not spending 60/70/80 hours a week in the lab, you're not a 'serious' scientist. Sometimes individuals convince themselves that they can't have a life outside of the lab AND a productive, successful career at the same time. This is total bullshit. And just so we're clear, I'm not the only one who feels this way, and there are examples of successful scientists who don't work inhuman hours.

Granted, if you show up to work at 10, leave at 4, and take 2 hours for lunch and coffee breaks, then you probably should reconsider your career options. But working 8 productive hours a day does not mean you're a bad scientist. It means you're an efficient and organized scientist and that you've learned some lessons that some people never do. Sometimes you will have to work extra hours due to the nature of the experiment, an impending grant/manuscript revision, or bad luck. You may have to reduce the time spent on certain extracurricular activities (like Facebook or blogs or TV), but you can make time for the things you deem truly important.

For me, starting a postdoc has been a lot like starting grad school again. New city, new people, new lab, new project. It's taken a few months to equilibrate and to remember and apply the lessons learned in grad school, but I'm working on it. And already I'm happier for it. Now if you'll excuse me, it's time to head to the lab.

* Of that time away, only one week was planned and spent doing something that I really wanted/enjoyed doing. Taking a month off from science a few months before defending your dissertation is not something I would recommend. The point is that, if necessary, it can be done if you make the most of your time in the lab.