This morning Paramed came dragging in from work (he's a medic, hence the crazy hours and the alias here). He had gotten about an hour or so of sleep, broken up into 10 to 20 minute intervals, during the past 26+ hours. During those many waking hours, he was traversing the city doing work that is necessary yet mentally, physically, and emotionally draining, often not knowing if he's walking into the middle of a volatile situation, in a part of the city where there are a lot of drunks, drug addicts, and machete-toting gangs. All of this for a job that he doesn't love.
And what do I do? Despite my complaints and whinefests, I work in a reasonably safe, nontoxic (with regard to physical and emotional health) environment with flexible hours, doing something I really love.
Many young scientists (read, grad students and postdocs, myself included) tend to fall into what I call the 'time martyrdom trap'. Manifestations of this trap come in many forms:
- I can't take vacation because I have to get x, y, and z done for advisor/manuscript/collaborator/science monkey.
- I just don't have time to eat sensibly/exercise/do other things that place balance in my life because I have too much to do in the lab.
- I've worked every weekend for the last ________ weeks, or....
- I've been working 60/70/____ hours a week for _____ weeks/months/years (sometimes followed by the sentiment that this makes us a better scientist/person than our labmate or other colleague who only works 40/50/60 hours a week).
I spent 5-1/2 years in grad school. There were experiments that required long hours. Protein purification extravaganzas could easily call for 40 hours in three days. There was the pain-in-my-ass instrument that, once it was calibrated and working appropriately (which could easily take a couple of hours), I would continue using until it decided it was tired and didn't want to work anymore. There were (and still are) those days when I decided that if I was going to do one of those long/crazy experiments in triplicate, I might as well do two or five of them. If you're doing animal or cell work, there are the days when you have a time point in the middle of the night...
Those things are generally exceptions to the standard, though, and even those we do because of our commitment to the project at hand. There are many occasions when we work late hours or weekends that we do so by choice. Sometimes we convince ourselves or our colleagues or friends or family that we don't have a choice, but if we were honest, I think most of us would realize that we actually do. That we're working the hours we do for the thrill of discovery or the satisfaction of solving a problem. (Or because we're not as efficient or productive as we could be--whether because of e-mail, Facebook, '80s quizzes, or coffee breaks.)
We are geeks and workaholics, but rather than accept that fact, we 'blame' our advisors and our work. Let's face it: At this level, we could get by with a lot less. We could lower our expectations, do the minimum work required, and get a job somewhere.
But we don't. We want more... so we do more.
There are times that my advisor, the funding climate, department politics, publishing, and many other academic gifts drive me nuts. I get pissed off by a lot of things I encounter, but it's often because I have a high level of passion for what I do and what I intend to do in the future. It's taken a lot of time and some sacrifices to get where I am, but that was my choice. I clearly didn't do it for the money or the status. I'm doing it for the adventure, the challenge, the love of science. Several PIs have told me that they have the best job in the world. That's what I'm after.
Very soon Paramed will be starting down a new path. He will continue working his crazy job, but he will also be seeking out his own passion. Being a full-time student and a full-time medic will be tough. It will take time and sacrifice, just as it did for me. But I hope along the way, he finds what I did--a career that he's chasing for love, not just to pay the bills.