A Scientist Walks Into a Bar(bell)

 In PhD/Postdoc Blog, wellness

Career Lessons Learned Outside of the Lab: promoting work-life balance

There’s a saying that “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”. I’ve never met this Jack, but I can sympathize with needing a break from work. As scientists, we spend a lot of time learning and thinking about complex ideas. When I started graduate school, I quickly discovered that I needed a hobby to give myself a break from all of the thinking. For those of you who have read my “Meet the Bloggers” post, you probably read that one of my hobbies is Crossfit. I started Crossfit shortly after I started grad school to help myself de-stress after a long day in the lab. I’ve been surprised to see how much this hobby has benefited me other than just being a break from science. For those unfamiliar with Crossfit, it blends weightlifting, gymnastics, and cardio into one plan to improve overall fitness and well-being. Now, the goal of this post isn’t to focus on Crossfit itself. Rather, I want to talk about some lessons Crossfit has taught me that have translated to my life as a scientist. My hope is that as you read this you’ll see connections between your own hobbies and your life as a scientist. You may even be surprised to find these connections helping guide your future career ventures.  

Lesson #1: Failure is frustrating, but it provides opportunities for growth.

At the gym, athletes are continuously setting goals. These goals range from hitting a new weightlifting personal record or learning a new gymnastics movement. Depending on where we set our goals, sometimes achieving them takes no time at all. Usually, achieving a goal requires hours of practice where we refine our technique and gain the necessary muscle memory and strength. Within these hours of practice are countless failed attempts. While these failures are frustrating, they show us where our technique or strength needs to improve. Just as my failures in the gym have shown me where my skills and strengths are lacking, my failures in the lab have shown me where my personal knowledge and skill gap is. There have been some experiments that I’ve gotten to work without any problems. Then there are others that I have been fighting with for 3+ years now (looking at you western blots). Sometimes, an experiment fails simply because I missed a step or didn’t prepare reagents correctly. Other times, I’ve done all the steps correctly, but the reagents were either expired or poorly made by the vendor. As with sport, by identifying my weaknesses, I have the opportunity to improve my overall skills.

Lesson #2:  No one is an island.

Crossfit prides itself on having a highly varied workout program; the movements that are programmed change from day to day and there is much to learn and try to master. In my experience, the best way to learn most of these movements is by watching and being coached by others. Particularly with weightlifting and gymnastics, everything that I’ve learned was the result of receiving help from another athlete or coach. Yes, I’ve had to work hard to be able to do them. However, if it wasn’t for the people around me teaching me I would have progressed much more slowly. The same principle applies to the lab. I’ve learned more about experimental design and critical thinking from my colleagues and mentors than I ever would have alone. It’s easy to zero in on our own projects and become a one-person show, but better science is done when people seek and give help.   

Lesson #3: The lab isn’t the only place you should look to find your passion.

I’ve been doing Crossfit for over two and a half years, and recently I’ve been able to volunteer as a coach for a few hours each weekend. I’ve found that there’s something incredibly satisfying about helping someone learn something new or meet a goal. It was through my opportunity to coach that I discovered how I might enjoy teaching science as a career. Recently, I’ve started exploring opportunities to gain teaching experience to confirm that this is a career I would enjoy.

So the next time you’re looking at different job opportunities and thinking about what it is you want to do next, don’t just look at what you like about science and research. Take a good, hard look at the things you like outside of the lab as well. Even if they seem silly or totally unrelated to science, you might be surprised as to what you’ll learn about yourself. It’s not always about the activity itself, it’s more about why you do it and what you take away from it.  

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