Crossing the finish line

 In PhD/Postdoc Blog

The PhD/Postdoc blog series features two scientists at different stages of career development as they explore and plan for their next steps.  Over the course of six months, Lydia Morris and Divya Shiroor will give monthly updates on their progress. Check back every 2nd and 4th Wednesday of the month for new posts.

Current position: Ph.D. student in Biological and Biomedical Sciences
Program start date: August 2015
Institution: Cornell University

I was sitting at my desk performing my daily ritual of scanning through my facebook page when I came across this blog on the Science AAAS website. Titled “The Measure of Success,” the author recounts her life as a post-doc and the toll overworking took on her. To add to my list of misconceptions about a career in academia, I imagined that things would get easier as you crawled up the ladder.  This hardly seems to be the case. According to a preliminary study conducted by John Ziker, chair of the Boise State University anthropology department, full-time professors at Boise state work even longer hours than associate and assistant professors, or chairs. While assistant and associate professors work about 60 hours a week, full-time professors work over 60 hours. Don’t get me wrong. I definitely don’t mean to sound like I’m averse to working hard or working long hours. I fully realize that committing to academia means committing to a lifetime of hard work. Having said that, I certainly did not expect to see a rising trend vis-à-vis academic position and hours spent at work.

I thought that crossing the golden tenure line meant that it would be acceptable to adopt a slightly calmer pace of life. This pace is also largely affected by the flexibility that comes with an academic position. This flexibility is, in fact,  a double-edged sword. It reminds me of a story a friend once told me. When she just started working in the corporate sector, fresh out of school and overflowing with enthusiasm, she was extremely excited when her company gave her a shiny new i-phone. What she didn’t realize then was that the shiny phone meant that she would be slave to it around the clock, almost seven days a week. Her managers had her at their beck and call and she fell for it, hook line and sinker. When it comes to academia, the flexibility of working from home, or a coffee-shop or pretty much anywhere on the planet might appear shiny, much like the aforementioned i-phone, but it also means that you’re constantly working. In the seesaw of work and life, work seems to be about a 100 pounds heavier, which often makes it impossible to balance.

I can’t help but wonder if academia nurtures an unnecessarily severe work culture and ethic. Right from graduate school, we are expected to work hard. Working hard translates into working over 12 hours a day, often 7 days a week. Grad school is rife with stories of students carrying sleeping bags to lab, finding a cozy spot to catch a shut eye in the microscope room while working nights and working months on end without a break. Slowing down and taking a moment to stop and smell the roses seems like an utterly frivolous waste of a moment that could be spent analyzing data or planning experiments. So do hard work and productivity go hand-in-hand? In my (somewhat limited) experience, not necessarily. If I’m overworked and overtired, I get snippy, easily frustrated and make extremely silly mistakes. As a result, my efficiency and productivity both take a serious nose-dive.  Another question that comes to mind is that does working at breakneck speed as a graduate student set a precedent for a career that follows suit at the same pace? If so, how could this be sustainable?

These long hours spent at work often come at a huge personal price. The concept of self-care slowly gets alienated and as work just becomes life, work-life balance ceases to exist.  We sink into this perpetual state of delayed gratification, convincing ourselves that the harder we work, the better our reward will be. So what happens if we strive for a better balance, and add some weight to the life part of the seesaw right from graduate school? I was at a symposium recently with a panel that consisted of extremely accomplished panelists including two Nobel laureates. When questioned about whether they had hobbies outside of science, the answers included classical music, leisurely reading and going to the gym. So clearly successful people do have a life outside the lab, and this possibly contributes to their success.

We as graduate students can do plenty to strive for a healthy work-life balance from the get-go. While graduate school gives us all the training we need to succeed academically, no one teaches us the importance of taking care of ourselves. During one of my rotations, my advisor noticed me looking particularly stressed out. When she realized I had been spending too much time in the lab, she sent me packing with firm instructions to go do something for myself. An hour after sweating it out at the gym, I walked out with a much clearer head. It’s not always that you’ll have someone looking out for you. We have to remember to make ourselves a priority.  Just as working long hours takes discipline, leaving lab at a decent time takes discipline too. While it’s tempting to stay until midnight collecting data all week, in the long run, that’s a recipe for a quick burnout. Getting out of lab at an appropriate hour and doing something for yourself, whether it’s hitting the gym, cooking a decent meal or spending some quiet time reading adds that much needed balance. It’s important to remember that the habits we inculcate today will probably walk with us for the rest of our lives. In the race to cross some imaginary finish line, let’s not lose out on our journey entirely.



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