houston voices

Houston researchers: Avoid becoming a lab rat with these work-life balance tips

Just like with any other career, a work/life balance is critical to excel in either category. Graphic byMiguel Tovar/University of Houston

You just missed your niece’s birthday, misplaced your debit card and forgot to eat dinner last night after working late in the lab. These are relatively benign examples of collateral damage for a researcher who is overworked. But what about the female researcher who puts off having a family because she is working 80 hours a week? What about the scientist who is injured in an experiment because he worked late alone at the lab and made an error?

One is the loneliest number

Safety is a concern for those who work alone in a lab. Working evenings and weekends is par for the course for most researchers. In a 2013 study in Biological Conservation, the authors analyzed the timing of submissions to the journal from 2004 to 2012. More than one-quarter occurred either at weekends or on weekdays between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m. The weekend submission rate increased 5–6 percent every subsequent year. Work/life balance is difficult to achieve in any profession, but researchers seem to put their lives on hold, more often than not, when that next discovery is just an experiment away.

Some say they prefer to work when they are alone and can concentrate on their findings. Most likely an introvert to begin with, this type of scientist may cite the stillness and quiet of the lab as a peaceful retreat. “The laboratory can be comforting in its isolation and can act as a shelter away from the pressures of life and conflict with friends and family,” writes chemjobber on the Chemical & Engineering News Blog. For a researcher, social distancing may be heaven.

But more mistakes happen when one is working alone. There is the infamous incident of the graduate student who died after working with tert-butyl lithium, which ignites spontaneously in air, in a UCLA lab years ago. Her PI was charged with violating safe labor laws by not requiring another person in the lab, protective gear or proper chemical safety training.

On the Oxford University Press’ blog, there is a long list of imperatives for working in a lab, which include: “Never work alone or unsupervised, and never work when you are exhausted or emotionally upset.” Errors can be deadly, so check with your lab safety guidelines and make sure someone is at least “checking in” with you if you must work alone.

Working 9 to 5?

How many hours do you spend in the lab? How many are healthy? According to a 2016 Nature poll of early-career researchers worldwide, 38 percent of respondents reported working more than 60 hours each week — 9 percent of whom claimed more than 80 hours.

Obviously, it is difficult to maintain a work/life balance – healthy relationships, free time for hobbies – if one works 80 hours a week. Some researchers liken getting results in a lab to a gambler’s hot streak. It would seem insane to walk away when one finally, after painstaking labor, long hours and meticulous experimentation, experiences a positive result. But long hours can dull your senses and make having a breakthrough even more difficult.

Meet the new boss

Principal Investigators (PIs) may be to blame, at times, for unrealistic expectations. In his article in Nature Magazine, Chris Woolston says, “A toxic relationship between junior scientist and adviser can quickly turn career prospects sour.” Adds Karen Kelsky, career advisor in Eugene, Oregon, “Many junior researchers who find themselves at odds with their advisers could have avoided trouble with a little preliminary research. For Ph.D. students, it is helpful to find someone who has a history of turning trainees into scientists.”

According to UnDark.org, a non-profit, editorially independent digital magazine exploring the intersection of science and society, “Between September 2016 and May 2017, graduate student organizing committees at six private universities successfully negotiated contracts with their universities. These contract negotiations delivered, among other things, standardized pay rates; annual cost-of-living raises; improved health care, childcare, and dependent-care benefits; and arbitration support in contract disputes.” Organizing with others and stating your concerns may work, if you feel your PI is taking advantage of your work ethic, thereby compromising a healthy work/life balance.

Baby, baby

And one last important issue is that of the female researcher who, like women in other demanding careers, puts having children on hold. “A major issue for female scientists wanting to start a family is the career break–and the gap in their track record–that usually comes with having children,” states Elisabeth Pain in Science Magazine. What’s the solution? If the researcher is planning to return to work after the birth of her child, Pain states: “The impact of a career break will be smallest if women manage to get that paper published before they leave, arrange to attend a conference while on maternity leave and organize their research projects so that it is easy to get back in the swing of things when they return.” That’s a lot of pressure for a new mother. Social media and message boards abound with women commiserating about these stressors. There is no easy answer.

So the question remains: are you a lab rat? Do you hunch over your research statistics, experiments or lab equipment in a constant struggle to get ahead, publish your findings first and “win” at science? You may need to take a breath, relax and re-evaluate. Just like with any other career, a work/life balance is critical to excel in either category.

------

This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea. Sarah Hill, the author of this piece, is the communications manager for the UH Division of Research.

Trending News

Building Houston

 
 

The University of Houston has tips for doing your due diligence when it comes to avoiding unintentional plagiarism. Graphic byMiguel Tovar/University of Houston

Plagiarism is the use of someone else’s words, ideas, or visuals as if they were your original work. Unintentional plagiarism is plagiarism that results from the disregard for proper scholarly procedures. It’s much easier to commit than one would think, and it has toppled giants in the research enterprise.

From 2007-2020, the National Science Foundation made 200 research misconduct findings, of which 78 percent were related to plagiarism. Here are some do’s and don’ts that will help you avoid unintended plagiarism, a potentially career-killing misstep.

The dos and don'ts

Don’t paraphrase without citing

According to a study of 63,700 students, Rutgers University Business School found that 36% of undergraduates admit to “paraphrasing/copying few sentences from Internet source without footnoting it.”

Don’t forget to add the quotation marks

And don’t forget to properly cite your sources at the end of the paper even if you used any in-text or footnote citations to give proper credit to the primary author.

Don’t copy and paste placeholders

You mean to go back and rewrite it in your own words but are liable to forget or run out of time. (More on this later.) If you copy and paste from a previously published paper of your own, it’s not research misconduct, but it is considered bad practice if you don’t cite it. This is called self-plagiarism.

Do make sure your hypothesis or subject is your own

Plagiarism of ideas occurs when a researcher appropriates an idea, such as a theory or conclusion — whole or in part — without giving credit to its originator. Acknowledge all sources!

Peer review is supposed to be confidential, and colleagues put their trust in each other during this process, assuming there will be no theft of ideas. Once the paper is published in a peer-reviewed journal, it should be cited.

Do use direct quotes

But quoted material should not make up more than 10 percent of the entire article.

Failure to use your own “voice” or “tone” is also considered plagiarism, or could be construed as plagiarizing, depending on how unique the author’s voice is. When there is an excessively unique turn of phrase, use quotation marks and cite (if in doubt.)

When paraphrasing, the syntax should be different enough to be considered your own words. This is tricky because you need to understand the primary work in its original language in order to reword it without just moving words around. In other words, no shuffling words!

Do cite facts widely acknowledged to be true (just in case!)

If it’s something that is generally held within your discipline to be true, or it’s a fact that can be easily looked up – like the year a state passed a certain law – there’s no need to cite “Google” or any generic platform, but it’s better to be safe than sorry. Someone reading your work might not have a background in your discipline.

Do run your paper through a plagiarism-detecting tool

Some options are www.turnitin.com or http://www.ithenticate.com.

Sanctions

There are consequences for plagiarizing another’s work. If you’re a faculty member, the sanctions could affect your career. For instance, according to retractionwatch.com, a prominent researcher and university leader was recently found to have engaged in misconduct. Terry Magnuson was accused, and later admitted to, plagiarizing unintentionally.

In an open letter to his university colleagues, Magnuson wrote a startlingly candid statement: “You cannot write a grant spending 30 minutes writing and then shifting to deal with the daily crises and responsibilities of a senior leadership position in the university, only to get back to the grant when you find another 30 minutes free.”

He goes on to say: “I made a mistake in the course of fleshing out some technical details of the proposed methodology. I used pieces of text from two equipment vendor websites and a publicly available online article. I inserted them into my document as placeholders with the intention of reworking the two areas where the techniques —which are routine work in our lab — were discussed. While switching between tasks and coming back to the proposal, I lost track of my editing and failed to rework the text or cite the sources.” Taking responsibility for this oversight, he resigned.

And that brings us to the Big Idea…

The Big Idea

The one thing that trips up even the most seasoned writers is having enough time to properly cite all one’s sources. Give yourself a few extra days (weeks?) to finish your paper and have a peer read it over with any questionable facts or quotes that might need to be cited more appropriately.

Funding agencies take plagiarism very seriously. For instance, the NSF provides prevention strategies by implementing a pre-submission process, and is also attempting to make plagiarism detection software available.

You also may want to take advantage of resources in your university’s library or writing center. There are also several tools to help you organize your citations; one called RefWorks will keep track of your sources as you write in-text citations or footnotes.

------

This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea. Sarah Hill, the author of this piece, is the communications manager for the UH Division of Research. It's based on a workshop given by Penny Maher and Laura Gutierrez at the University of Houston; Senior Research Compliance Specialists at the University of Houston.

Trending News