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