I’ve got a deep, dark, dirty secret. I’m embarrassed – ashamed, even – to tell.
You see, whenever I see certain colleagues around my department, they’re always saying the same things: How much they have to do, how hard they are working, how late they stayed up last night, how they wish they could get a free weekend. Lots of deep exhales and despondent looks.
And when I pause for my hourly, five-minute Tea ‘n’ Twitter break1, I’m overwhelmed by the wave of people lamenting their harsh post-doctoral existence:
So as I progress along my own #postdoclife, I can’t help but feel a little… guilty.
Don’t get me wrong: I work hard. I have to – you can’t be a shirker and still land a full-time paid job in science. If ever you see me around my department, I’m always busy, running from lecture to meeting, diving into the lab to set up an exciting experiment, checking in with students and research assistants to hear their cool new results, locking myself away for hour-long intensive writing stints. But here’s the difference: At the end of the day, I stop. I don’t carry on into the early hours of the morning. I don’t allow work to take over every weekend. I don’t run myself into the ground so hard2 that I end up resenting what is arguably one of the most awesome jobs going.
I do spend time enjoying my hobbies. I do spend time talking and laughing with my partner. I do spend time eating good food and exercising to keep myself fit and healthy. I do these things every single day.
I also go on fun holidays, and spend weekends decorating the house, and take long walks in the countryside with the dog, and make exciting plans for the future.
Doing science requires a lot of thought. Fortunately, science is rarely off my mind. It’s my first thought in the morning and last thought at night. I think science while I’m in the shower and cooking tea and hanging out washing. I have some of my best ideas while horse riding. I mull over complexities on long bike rides. I chatter excitedly to my partner about my research, and wonder out loud about unexpected results, knowing that his thoughts are always insightful.
I love my #postdoclife. But in our current work-culture environment, I feel guilty saying so. I feel reluctant to enthuse about my fantastic job, when so many others despair. I feel embarrassed to admit that I have a good work-life balance, when the cultural norm is to sneer that such a thing doesn’t exist.
There is currently huge pressure on young scientists to keep up appearances. Work ethic appears to be under some kind of runaway selection, but the fitness benefits are unclear. We are not machines – our productivity is not directly proportional to the hours we put in. At some point the returns begin to diminish (probably at 2am after our fifth espresso). You might consider working endless hours to be a badge of honour, certification of your commitment to the cause, but it’s also a one-way road to job dissatisfaction and stress, ultimately driving many talented young researchers out of academia. Ironically, it may be the smartest among us who leave first.
I find this very scary. If the best young minds are being deterred science, the long-term consequences could be devastating.
I think we should seriously consider an alternative model.
How about we stop perpetuating this unhealthy academic work culture that is turning so many people off science? How about taking a damn break? How about finishing work at a reasonable hour and not taking your laptop home? How about spending weekends outside, breathing fresh air and enjoying time with friends and family? How about not drawing constant comparisons between yourself and others3? Or if you must compare, how about using a more useful metric than exhaustion level?
But most importantly, given our occupation:
How about giving yourself time to think?
1My personalised version of the following nifty productivity-boosting technique: http://www.52weeksofhabits.com/2013/08/20/pomodoro-the-ultimate-work-habit/
2Disclaimer: If you’ve seen me recently, you may argue that I have definitely run myself into the ground way too hard lately. But of course, that would be in the literal sense. Horse riding has its ups and downs:
3This is, above all else, the biggest possible waste of your time.