Protected Pockets of Time

May 16, 2012

In yesterday’s discussion, I finally got a partial glimpse of the issue when NatC observed:

Discussions about how to manage and plan protected pockets of time OUTSIDE work to do whatever – walk the bulldog, play music, train for a triathlon, watch baseball, play with your kids or nieces/nephews ir travel – would be extremely valuable work/life balance discussions to have early in this sometimes crazy career.

In full disclosure this has rarely been a problem for me. I’ve managed to get to where I am today (such as it is) with what I think is a healthy balance of work-to-life. Obviously some, including my spouse, might disagree but the important thing is that I think this is the case. We’re talking personal, subjective “balance” here and nobody can define it for you. If you have reached it, you are going to be relatively happier and if you feel imbalanced you are going to feel sad* about it.

Yes, I for damn sure wish for more hours in the day. Yes. Of course. And at each and every major stage there were things being neglected so that I could pursue some other thing. Either in the proximal, days to weeks, or in the long-haul, years to decades(!), perspective. But I have never been an obsessive and any fair read would fail to find any major imbalance.

How did I do it?

I think the most useful and general approach is that you have to be willing to fail.

Let me say it again: YOU HAVE TO BE WILLING TO FAIL!!!!!

I was not, I think, willing to fail at getting the PhD. This was a defined, obtainable target for which the steps were mostly clear to me. Do the research, write that shit up into a dissertation and bob’s your uncle.

After that? Well, yes, of course I wanted to succeed career-wise. In one of the professorial paths preferably. But I was willing to…not. To fail.

There have been several defined choice points at which I did the considerably sub-optimal career move for the sake of issues that we shall encompass under “life”. (Also career moves which might have in the long run been suboptimal but looked great** at the time. Some of this initial appearance was influenced by “life”.) Sometimes I did this out of unthinking ignorance, I will admit. I didn’t perhaps realize the magnitude of the risk I was running. But I for damn sure knew there was risk. Risk of not making it in some way. Of not getting on the independent research track. Of not getting funding…or not keeping it. Of letting the lab and research program crash down to nonviability.

This hasn’t stopped and it continues to this day.

Is my virtue untested? Some might observe that. From the perspective of some it looks like I have a pretty schweet gig***. From above the waterline it looks okay. Something a disgruntled postdoc or Year 3 faculty member might think is pretty much IT. As in “career accomplished”…all it takes now is running it out like you always wanted to. No risk.

I don’t see it that way. I still risk failures of various sorts. Mostly the big axe is the grant funding….and it is a big one, hanging over my head more often than it is not.

So much like the disgruntled postdoc and the terrified junior faculty member…I could always work harder. More. Put in more grants. Squeeze out more papers. Refine my lab efficiency to maximize the data. Chase small project funds. Woo more trainees. Hit the seminar circuit harder. Go to more meetings.

All of this would probably benefit my career. It would make things go better professionally. We’d be more productive, no doubt.

I choose not to. That’s it. There’s no secret. There’s no special case of insulation from the risks of choosing not to work harder than the next person. You risk paying a price.

Balance implies tradeoffs. I’ve certainly found it to be so. There are costs to go with every benefit. Costs that may be “just” stress, may be health issues (mental or otherwise), may be definable career failures. Having “life” balance makes this inevitable. There will be tradeoffs****, people.

This is my answer to NatC’s question. Choose. Choose to take the time. Make room for what is important to you. Realize that by doing so you might fail. You might.

But you know what? These St Kern and Poo types?

I know for damn sure they’ve failed at life.

And that I was never willing to risk.

*don’t get a puppy to cheer yourself up.
**so we won’t count these, at the time they seemed really pro-career.
***and I do, I do.
****of course it goes both ways. you may be choosing a career path that really isn’t compatible with your desire to tour Europe with an opera group every summer. You may have to give up some of the “life” stuff

No Responses Yet to “Protected Pockets of Time”

  1. It is important to distinguish between two assertions, both of which have been made in one form or another during this discussion:

    (1) It is ok for people to invest more or less time in various extra-scientific pursuits, and they shouldn’t be affirmatively punished for the nature and extent of that investment.

    (2) It is ok for people to invest more or less time in various extra-scientific pursuits, and–depending on the specific nature and extent of that investment–scientific success and its rewards should be normalized between those who invest more versus less time in them.


  2. Susan Says:



  3. drugmonkey Says:

    It’s the #2 that is the problem. If by “normalized”, you mean “made equivalent”.


  4. becca Says:

    I think there can be a different risk associated with taking no risks of that sort.

    When you go all out, at one goal, that has been the defining thing of your life (or at least a few decades), and the science doesn’t work, or your relationships with your mentors isn’t what it should be, or the company/uni you work for has a massive problem…it can break you. If you’re not resilient, and sometimes even if you are. Or maybe you give it your all and it works out ok but someday you wake up and you never did anything really great. You did the science you knew how to do best, not the science that would make the greatest impact (in real terms, whatever that may be, not IF on papers).

    Having a kid functioned for me as a diversification of Life Purpose. That’s got risks, but it’s got benefits too. For me, it might have reduced overall risk. I’d guess I’m less likely to win a Nobel, but a lot less likely to suicide out (and I rate the later as more likely overall than the former).
    Well, once I got through the PPD. That was a kick in the head.


  5. miko Says:

    Yeah I could name at least one highly successful P00lumnus who is never in his freakin lab, and never was much in the P00ster’s either. This dumbshit mentality about hours at the bench is endemic though… do a shitty experiment 100 times instead of designing a good experiment that gives you the same result/statistical power with elegance and efficiency. Just watched a grad student crash and burn in slow motion on this… 3+ years wasted on something that should have been experimentally improved and then, as it turns out, dumped in a few months.

    Also, I never have good ideas in the lab, and would probably be as destructively stubborn as that student if I didn’t have such a hair trigger leave-the-fucking-lab reflex. Coffee, pie, sunshine, my wife, a little exercise, a matinee: these are more important than the stupid experiment I am doing right now. You have to step back, snuggle your baby-fed pit bull in the backseat of your Bentley, and think of things with a little perspective.

    And if you aren’t happily pulled back to the lab of your own accord to do some genius next-level shit afterward, then you shouldn’t be a scientist.


  6. Ennui Says:

    My advisor is definitely a “Poo” type. His lab policies a few years ago included the mandate “If you want to leave lab at 5, 6 or 7PM and NOT come back later in the evening, you need to be here by 5, 6, or 7AM.” Saturday work is also required by policy (though not 12+ hour shifts). He also forbids the use of the lab’s internet to visit non-science related websites, and offenses are punished by no longer allowing the offender to bring their laptop to work.

    Productivity is good, but the work I am capable of at the end of a 12-, 13- or 14-hour shift is pretty shit and definitely uninspired. I got burned out in my first year doing that. I’m a believer in “fixed schedule productivity” – I keep a consistent schedule, working 10-11 hour shifts most days, and then go home and do other things. I’ve seen some labmates happily work longer, and others burn out quickly.


  7. Sxydocma1 Says:

    No matter what – every night – I have dinner with my husband and daughter. Maybe a handful of evenings over the year, I don’t get to. But, it is an A1 priority – something I refuse to fail at.


  8. miko Says:

    Is this a science related web site, Ennui?


  9. drugmonkey Says:

    but the work I am capable of at the end of a 12-, 13- or 14-hour shift is pretty shit and definitely uninspired.

    I’d like to see the person who is productive for 13 hrs straight, week in, week out.

    I really would.


  10. DJMH Says:

    Ennui–and you joined this lab WHY?


  11. Ennui Says:

    Ennui–and you joined this lab WHY?

    I didn’t have a ton of options, as I was part of a huge entering class which left everyone competing for ANY lab to join, and almost no one got the rotations they wanted. I chose this lab over the two others I rotated in:

    1) Lab of 30+ people, run like a business. PI is in all hours, except when he travels to do consulting gigs (practically half the year). More senior students bully younger students to do their work for them. Also, the unofficial language of the lab is Chinese.

    2) Lab of 3 graduate students, 1 postdoc, and 5 undergrads. Advisor is poorly funded, and so all the grad students (even the senior ones) have to TA at least one semester each year (as well as waste more time training and supervising the damn undergrads). Also, 2/3 of the grad students in the lab at the time were 6th years (transplants from the previous institute the professor worked at), and neither of them had ANY pubs or a timeline to graduate. There was also a long trail of more recent grad students who had been ex-members of this lab but had switched labs or quit grad school altogether.


  12. NatC Says:

    It took me a very long time – as well as a really great mentor and an illness – to learn to choose.

    The thing for me, and a lot of other young ‘uns that I know, is that it was almost all internal, self-(and to a lesser extent, peer-) generated pressure.

    As for being willing to risk failure (though that makes me all panicky, so I prefer to call it “redefining what success and failure means”) helps a LOT.


  13. bill Says:

    I think it says something that becca uses the phrase “suicide out” and no one blinks. It’s just a given that suicidal ideation is part of the postdoc/peon’s lot.



  14. DJMH Says:

    as I was part of a huge entering class which left everyone competing for ANY lab to join

    ah, back to the question of why programs aren’t willing to restrict incoming grad populations…because that way the shitty labs can get some grad students, too! It is all in the name of fairness!


  15. bill Says:

    Ennui — re: “run like a business” — how much business experience do you have?

    Or are you just assuming, like most academics, that “everyone knows” how business works and that it’s all chicanery and suffering?


  16. cd4plus Says:

    As a current grad student, this is a really refreshing read, especially going back to your older commentary (I’m new to your blog, hello).

    I’ve struggled with the model of a 50+ hour workweek for various reasons, including disabilities that can take me out for a few hours or for a day if it’s a particularly bad day. I left my first lab as a grad student because my PI’s attitude had me boxed in the lab, at my bench, with a working lunch, with very strict rules about when I had to be there, how much vacation time we were allowed, and we had to inform him if we were going to be gone for any time during hours with an explanation. The lack of flexibility about how and when and where I could do my work made me less productive, not more. And no amount of explaining I did could change his mind, either.

    (Thankfully now I’m in a more understanding lab, though I sometimes get comments along the lines of “how dare you make time to exercise” or “why are you going home, it’s only 5”)

    I’ve had growing concerns that these other things I have to deal with (on top of being a woman) will be doom to any future career I want to have as a scientist. It’s good to know my work balance might not be the end of me, after all.


  17. Miko: “And if you aren’t happily pulled back to the lab of your own accord to do some genius next-level shit afterward, then you shouldn’t be a scientist.”

    Great points. I think people really undervalue the quality of ‘thinking’ that can get done when you are not in the lab, and not ‘working’. Stepping away from it when it’s killing you is necessary, and lets you clear your head. I completely agree, if you don’t want to go back and try it a different way or try something new, you shouldn’t be a scientist because you will be miserable.

    In addition, I think its a mistake for a PI to assume their students/post-docs need external carrot and stick motivation to be productive. If they don’t want to get data and want to publish papers on their own, they are probably not going to be strong students or good scientists regardless of external PI-enforced restrictions.


  18. Cloud Says:

    From an outsider (I left academia after grad school), the fact that you have to set these boundaries yourself without any real project management training is one of the things that makes an academic career unique, or at least a lot different from my career (I’m a manager in biotech).

    I also think that the need to be willing to make trade offs in your career to get whatever non-work thing you want is one of the reasons people without kids often look at those of us who have kids and think we are getting more than our fair share of breaks at work. Because kids are a powerful reason to be willing to take a career ding, so people will just take the time they need. A lot of other potential non-work things you might be doing just don’t have that pull. I do it myself- most days, I pick up the kids after work. On Tuesdays, my husband does that and I go home and have a work out instead. Yesterday, I had a meeting that started late and ran late, and I missed my workout. If that happened on a day when I have to pick the up the kids, I would have either rescheduled the meeting once I realized it was going to start late, or just gotten up and walked out. Of a meeting with the Chief Science Officer of my company (and yes, I’ve done it before.) I’d take the risk of causing career harm for my kids, not for my workout.

    But actually, I haven’t experienced much career pain for setting up boundaries and limiting my work hours. I’ve been doing that pretty much my entire career, ever since I realized that I was actually more productive if I worked fewer hours. I had that realization in grad school, and now, with >10 years experience as a manager (of both people and projects) I am convinced that this is pretty much universally true. Everyone has a work limit, and past that limit, productivity drops and eventually even goes negative as the mistakes accumulate. I recently came across some old research that backs this observation up- it was mostly from the early days of the industrial age, though. I wish someone would update it. But anecdotally, the other good project managers I know all have the same observation and try to plan their projects accordingly. If you have a project manager whose plans require super long hours from the start, you have (1) a bad project manager and (2) a project that is likely to fail.

    So anyway, Ennui- I’m sorry you got stuck in such a bad lab. I can’t tell you whether you should try to transfer or stick it out, but whatever you do, try to learn a better way to manage for your future use when you are the boss. Because your boss? He’s shooting himself in the foot, and getting less work out of his lab than he could with better management techniques.


  19. Grumble Says:

    “Everyone has a work limit, and past that limit, productivity drops and eventually even goes negative as the mistakes accumulate.”

    Amen to that. By mid to late afternoon (assuming constant productive work from morning), I’m pretty much done. It’s nearly impossible to concentrate, and if I were forced to do some challenging job, I wouldn’t be able to do it very well.

    But true scientific creativity (at least as I experience it) isn’t challenging. It just happens, but it needs a relaxed frame of mind and a willingness to simply let the ideas flow while watching them flow by. It happens best in three places: in the shower, while drifting off to sleep, and on long walks. Late afternoon, post-busywork, is a great time for one of these activities.


  20. Virgilstar Says:

    As a PI, I work about a 40 hour week, never on weekends, and I do not expect anyone in my lab to do more than that. Quite frankly, if you NEED more time to get good results, you’re not doing it right! Throughout my career I have seen people who work a sh!t ton of hours and are no more productive than the rest. Even in undergrad, me and a couple of buddies would go for a beer last thing on the night before an exam… anything you read after midnight will not be kept in your brain anyway, so why not relax and get a good night’s sleep. The ones who crammed until 3am did far worse on exams.

    Currently, everyone in my lab apart from our technician has kids, so by 5.30 we’re all off to get them from daycare or after school care. We do, however, have an absolute hard start at 8am. If you come in at 10 or 11′ you simply can’t get the work done in time. Everyone seems to make it work, and we are very productive (4-5 papers per grant per year). All it takes is careful time management and planning (e.g., common lab Google calendar), good lab citizenship (ordering more sh!t when you use the last one, so someone else’s experiment does not get delayed), and knowing how to say no to time-suckers (too many seminars, meetings, colloquia etc).

    Setting a hard limit of 1 hr. for any meeting is a good rule to have – if you can’t say it in one hour, the second hour will probably be useless too. Sure it can be a bit rude sometimes… “hey I need you to get the F out of my office because I have a paper to write”, but there are other ways to recover time that would otherwise be lost… e.g. faking a need to go to the bathroom to end a meeting with a talkative colleague, or having the tech’ call my office at a given time to give me an excuse to cut someone off. If a seminar speaker runs over, fukem, I’m out the door, I can ask a burning question by email later if needed. Students don’t seem to have the balls these days to walk out of seminars on the hour, as if it’s impolite. FFS grow a pair. It’s your time, use it efficiently.


  21. DJMH Says:

    I’m with Virgilstar. I’m working a 40 hour week (used to work 50-55, before kid, but priorities change…) and I”m highly productive. Maybe I could be even more productive if I worked longer (actually it would probably help the most if I didn’t visit DrugMonkey during the day…) but I use my 25 min walk to/from work to think about projects, papers, graphs, etc. and that’s some of the most productive time of my day: I think long-term, and big-picture, which is hard to do at the bench.

    That said, I think if I had tried to behave like this in grad school, it wouldn’t have worked as well because there were more technique-y things I needed to learn in lab, and until I developed good techniques and a deep enough experience of the literature that it was easier to think properly about big picture stuff, some bench grind time was really required.


  22. odyssey Says:

    Going back to DM’s original thesis, I’ve always been willing to fail. I’d be the first to admit this has probably held me back – perhaps I could have been a Prof BigSchwingingDick – but I’m with DM in that I don’t want to miss out on life. It’s all a matter of priorities.


  23. Susan Says:

    I’ve never been willing to fail. I have, however, been entirely open to taking whatever turns are open and/or necessary on this random walk called life.

    After grad school, I took a postdoc because it was a good opportunity in a good place. When that lab contracted, I looked at many different options, but took postdoc #2 because it was a chance to do something really, really interesting. During postdoc #2, I almost quit a year ago for lack of support, and again considered other options. This past year, I sent out applications again, and got a great t-t job in a place where I clearly fit. You could look at me now, and imply that I’ve persevered over time; but the internal story is quite different, and the internal story includes a lot of life/work balance and personal boundaries and stuff that’s been discussed here. I’ve never been a 60-hr person, and I think best when I’ve been able to completely clear my mind. I have other things and people in life that I love. Life is about all of these, together.


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