How I keep my sanity

A few weeks ago a friend doing a masters thesis came to talk to me about the work-life balance lie and how to survive in science. As this is something I have been struggling with myself I  emailed her my thoughts on the subject. This post is a modified version of that email. Everything here is based on my experiences with research and helpful tips I have collected from both “virtual and analog” colleagues.

But first, a small but important note: in Norway a PhD is considered a job and it is relatively well paid. A PhD contract is typically 3 or 4 years, and most people finish during year 4 or 5. This greatly influences how to approach a PhD here compared to other countries with different systems. 

All of this is very individual and what works for me might not agree with you or anyone else. This is a selection of my thoughts on the work-life balance lie and how I work, in addition to a selection of blog posts that I have found very helpful.
But in the end you’ll need to figure out what works for you.

First: the short version
My philosophy is: I love science, but I won’t die for it.
In other words: it’s a job. Most importantly I’m here to have fun!
To do a good job I need to work reasonable hours and have evenings and weekends off to be with my family and focus on my hobbies.

The long version: 

 Not many agree with me on this, but I believe I can do a PhD working on average 8 hour days (experiments not included, see below).
I’m very picky about how I spend my time and I’m very, very effective.

Here’s what I do:

1) Planning.
I’m a planner. There’s no hiding it. I love to plan everything from experiments to dinners. It keeps me happy and sane. I have a hierarchy of plans from a vague yearly/monthly plan I drafted by hand, to weekly and daily plans made in Numbers and Evernote, and very, very detailed plans over my experiments.

The weekly plan I set-up every Friday afternoon, just before leaving work. Using Evernote I set up a note looking like this:

Template weekly note

I also have a Numbers sheet “archive” of the week to keep track of what I’ve been doing:

Weekly summary template

In experience I will forget what I did a few months back, not to mention years back. For that reason I also have an experiment archive.These things have a way of being skipped as time passes and work piles up, but by sticking to it you avoid the desperate “what-the-f-did-I-do” searches through you lab journal. And yes, I’ve been there.

In addition to the weekly note, I set-up a similar note for the next day before I leave work.
Evernote has a feature that allows you to insert boxes you can check once a task is finished.
Great for all the list-oholics out there.
As a rule I only keep two daily notes and one weekly note at a time to avoid build-up and the stress of unfinished tasks. I never make daily notes for more than the coming day as planing the week in that much detail always fails. If something isn’t finished it’s moved to the next day. For any given day I choose no more than 3, but very ambitious goals. 

The major point is: goals MUST be measurable so that you know when you’ve reached them. 

This week my goals were: create a shopping-list (which is a list of all proteins that will be relevant for the coming year) confocal training and isotope lab training. Goals like: read up on immunology are not allowed. In stead use something like: read 4 papers on cytokines and write a summary. Keeping the goals ambitious is important. It motivates you to be focused and avoid distractions to  finish in time. As a result, you’re usually finished early and when you’re done you leave work!

When I wrote my thesis I had a daily goal of 400-500 words. It took me 4-6 hours. Afterwards I was exhausted, but then I went home and didn’t work at all in the evenings. I’ve never before been so productive and worked so few hours!

Daily goals should be part goals that in summary accomplishes all of your weekly goals.

2) Be effective. This doesn’t mean working fast, it means working on the right task.
Be very, very selective.
Take time to plan your experiments and make them great. Don’t read every paper, only those worth your attention, although this takes some training. Don’t check you email all the time, once a day is ok (people can reach you on your phone). 
Identify what steals your time and eliminate it. For me that’s email, surfing the web looking for “the perfect paper” and facebook. The solution is to only check emails after lunch and have dedicated time for literature searches.
Oh, and log off facebook!

3) Make YOUR choice about your #lifeinscience.
There’s no such thing as work-life balance. You need to figure out what works for you and your family and go with that. You need to know when during the day you’re at your best and how to fit your schedule with your family.
I function best between 8 and 13. As a rule I therefore work from 8-16 with no working evenings and weekends. Whenever I have to break this “deal” I tell my partner in advance and make sure he understands why and how much.
This is especially true for experiments, as I see the lab as an exception:
I stay until the experiment is done, no matter what. 
But this also means that if I have to stay late one day, I come in late the next day. If an intense round of labing is done at 14 and I feel exhausted, I go home. And that is ok!
NEVER count hours or compare yourself to those around you, it’ll only break your spirit.

In academia we have this old myth that you HAVE to work 24/7 to be a real scientist, and you’ll come across people who like to scare each other with the long hours they spent in the lab. We also have the issue of the leaky pipeline, with minorities and women being the major “drops”.  At this point I don’t think there’s a solution apart from what I wrote above: find something that works for you and your family. You need to make the choice of how much of your time should be given to the lab compared to your family. 

My opinion is that I need spare time and a great family life to do a good job. My best ideas and a-ha moments have never been at work, but rather when I’m doing the dishes, hiking or hanging out in my super-awesome couch. When I’m relaxed and full of energy I’m excited about my work, creative, confident and produce awesome results. I know this by experience as I’ve been both overworked and exhausted to the point of seriously considering giving up during my masters.
Finally, I also feel that the only one that can prioritize my family is me and the only loosing part if my work breaks my family is also me. 
So I will prioritize my family. This is a choice each of us have to make and all answers are equally good. 

4) What is the point?
This related to point 3, but I want to emphasize this: what is your goal with this master/PhD/postdoc/whatever ?
I assume your primary goal is to get an A on your masters thesis (or a Nature paper during your PhD), but there’s no way of saying “do this and you’ll get an A”. What is important with this point is the long-term goal and what specific measures you can take to reach it.
You don’t need to have your career planned out, but give this some thought. I have come to the realization that being a PI might not be for me. Spending all my time on grant applications, meetings and administrative tasks, with very little time for research (and then only theoretical, NO time in the lab) is not my goal. Realizing this was a major relief.
Then why am I doing a PhD? 
Honestly, I think it’s fun.
I get paid to do basic research, could there be anything better in the world?
During my masters I decided the “point” was to do a PhD afterwards. That meant I had to get at least a B on my thesis, but it also meant I could take time to research projects I liked and what supervisors seemed awesome. 
Knowing what’s the point can help you determine how much you need to stress on an everyday basis. 

Dealing with the 3 majors: reading, writing and “labing”

Once the right task is chosen, I’m efficient. I’m very selective in choosing papers and how thoroughly I read them. During a reading day I have a goal of reading 3-4 papers and take notes if they’re worth it. As I try to live a paperless existence I use Papers2 for reading and annotating. I also have a Excel sheet for keeping track of the papers and what I thought of them.

Organising your literature

First of all: write as much as you can, every week. In the beginning it doesn’t matter what you write, but it should be real sentences and not just notes. I started out with a few minutes each day/week. Ideally I want to have a dedicated writing day each week,  but even a couple of hours Friday afternoon is gold. That allows you to sum up the week, write up your thoughts about experiment, ideas from reading and so on. It’ll be worth so much later on.

It’s even more important to be efficient with writing than with reading. Writing will take up way too much time if you let it. I follow this recipe:
Drafts: Write anything without deleting or worrying about how “good” a sentence is, just get it down. Ideas, notes, anything, just get it on paper. Make sure to insert references where they should be, it’ll save you so much time instead of putting them in later (learnt the hard way).
Rewrite: This should happen at least a week after making the draft. You need to see the text with new eyes. Chances are that when you rewrite you know way more than when you made the draft, so you’re going to be skeptical about your own facts. You’ll want to go back and check the references, which is easy if you’ve inserted them into the text. It’s a good idea to note down what sentence/part of the paper you meant to cite so the check-up will go faster.
Polishing/finishing up: This can take forever. Decide on a deadline and be done with it. At some point you’re blinded by your own text and you should just hand it in.

When I have to write something, I set my goals using word counts. In the beginning, 400 words a day is very ambitious, but when you get into it, 500-800 is ok.

The lab:
Planning is everything. I try to do all calculations and preparations the day before so that experiment day is all about the experiment.
Notes. Write down everything! All that happened and every thought in your head. For each experiment I want my lab book to look like this:
Goal/point of experiment.
Protocol adapted to this specific experiments, with room for notes on the side.
Then if I want to I write down how it went and a few thoughts about the results.
Write-up: Sum up all experiments, preferably the same day or the day after. Never rely on memory, but write what you did and what you thought of the whole process, ideally make a few comments on the results.
During my master’s I often planned 3 experiments a week. Don’t do that. NEVER plan enough experiments to be stressed about it. Doing 1 each week is ok if it means you’re doing a better job of it. 3 poorly/ruined experiments is of no use for your thesis. As a weekly goal one experiment is often ok as each one typically takes several days. And take your time when you’re in the lab. Never rush it. 

FINALLY, here’s a selection of reading material:

I highly recommend this book, even if you think it sounds dumb. Most of my work style is based on this, using Julio’s adaption to PhD-life. If you only read 1 thing here, read this post:

Very useful on how to think about your life in science: 

Also useful

Overview of tools:

Final final tip:
Get on twitter. The web is full of scientists eager to help the newbies. Take advantage of that!

2 thoughts on “How I keep my sanity

  1. Yes! I love this post and I think everyone in science should read it! This might be the first time I’ve seen someone say something useful about planning and organization since I started university (?) . I do a lot of detailed planng myself, but sometimes feel like I’m using some secret trick.

    I’d like to recommend Omnifocus and reading up on Getting Things Done for even smarter ways of keeping lists.

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