You might have reached the stage in your career when you realize that everything was better in the good old days. That everyone worked harder, the science was cooler and with talks you couldn't rip apart in your sleep. You know, those days when the talks were HARD to understand.
This has nothing to do with the phds of today, science or talks in general. It's you. You have reached that stage. The only thing I ask, is that you remember to be nice.
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.
Seems to me that time is speeding up and the weeks are rushing by. The exam period is starting soon, lectures are ending next week and somehow half of November is already over. I have no idea where all my time went and just today I realized there’s exactly 6 months until I have to hand in my thesis!
I’ve been talking a lot about the subject of “too much work” and how it kills motivation. I thought that for myself that problem was taken care of when I dropped most of my cancer study. Turns out that wasn’t enough though. I’m so tired that I’m always sleepy. Even sitting in my office I feel like my desk could be a perfectly good bed. Staring at the screen or all the paperwork, it seems my head has exploded. Kaboom!!
A lot of people seem to think that to do science you cant do anything else. The way people compare hours in the lab or how late they stay up at night to work is just plainly annoying and not benefitting anyone. Repeatedly we hear about people getting out of academic careers or even completely leave science due to the work pressure and even worse, it scares young and brilliant people away. On the other, a lot of people are trying to change this view of science, because it is simply not true. It is possible to be a scientist and have a life. You can have a hobbies, a family, anything you want and still have a career in science. But somehow that requires you to realize that a) you want it, b) you deserve it and c) it is possible even if it seems impossible with your current workload.
I think the clue here is the workload and not necessarily the “real” workload, but the on you imagine you should be able to do over a week. I’m completely incompetent when it comes to planning realistically. I have repeatedly planned to do 3 experiments a week (or more) and at the same time be supposed to attend two lectures, prepare for those lectures and additionally do some work on my thesis. Not only do I NEVER finish everything I plan to do, I feel bad about it, get stressed and then can’t sleep.
The problem gets even bigger if there is something outside your work interfering as well. For instance, since late September G and I have been working every weekend and several nights a week on our new apartment. No need to say we’re exhausted, but letting this interfere with my work has been a huge problem for me. The problem isn’t that it has prevented me for doing a normal amount of work, it has prevented all the work I otherwise do in the evenings. The same can be said for anyone with something major going on: you feel bad not being able to put those extra hours into science.
I think we can all agree that it’s ridiculous.
After all, the day only has 24 hours and no one can go without sleep. But what is a normal workload? Especially if you’re doing experiments you need to keep a flexible schedule that allows you to work late to finish an experiment and that can result in periods of really looong days. But even if you stay 13 hours in the lab one day, you shouldn’t feel bad about taking some time off the next day. It’s important to remember to take some time off and then to use at least parts of that time to relax. Most of us realize that the work we do when we are well rested and happy is much better than when we’re about to fall asleep on the cell culture, E. coli or whatever you’re studying. A normal weekly load then, should be the amount of work that gives you a chance to do a really good job on a few selected things and then go home to relax; instead of wearing yourself out over a million things that you couldn’t possibly finish anyway.
Personally I get forgetful when I’m tired and stressed. So forgetful in fact, that I just couldn’t remember what I was doing this morning. Why did I get up so early? Did I do an experiment? …lecture, right, I went to a morning lecture!
In other words, time to go home and rethink that workload. And get that living room painted!
This excellent post about having kids by 27 and a PhDgot me thinking about timing. When is it the right time for kids and starting a family? Or when is it the right time to move to a new country or city? Travel? Buy a place to live? Getting a pet? Or when should you decide upon a specific career path?
First thing first: I’m absolutely not planning to have kids any time soon. Or a pet. And though I originally planned to do some travelling after finishing my MSc, that’s going to be postponed another year or so, as I’ve got no time (if I get a job) or money.
A few months back, G and I realized that in June 2013 we’d have no place to live (we have to move out of the student apartment one month after graduation) and I would be done with my studies and most likely be on a job hunt. G recently got a new job that he loves and I’ve found a few potential places to do a PhD, so we decided to stay in the city for 3-5 years. With that settled it seemed sensible to buy a place to live (it would be cheaper for us to buy an apartment than renting one). Almost 5 months of searching followed and finally, last week we bought an apartment very close to the city.
Buying the apartment and reading 27’s post gave me feeling of being “early”. I’ll be done studying by the time I’m 24. By then G and I will have been together 7 years and we’ll be living in our own apartment. I’ve never done anything but studying (I’ve had part-time jobs, but that doesn’t count) but people I meet frequently thinks I’m older than I am (although I can’t buy beer without ID). Most of my friends on the other hand, have take some time to work, travel or to decide what they want to do for a career. Sometimes I think everything is just gliding into place for me, though I also have a feeling that I might be rushing things and missing out on something. But then I don’t see how or why I should have done anything different as I’ve been very happy with my choice to stay in the city and study.
In the long run though, I want to leave my home city and thankfully G has agreed – at least for a few years. I’ve lived in Copenhagen for half a year and would like to go back. I’m also thinking about England or Sweden, or other cities in Norway like Tromsø or Bergen. But when? Maybe after a PhD would be a good time?
Then I want to travel! I want to go to Asia, especially Japan and China to see the wildlife and nature. I also want to visit South-America and see more of the U.S. My sister suggested to go on shorter holidays in stead of spending several months or a whole year traveling. I think that might be the best solution for me as it would take away the timing issue if I can just go during the holidays.
The biggest issue for me right now is my career. I don’t know if I want to stay in academia, move to the private sector or do research at all. Is science really for me? I love to learn new subjects, plan experiments and discuss the results. Most of the time I like the experiments, but there’s no hiding that the lab can be such a pain, both physically and mentally. The bad days can be so bad it makes me wonder if it’s all worth it. Is that the same for all professions?
Recently I’ve been considering if scientific writing and online publishing could be something for me and I’ve started learning HTML5 and C#. The weird (and very nerdy) thing is, I love it! I really like programming! But I also love my projects, my cells and my plants, science and research. What should I do? Choose? Or find a way to combine my interests? Should I go into research right away or try something different first?
At the moment I’m leaning towards doing a PhD. This might not make sense to anyone but me, but the idea is to try myself as a “real scientist” and see if I like it. If not, the experiences from a PhD should be helpful in scientific writing/publishing anyway (hm, this plan suddenly looks very simple). In any case the major career decision has been postponed until after the PhD.
Postponing major decisions might not sound like such a good idea, but if it’s possible, I think it’s the right thing to do: postpone until you know what you want. And when you know that, figuring out the right timing will be easier, or what do you think?