This past summer one of my good friends managed to secure an internship at the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutes conducting biomedical research. He was thrilled at the opportunity for career exploration and mentorship at such an exciting institution. However, upon one of the first interactions with his mentor, my friend was told perhaps the most dismal thing a prospective researcher could hear: that there was no such thing as a work-life balance in science. I was stunned and rather dejected to hear this from my friend, particularly given my own interests in pursuing this profession. Are scientists doomed to a dismal life in a lab and nothing more? The issue of maintaining a work-life balance is one that faces much of the modern world, and the scientific community is no exception. I hope to provide a different perspective from that which seems to run rampant among research scientists and PhD students and shed light on the root of this problem. It seems that just as my friend’s mentor set out this expectation, so too do many of the individuals an impressionable grad student and fledgling researcher might look up to. It is the responsibility of mentors and students alike to shy away from the perspective of all-work-no-play and end the self-perpetuating cycle.
With all of the students I have talked to, I noticed a commonality: they are stressed out of their experiment-addled minds.
I have interacted with numerous graduate students across a wide swath of scientific fields, ranging from physics to geochemistry, microbiology to cognitive science. With all of the students I have talked to, I noticed a commonality: they are stressed out of their experiment-addled minds. It makes sense that PhD students would be stressed: graduate school is full of cluelessness, misunderstanding, and the threat of failed experiments. Any scientist would tell you that failure is a crucial and unavoidable element of the process of discovery, but to a PhD student failure is considered inevitable That stress is compounded by long hours spent working on said objective to try to make headway in order to finish their thesis. The social isolation of science-related graduate school does not improve the situation either, as the graduate students I’ve spoken with see each other as colleagues rather than as friends. I say this not to discourage anyone, but to raise attention to the situation that future scientists are confronted with daily. Perhaps science really is all work and no play, and if you don’t like it, you shouldn’t become a scientist. If this mindset is carried by most graduate students through their years developing a thesis, it is likely to stay in their mind as key to sustaining a career in science. It is the duty of the university and investigators to help the students they support realize that while they are making a big commitment to earn this degree, it doesn’t have to be at the stake of their personal well-being. However, perhaps the lack of work-life balance in the lives of student researchers isn’t seen by their supervisors, as it is possible that they too are living the same lifestyle.
From the Primary Investigators leading university research that I have spoken with, it seems that there is a vicious cycle within the world of academic research today. Many scientists measure success by how many publications they have authored. But in order to get publications one needs to carry out well-founded, novel research. In order to carry out good research one needs funding. And in order to get funding, one needs thorough and persuasive grant proposals which require previous research. The chicken-and-egg cycle is never-ending, and it seems that the ever-ebbing tide of this game rewards those who put the most time into their profession. It is not a far stretch to suggest that if a scientist wants to be successful in the world of research, he or she must put all other facets of life on hold.
The problem with this whole discussion is that work is seen as separate from and opposite to life, as the way to make a living, but it doesn’t have to be that way.
On the other hand, this may be simply a matter of perspective. Maybe what my friend’s mentor was trying to say was there is no such thing as a work-life balance in science because when you are truly conducting scientific inquiry, it shouldn’t be “work”. The problem with this whole discussion is that work is seen as separate from and opposite to life, as the way to make a living, but it doesn’t have to be that way. One thing that I have been told by many people that I’ve talked to is that they couldn’t imagine doing anything else. Sure, there may be ups and downs, and even certain modes of thinking which should be revised, but it all comes down to whether or not you love what you do. Does an artist see his creative endeavors as a burden to personal development? Artists create art because they need it to feel fulfilled, and so too might scientists discover, investigate, and create for the very same reason.
At the end of the day it comes down to electing to pursue that which we really want to pursue. Earning a PhD is a commitment and an achievement worthy of recognition, but it shouldn’t be the only thing that defines an individual. Even if we love science and see it as integral to our lives, that is no excuse for neglecting other aspects of who we are. We have the agency to decide what is important to us. If we decide to have a family and enjoy other interests, we should not chastise ourselves for neglecting “science”. Conversely, if someone decides to pursue their passion of science, we shouldn’t see that as a negative, as it is their own individual experience of happiness. The point is that it is not a work-life balance but simply a life balance, and one must choose how to live that life and what priorities are most important.
Stepping into the “real world” is scary in any profession, and this seems to be the root of the fears of the average PhD student. The prospect of having to balance career success with a meaningful family life is terrifying. Our generation is afraid of the changes that coming of age brings.
Stepping into the “real world” is scary in any profession, and this seems to be the root of the fears of the average PhD student. The prospect of having to balance career success with a meaningful family life is terrifying. Our generation is afraid of the changes that coming of age brings. Undergraduates look up to the great men and women that have gone before us to earn their PhDs and hope to be as successful as them one day, but the road leading there is quite intimidating. At times, science may seem like all work and no play. What the scientific community really needs is not a break, but rather a change of perspective. Yes, financial comfort is an important goal which people in every profession aspire to— but this shouldn’t be at the expense of personal well being. If we establish a culture where scientists see the very idea of scientific investigation as success in itself, then perhaps a career in science wouldn’t be so anxiety-inducing and researchers might be more able to focus on scientific exploration. If the definition of success in the scientific community is reevaluated to be more oriented to whether one performs his work with passion and pride, then aspiring scientists may find that there will rarely have trouble with their work-life balance.