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Is there such a thing as work-life balance for a research scientist?

31st October 2014
 | Katy Alexander

Peter J Stogiospeter works at the University of Toronto and is a PhD Biochemist.

Our day jobs serve two main purposes: a source of income, and a source of purpose or meaning to our lives. Let’s be honest, most people today consider the income-generating aspect of their work to be most important, while the second purpose is optional.

And so, most people construct barriers between their work and their personal lives, which is where they derive purpose and meaning. People look forward to their evenings and weekends.

For those of us that work in academic research science, we know that these barriers between ‘work’ and ‘life’ can be difficult to maintain. We usually don’t work 9-5 and we often come in on weekends. This might bother some of us; to others it’s a non-issue because they enjoy the work. Some of us enjoy it so much that it we don’t mind thinking about science at the pub..and this may end up being the best place to think about science anyway!

Lately I’ve been spending my weekends writing papers and it has taken more time away from other activities. I started thinking, how do I really feel about this? From the perspective of having a happy work-life balance, is it sustainable to work every day during the week, plus the weekends too? I am getting a lot accomplished. The question is, should I continue working so much?

This got me thinking. What kind of work-life balance am I creating doing this?

Being a scientist isn’t a ‘typical job’, at least in my mind, so what is work-life balance to a scientist anyway?

  • Various ways to balance work and life.

Based on my experience working with many different people, I think scientists adopt different habits or personality types to best satisfy their personal needs to separate ‘work’ from ‘life.’ Admittedly this may be an over-simplistic classification, but I’ve observed that scientists can be divided into three basic types:

There are those whose brains think of science naturally and spontaneously. They can’t control when they think about science and they like it. They don’t really care if science creeps into their ‘life’ time outside of ‘work’ time. They gain purpose, meaning and fulfillment primarily from their work.

There are those that indeed enjoy science, but only at the lab and during regular hours (as regular as they can be in science). These people prefer not to think about work when they are spending time with friends, family or away from work. They do gain purpose from their work, but they also do from other facets of their lives.

There are those that treat research purely as work, aren?t terribly motivated, and would rather spend their time doing other things from which they gain meaning to their lives. These people typically don’t last very long as a research scientist and move to other jobs.

I would say the distribution I?ve observed is 70% type A, 25% type B, and 15% type C. For scientists of type A the work-life balance issue becomes problematic. These people either do not care about having separation between ‘work’ and ‘life’, or, they don?t know how to separate them. And this is where I ask questions–while it is fun and exciting to think about science, is it healthy to think about our work so much? Is it healthy to be this type of scientist? Or am I making much ado about nothing?

  • Advantages of being a ‘type A’ scientist

What are the pluses to being the type of scientist that highly invests their meaning to live in their work?

Clearly the main advantage is that they enjoy their work. People in many walks of life feel the same way, from artists, musicians, entrepreneurs to stock traders; these people enjoy their work so much they don?t even consider it work, and are willing to sacrifice income, time, hobbies, or other parts of their lives for their careers.

Another advantage to being this type of scientist is a feeling of ownership. In science we invest our ‘blood, sweat and tears’ into the work. When things go right, we gain a thrill that few experiences in life can provide and therefore outcomes come with a big sense of accomplishment and pride. Not all vocations can claim this, where people working in large organizations feel their investment of time and energy just makes someone else rich.

  • Disadvantages of being a ‘type A’ scientist

While those were two big pluses to being this type of scientist, I think there are minuses that perhaps not enough of us are aware of.

Studies show that ‘turning off’ the higher functions of our minds, like those involved in thinking about science, and letting ourselves enjoy simpler things in life, like food, exercise and friends, lead to better health. This also improves performance of those higher functions.

These studies tend to show that achieving a healthy balance between work and other activities actually leads to greater happiness, satisfaction and productivity.

The problem arises when those type A scientists are consumed with their science at the expense of other aspects to their lives. I’ve seen many examples of scientists that invest so much time in their work that their interpersonal relationships suffer, the neglect their health, appearance and overall happiness. I have yet to meet a human being that can live without interpersonal relationships, and so it must be difficult on these scientists.

Another disadvantage is that being so emotionally invested in your work is this takes on a huge amount of risk. What I mean is that if you put ‘all of your eggs in one basket’ (the research basket) and it fails, then you aren’t left with much except frustration and negative emotions. It’s important to ‘diversify our emotions’ in that we should gain satisfaction from many different aspects of life. To be so emotionally invested in your work is to be an incomplete person, in my opinion.

  • But…being a scientist is more than a day job – it’s a way of living

I think it was important to be aware of the benefits and costs of being so engrossed in our work. But maybe it isn’t so simple.

To me, being a scientist means you use observation and logical deduction to come to conclusions. If you are a scientist, you probably apply this way of thinking to aspects of your life beyond your scientific work: to your finances, to your education, to your interpersonal relationships (which often are actually not understandable by logic but nonetheless we try).

What I am trying to say is that being a scientist is a way of living. It’s how our brains think, beyond our day job. Thinking as a scientist isn’t something that we can shut off because we feel like getting away for a weekend.

Not only is this a way of living that extends beyond our work hours, being analytical, critical and imaginative can be mentally demanding. I’m not claiming that science is the only demanding vocation, or that it is more demanding than other lines of work like being an entrepreneur. What I am saying is that being a scientist is mentally demanding in that thinking as a scientist uses higher brain functions that we may not be able to create ‘barriers’ around. We can’t shut off our subconscious which thinks about, processes and rationalizes our experiments in a time- and place-independent fashion.

And so, one could make the argument that being a scientist isn’t a career best-suited to easily compartmentalizing ‘work’ and ‘home’ lives. Maybe it can’t even happen.

It’s a personal journey to achieve a balance that works for you.

In this blog I’ve discussed the issues around achieving work-life balance as a scientist.

There are those of us whose brains think of science naturally and spontaneously, and we like to do so, so separating work and life isn’t important. Or maybe those people are investing too much of their mental capacity and emotion in their work.

There are those of us that do enjoy science but whose brains actually require completely different activities to stimulate productive thought.

It is a deeply personal quest to achieve the proper balance between gaining fulfillment and purpose in our lives from our work, which is amazing and fun, and gaining meaning and happiness from other parts of our lives. We are all different.

Some of us might have found that balance but others might not. I hope that you take the time think next time you decide to take your research home with you–is this the right thing to do? While you may get a little ahead in the short-term, will you be sacrificing other aspects of your life, like friends, family, hobbies or your health, which will have more subtle but important consequences? I hope you achieve your own work-life mix in a way that advances your life in a complete and balanced way.

Cross-posted from here.