Work/life balance as a scientist – more than a myth…?

My winning entry piece for the journalist competition Boston 2016. It was originally published July 2016 on

Balance: Can scientists really have work/life balance?

Do we need to choose between life and science? No. If we learn to delegate and lose our perfectionism, we can have it all.

Science is a balancing act. There are experiments to be run, grants to be written, manuscripts to be published, students taught, and conferences to attend. It’s not surprising then that the life of a scientist is a balancing act as well. But how can we balance it, and can we “have it all”?

For some, “having it all” might mean publishing a double-digit impact factor paper at least once a year. For others, it means getting a tenure track position and thus job security. And for many, “having it all” is the seemingly unobtainable goal of balancing a prosperous scientific career with a family. Which poses an important question: do we work to live or live to work? Can science ever be a job you do, or is science who you are?

If it is who you are, well then, there’s the rub. If science is your life, work/life balance is written right into the job description. Your work is your life; so why would you even need anything else? But what if you love science, yet don’t exclusively live for the lab? Does this mean you are not a “real” scientist?

One might argue that the work hours necessary to collect the data that’s needed for an outstanding publication are incompatible with a life outside the lab. Does this mean academia can never be just a day job but rather has to be a lifestyle? Do we have to choose between science and life? If that were true, science would be a dying occupation. Yet, there have never been more students finishing their PhDs, or undergoing postdoctoral training. Granted, not all of them will go on to stay in academia; however, there are a number of shining examples who have managed to not only advance their careers, but also raised a family or followed another passion outside of science. So what is their secret? One piece of advice they all mention seems obvious: delegate, and stop trying to be perfect. Sometimes it is better to finish something on a B+ level than to postpone it in hopes of perfection. It’s simple and relevant both in and outside of science..

Yet, many of us have experienced envious glances from colleagues when trying to sneak out of the lab early. We need to move away from this culture of shame, where people that leave before nightfall are automatically viewed as slackers who are not taking science seriously. They might be going home to read five papers that night, or preparing a conference abstract, or maybe they’re simply enjoying the night with friends. And that’s OK, too. In the end, everyone needs to define for themselves how much life they need in their personal work/life balance. No one can work 24/7 indefinitely, and while the breaking point may be different for each of us, we all have one. Scientist should not be measured by the hours they spend at the bench. They should be allowed to experience other things in life, and when their interest and curiosity brings them back to the bench their results and their life will be all the more meaningful because of it.


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