Work/life balance

I feel slightly better than before.  Not because anything is going better in lab (it’s really not) but because I took most of the day off on Saturday and the whole day off on Sunday.  It’s amazing what a little time away from lab can do to your perspective.  Which is why I will be taking an entire week off soon.

In college, I took an intro psych course and in it we learned about cognitive dissonance.  Cognitive dissonance is essentially the uneasy feeling you have when you hold two opposite ideas in your head.  My two opposite feelings are these:

  1. I want to graduate as soon as possible and to do that I must spend as much time in the lab as possible.
  2. If I don’t take some significant time off soon I will go bonkers.

Because, see to keep from going crazy, I need to not spend so much time in the lab, but in order to graduate I need to spend lots of time in the lab.  Now, I realize going crazy is not conducive to finishing labwork and writing a thesis and graduating.  And, after a chat with my psychiatrist, it seems pretty clear that I’m heading for a meltdown.

But, the fact is that I can’t get my work done if I am not physically in lab.  Therefore, whenever I spend time outside of the lab, I feel guilty.  I think, “I should really be in lab.  How am I ever going to graduate if I don’t spend every waking moment in lab?”  So, I end up not relaxing so much when I’m not in lab.  Which sort of defeats the purpose when you think about it.

So, I was reluctant to plan a week off.  I hemmed and hawwed and talked it over with R until I’m sure she was quite sick of hearing about it.  I worried what Advisor would say and how I could justify taking time off when both of us are eager for me to finish and get the hell out of here.  Finally, I bit the bullet, went in to talk to Advisor and said, “I need to take some time off or I’m going to shoot someone.”  To which he said, “Okay.”  I must really look like a woman on the edge because in the past he’s said things like, “Are you sure this is a good idea?” Or, “Well, if you really feel you have to.”  This time, it was just, “Okay.”

I still feel guilty, though.  This is part of the struggle to have a life outside of the lab.  On the one hand, I feel that it is healthy to do so.  In fact, I know it’s healthy to do so.  I used to have a life outside of lab and at that time I was a very mentally healthy person.  Then, I started cutting out things so I could spend more time in lab.  One by one, I got rid of the things I did that gave me a sense of happiness until all that was left was lab and since everything in lab is going so horribly wrong right now, I have nothing to balance out the bad lab stuff.

On the other hand, we’re not so much encouraged to have a life outside of lab.  People don’t come right out and tell you that lab needs to be the be all end all of your existence.  But, there is this sense that we need to hide our extracurricular activities from the faculty.  Let’s not mention the book club we go to or the knitting group or horseback riding or whatever.  Nobody says that you need to be chained to your lab bench, but it’s certainly implied.  Why is that?  Is that level of dedication what it truly takes to make it in science?

Despite feeling massive amounts of vacation guilt, I have bought my tickets and I’m going to CA to spend some time with my husband.  And just before that, I’m going home for the weekend for my nephew’s first birthday.  And I will try not to feel guilty while I’m gone.

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9 thoughts on “Work/life balance

  1. You do realize that you will probably be way more effective if you take weekends of to regenerate? There is a reason that worklaws in many countries limit work to 8 hours a day 5 days a week, or some sort of system that comes out to this at the end of the month.

    I’m not trying to lecture you, but trying to essentiallize what I learned from the few periods in my life without weekend breaks. They made me sick and depressed. Seriously, if all american lab are like this I will certainly not do a Postdoc at one. Good that I learned this in advance ;)

  2. This post describes exactly one of my biggest beefs with the academic research environment. I’ve made myself miserable working non-stop during both grad school and a postdoc, and in retrospect, I’m not sure that that actually made my research progress any faster. I hope you manage to banish the guilt and enjoy your vacation.

    @Jokerine: I don’t think all American labs are like that, but the competitive/famous ones often are. Everyone realizes they’re competing for a small number of tenure-track faculty positions, and so they all work harder and harder to try to keep up.

  3. Jokerine:
    My advisor tells me to go home when I look tired or overwhelmed. The lab environment definitely depends on the PI you are working under.

    Mad Hatter @Jokerine:
    If people are so miserable in grad school to try to get a t-t faculty position, what makes them think that is really the right path? Is there that great of a difference between grad school and continuing to try to make a name for oneself while pursuing tenure and after?

  4. @NJS: My experience was that being a postdoc wasn’t all that different from being a grad student, but that being faculty is very different from being either a postdoc or a grad student. Having said that, I did decide at the end of my postdoc that the t-t path wasn’t for me, and I’m much happier and well-balanced as a result!

  5. @Jokerine: Logically, I know that I will work better if I take time off to recuperate but when my to do list is so long and I want to finish so badly, logic doesn’t always dictate my actions. As for American labs in general, I agree with MH–not all labs are like this. There are plenty of labs that are very 9-5. In my experience, most of these labs have mostly post-docs and techs and few grad students. My lab is almost all grad students and no techs.

    @Mad Hatter: As the week wears on and I get closer to vacation, I feel better and better about it. By the time I actually leave, I think the guilt will be almost gone.

    @NJS: Everyone seems to agree that being a grad student is miserable. Many people have told me that they enjoyed their post-doc much more than grad school. I think people stick with it because they love the science so much or because they are optimistic and think it’s bound to get better eventually.

  6. Hey nth year grad student, I’m another nth year grad student who cannot wait to graduate either!!! Glad to find your blog, just to have another student to commisserate with :D See ya later!

  7. I agree with Jokerine that you need to set boundaries for your work week. I noticed the longer I was in my lab/office the less work I actually accomplished. Your To Do list will likely always stay long but your sanity is more important.
    Enjoy your vacation and try to think of ways to refresh yourself on a smaller scale once you get back home.
    maybe vowing to not go to work one day a week, even if you do some work related activities but just around the house. A change of scenery could help?
    or maybe taking 2 hour lunch breaks to give yourself a fresh start for the afternoon?

  8. I know what an evil little catch 22 the lab guilt vs. the crazy can be. But I really hope that spending some time with your husband can give you the respite you need to stay sane.

    Hang in there! You’re on the home stretch!

  9. Just so you know, I would like to come up there and smack all your advisors and committee members upside the head and scream “Let her GO already! What the hell is wrong with you?” Because they always pontificate about “it’s not only the quality of the work but the amount” or vice versa but frankly, after a certain amount of hoop-jumping it’s all for show.

    Anyhow, I hope you’ve enjoyed the charming company of your husband and had a nice vacation!

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