Contributed by Michelle (May 10, 2013) | Being a postdoc is all about eating, sleeping, dreaming, breathing, smelling, lab, lab, lab, 24/7/365. Otherwise, you’ll be a miserable failure, never publish papers, never have your own lab, and end up asking people if they “want fries with that.” Right?


There are other facets to your life: family, friends, significant others, children, pets, responsibilities, physical fitness, hobbies—that you are neglecting if your end-all, be-all is defined by your lab work. Your success as a human being (not to mention your sanity) depends on your ability to balance all of these. After all, the point should not be hours spent in lab, but productivity. Is a postdoc who works 16 hours a day in lab twice as productive as postdocs who work 8 hours a day? Probably not. Tired, unhappy postdocs are more likely to make mistakes and waste time and resources—they’re also a real drag to be around. The average postdoctoral research, according to a 2003 study by the National Science Foundation, reported an average of 50.33 hours per week for postdoctoral appointments [1]. That’s not to say that you should work 50 hours a week: rather, strive to become as efficient as you can so that you are productive, but have time and energy left to devote to the other important facets of your life.

It’s important to establish open lines of communication with your mentor from the get-go: set goals and realistic time frames to achieve them. If you have kids, be proactive and have that discussion right away. Do you come in early to work or come back in the evening to make sure you can get everything done? Maybe. Do you analyze data and/or read papers at home? Sure. Make sure that your mentor understands your strategy and is confident that your work ethic is strong. It’s not a bad idea to keep track of the hours you spend doing lab work, whether you’re at home or physically in lab. Talk to your mentor often, and make sure he or she is happy with your productivity, and gauge that against the hours you’ve been putting in. Don’t be defensive or take comments personally—just discuss how you can address them in the context of your outside needs and responsibilities.

There are times, for example, when grant deadlines are just around the corner or an exciting story is in danger of being scooped—when spending long hours in the lab is a necessity and everything else falls by the wayside. Again, talk to your mentor. “Last week, while we were scrambling to get X grant application submitted, I let some things slide that I really need to take care of. I’d like to take tomorrow off to get caught up.” Most mentors will be reasonable with such requests. There is increasing recognition that long hours spent in lab do not necessarily equate to more results [2]. Moreover, the perception that a career in science means a life of 24/7 research turns off creative, young scientists who want more of a balance in their lives [3]. Unless this issue is addressed, the scientific community will find itself hemorrhaging its youngest, brightest scientists.

1.    National Science Foundation/Division of Science Resources Statistics, Survey of Doctoral Recipients, 2003. 
2.    Ledford, H. 2011. Work ethic: The 24/7 lab. Nature 477, 20-22.
3.    Overbaugh, N. 2011. 24/7 isn't the only way: A healthy work–life balance can enhance research. Nature 477, 27–28.


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