Blog Reboot, With Thoughts on Work-Life Balance

So, it’s been months. I did mention I’m busy and intermittent, right? At any rate, I’ve had some good fortune/payoff from hard work of late, and as a result I have a bit of free time right now. And this free time happens to dovetail with two conversations on Twitter that got me thinking about work-life balance.

One of these two conversations was about exactly this topic – the fact that work-life balance is hard to accomplish and maintain in academia, at least partly because academics are actively discouraged from having a “life” – discouraged from seeking that balance. The other conversation I haven’t participated in directly – suffice it to say that there’s a lot of chatter about whether women can succeed in field research if they also want to, say, have children. The tone of the conversation is sometimes discouraging, because of the voices insisting that women with children who are also academics are: selfish, inherently less ambitious, less interesting, and generally less worthy of the time and resources spent to train them than, say, “serious” scientists. I guess those would be men, or women who know better than to try and have a career AND a family at the same time.

So, I have thoughts on women in academia having families, as well as EVERYONE, men and women, parents and child-free, having balance in their lives. And so I’m going to start telling you what I think.

For a start, what I think is this: of COURSE you can be a woman in academic science and have a family. Of COURSE you can succeed. My evidence for this is mostly observational – I consider myself a moderately successful academic scientist. I have a tenure-track job complete with research lab. I have a grant from the NIH (okay, I will soon, because I assume my PO wouldn’t tell me my grant was funded only to say, “Psych!” a few weeks later). I have a student who is about to enter a Ph.D. program, probably at UCSF. I have two semi-publications from the aforementioned research lab, one to be submitted in the next few months. I teach my courses and I get good student evals. I participate in departmental and university service activities.

I also have two children. The younger one was born during my first year on the tenure-track. Career suicide, right? How serious a scientist can I be? And yet.

Furthermore…I hardly ever come to lab on the weekend. I rarely work in the evenings. I get in at a “normal” hour, and I leave at a “normal” hour. I have dinner with my family every night.

And I get through my to-do list at work most days, too.

I’m not the only one – I’m just the example I’m most familiar with. My postdoctoral advisor also had two kids, the first born in her first year on the tenure track. She’s now at a Howard Hughes facility and a member of the National Academy of Sciences. So having those kids really slowed her down. I’ve been fortunate to be mentored by (mostly) scientists who also have lives outside of science. People with interests, and families, and, well, lives.

So, how do you do it? You JUST DO IT. Yes, I’m a walking Nike ad. Seriously, though, in my case, I found that I worked better (that is, smarter and harder) if I wasn’t in lab 7 days a week. I found that I did better work if I let my brain and body have a break. And I found the self-respect to say, “No, look. I am going to have a career and enjoy my life. Both. At the same time.” I started (in my post-doc) by deciding to plan experiments around never working on the weekend. It can be done. You just have to plan ahead. And you have to be willing to resist the pressure, from all sides, to act as if nothing exists but the work.

That first decision morphed into deciding to work an ordinary work day. Each day, before I leave work, I make a list of work that should take about 8 hours (including all classes and meetings I have to attend that day). When I get to work, I start at the top and work my way down. I take a lunch break most days, though sometimes I work and eat my lunch at my desk. When 5:00 rolls around, I finish the current task, and then I push the things that didn’t get done to the top of the next day’s list. If I finish the list before 5:00, I check out the next day’s list for stuff I can do today. (I also don’t hesitate to take off early on the rare occasion that I’m actually AHEAD of schedule.)

There are exceptions. There are times when I have to work after my kids go to bed – looming grant deadlines, prepping lectures for new courses. I was in on Sunday for an hour this past weekend. But these are exceptions. I do this when I have to, NOT just because the culture says I should work a 60-hour week.

And when I’m at work, I work. I spend little time (though not none) surfing the internet. I have one coffee break for an hour a week to catch up with colleagues who are also tenure-track moms. Otherwise, I’m in lab interacting with my students, teaching classes, in meetings, or in my office writing.

The thing is, I believe this makes me a better scientist. My mind is more focused on the work at hand when I let it have a break. I enjoy my job a lot more than I would if it was all I ever did. And I make a lot more progress than I did back when I worked 7 days a week.

On another front, I’m modeling healthy behavior for my children. I want them to see that you can have a successful career and also spend time with your loved ones. I want them to see that I work, and to be proud of me…and I want them to see that when I’m not at work, I’m not at work. It’s about self-respect.

I also try to instill the same attitudes in my students. I teach my lablings how to set up their crosses to avoid having to come in on weekends (while still emphasizing that, sometimes, you just can’t control biology that way, and you really will have to finish the experiment on Saturday). I try to make sure they have as much to do as they can handle, but not so much that it makes the rest of their lives untenable. I don’t ever impose MY deadlines on them – if I have a grant deadline coming up, yeah, I ask them to collect a certain set of data as fast as they can…but not if they have to come in every weekend and all night to get it done.

So, yeah, I have thoughts on work-life balance. I think I’m pretty good at it. Some of it is forced – I chose to have children, and children need parents. But I started down this road long before either of my kids was born – I rebelled against the culture of “all day, all night, and all week” in lab. And I think I’m doing okay.



Filed under Work-Life Balance

5 responses to “Blog Reboot, With Thoughts on Work-Life Balance

  1. It’s the best time to make some plans for the future and it’s time to be happy. I’ve read this post and if I could I desire to suggest you some interesting things or tips. Maybe you can write next articles referring to this article. I want to read even more things about it!

    • Woman, there is no doubt that you’ve managed to make the scholastic/scientific system work for you in terms of “Work Life Balance.” It’s an inspiration!

      In business, however, I’ve accepted that this is just a cudgel used on the workers, where they are pressured to pay to use in house errand running systems, gift buying and wrapping services, full service party planning, gym training, and other devices so that they can keep you longer at the office. These devices are often used in business as a cudgel, to make it the employees job to make balance happen, regardless of what they may be dumping on your plate at the moment. The part that is often forgotten about in this schema is the actual “family.” Children aggravate management, and threaten jobs in many states, when they do little more than get sick or have an impromptu doctor’s appointment. Work life balance is often just creative wordplay within the cultures of companies, and much more balance needs to be realized on the parts of business enterprise to make it an actualization.

      That being said, as I’m just getting started reading your blog, I’d loved to hear more about what you’ve managed in academia, despite the pressure culture, to make all of this work. So far it sounds amazing, and I have already spotted ways of, at the very least, keeping my stewing brain off of work while I’m not there!!! Thank you so very much!!!

      • I don’t have any personal experience of business/industry culture; however, I can point you towards my inspiration in many ways – Cloud, aka Wandering Scientist. She is in biotech, in management, and has written much more extensively on work-life balance as it relates to industry (and how she tries to make it possible not only for herself, but for those on her team). She also has a lot to say about project management and productivity. (Hint: more time spent at work does not necessarily equal more work done – people have a “work limit”.)

        I highly recommend her:

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