Three ways to improve the culture of lab-life balance

You’re exhausted from working long hours, but have you ever asked yourself how you spent your time? We live in a science culture where we feel like we are good students or postdocs only if we show everybody how hard we work. Right? Not really.

Remember that each country has a different work culture. Even though there are no written rules, there are expectations. For instance, in some places you’re considered a late person if you show up to the lab after 10:00 am. In other places, nobody would judge what time you arrive. This implicit judgment builds up unneeded additional stress in our lives. Along the same lines, supervisors sometimes seem to have different expectations based on your status. If you’re married and/or have kids you’re allowed to have a life outside the lab. Yet, if you are single without dependents you’re expected to spend all your time in the lab—what would you do otherwise?

Moisture Festival 2010, photo by Michelle Bates

We tend to treat work-life balance problems in academia as inevitable and, rather than seeking solutions to their root causes, we treat symptoms. We get to decide what our work culture is. Everybody would be better off if we were less judgmental about ourselves and others. Here we describe what we think the problems are.

Being in the lab doesn’t mean you’re working

This affects inexperienced trainees as well as some senior scientists. We catch ourselves spending long hours in the lab, but using half of that time chatting on social media, watching videos, or playing games. Why don’t we go home if we’re done in the lab? Part of the problem is how we see our role in science, and in the transition from student to professional. Early grad school feels more like an extension of our undergraduate years, and seeing science like a real job can be hard. Once you realize that the lab is your workspace, you can decide to separate it from your life space. There are definitely times when you need to stay longer in lab (e.g., deadlines, strange time points to collect), but to have a sustainable work ethic, this should be the exception.

Don’t humblebrag

Without our realizing it, certain behaviors can ratchet up the pressure on our peers. When we make the comments like “I have no life, I worked so hard this week, I spent all weekend in lab,” we might think we’re being self-deprecating, but what it really does is make people around us feel like they’re not working hard enough. This starts a chain reaction: Our peers start to behave the same way to keep up. If someone asks how you’re doing, instead of responding by saying how miserable you are, consider making the active choice to not glorify the negative.

Here is where culture comes in. I’m (Margherita) a Southern Italian, and if you brag to me about spending your weekend only working and not enjoying your life, you’re failing. It’s not something to brag about. I’d rather brag about how many results I got in a short time, so I can have free time to travel, shop, or do home chores. The focus should be on our achievements, not on how much time we spend in the lab. The take-home message is that we need to learn how to better plan our time in the lab, so we can have free weekends and feel more energized on Monday.

Don’t fear judgment

A Boston area postdoc told us: “If I’m efficient and I finish all my work at 5:00 pm—while I know it’s silly—I catch myself thinking I have to stay longer otherwise people are going to think I’m lazy.” How many times has this happened to you too? People around us try to project their lifestyle on us, and if they see that we are behaving differently, we are considered less of a scientist. Obviously, we cannot change how people see us, but we can change our attitude and stop judging people who have a different lifestyle. In other words, focus on your own schedule and stop comparing yourself to those around you.

As young scientists, we get to create the future of our culture. We have a chance to change what we don’t like about the present. It doesn’t have to be this way, and there are places in the world doing great science where being exhausted is not a badge of honor. Talk to people from different cultures and career stages to learn about their work habits. Ask people from other professions how they organize their time—scientists aren’t the only people who work hard. Having a different perspective can really change your outlook.


About the Author:

Margherita Perillo is a postdoctoral fellow at Brown University, where she studies germline stem cells in development using primarily the seastar as model system. Previously she was a postdoctoral fellow at Boston College where she studied nuclear positioning at the neuromuscular and myotendinous junctions. She earned her PhD from the Open University of London working at the Stazione Zoologica Anton Dohrn in Napoli, where she studied cell-type evolution. Email:; twitter: @Marghe_Perillo
Zak Swartz is a postdoctoral fellow at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, where he is investigating diverse cell biological aspects of the oocyte-to-embryo transition and early development. He earned his PhD at Brown University, where he studied primordial germ cell development.