On the importance of well-being

Dear Labby,

I am in my third year of graduate school and, as you know, two years of that were 90% remote due to the SARS-CoV2 pandemic. We have been back in the lab now, full time, for 14 months, but we still are distancing and masking even with all of us vaccinated. My question is whether or not I am a slacker in the lab. I put in 50-60 hours a week, at least, including weekends, as do most of my fellow students and my thesis advisor. My research project is moving forward, although more slowly than my advisor and I would like. Most of that has to do with growth times for my cell lines.

The problem is that my advisor berates me, often in front of my fellow students, for occasionally taking a few hours away from the lab. She says I am not committed and that unless I change my attitude, I will never be successful in a cell biology research career. However, I think I really need these decompression times away from the pressure of performing, the worry about keeping my cell lines healthy, and the panic attacks I sometimes have that my career will go nowhere. In addition, my family (husband and young son) wonder why I cannot spend more time at home. Sometimes I feel that my world is crumbling, and it is all my fault that I am weak of heart.

How can I explain to my advisor that my mental health and my ability to put even more energy to my thesis requires that I take my well-being as seriously as I take my science? She does not seem to understand that recharging my batteries over a few hours or even one full day allows me to think and perform my work better. 

Anxious  All the Time

DEAR Anxious:

Please know that your concerns are shared by many, in and out of science. And now, deep breaths. Seriously. Labby tries to practice mindfulness and focus on deep breathing for a few moments when the world swirls a bit more than is healthy. But let us bring your thesis advisor into this mindset of caring for self in order to perform one’s best; thinking clearly requires that we have fully charged emotional batteries.  

You might meet with your advisor to develop a work schedule, and then stick to it. Perhaps if you show her the cells’ growth curve, she will be more understanding. You might also let your PI know that her attitude toward you fuels anxiety that makes it difficult to be your best.  

If it is unlikely to be useful to talk with her directly, please contact another faculty member who may understand the debilitating impact of denigrating anyone who needs a short respite. This faculty member can have a chat with your advisor, followed by your having a conversation with your advisor. You then may be able to convince her that your passion for science has not waned at all but that your energies toward that passion dim occasionally from mental fatigue. That fatigue requires a respite, much as a good night’s sleep refreshes you physically and mentally.  

Your campus ombudsperson could also help your address these issues.

Be safe and take care of yourself.

Remember that you are not asking your advisor that you commit only 10-20 hours a week to your science; you are asking for understanding about taking a day off now and then for yourself, your family, and your well-being. You are asking in order to continue committing the 50-60 hours a week, every week, to the science you enjoy that also makes you happy and satisfied.

“Burn out” is a real, documented medical phenomenon. Protecting yourself from burnout so that you are excited to continue pursuing your cell biology passion is as important as that next paper that is in the works. Give yourself a hug; Labby sends you a hug, too.


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