“What’s hot for the weekend?”

For graduate students like me, this is a loaded question.

It’s asking, however friendly the intent, “What will you prioritize this weekend? Churning out data, or working on your tan?”

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The bread and butter of biomedical research is publishing research papers to get grants to publish more research papers to get more grants. This means hundreds, if not thousands, of hours of work, of timed experiments that don’t skip weekends, and of model organisms that need to be fed and looked after, even if it’s Friday night.

It’s competitive, meaning 10- or 12-hour days are totally normal and expected, even on weekends. And given the ideal — the researcher who works night and day in pursuit of life’s big answers, it’s easy to feel guilty if, like me, your weekend plans often involve more sunglasses than safety glasses.

As I start my second year of graduate school, the enormity of the (hopefully) four-year-long project necessary get my Ph.D. is sinking in. The stack of papers I have to read to learn about my field is ever-growing and the number of experiments I need to design and perform, then troubleshoot and try again when they fail, is overwhelming.

My work-life balance ends up tilting toward work, often with a thud, and it’s not easy to tilt it back toward the middle. But I’m trying. After four years of a near-cloistered existence in college, I don’t want to be as exhausted and apathetic as I was when I graduated. I think I’ll be a better scientist in the long run if I can walk away, even for a day, and come back refreshed.

I’m not alone.

It is possible to fit the work you need to do into a 40- or 50-hour work week. A recent article from Nature presents convincing examples of scientists who limit their time in the lab without hindering their careers. Although they didn’t work the 80-hour weeks many scientists think necessary, these researchers managed to not only publish papers and get funding, they also won awards and excelled beyond colleagues who presumably put in more hours of work.

Even knowing this, I still feel twinges of shame if I leave the lab for the evening and don’t plan to read research papers or work on analyzing the data I’ve collected from the day’s experiments. My coworkers stress about taking time away from the lab to spend with family and friends. If it’s possible to accomplish enough to meet the external requirements — getting enough data for papers and winning funding — why do we still feel guilty?

Could it be the perception that we’re not curious enough if we leave before dinnertime? That we’re not driven enough if we don’t run the clock out on each and every day? Burning curiosity is a powerful force. It’s the pursuit of that moment when confusing results finally make sense, or realizing after a year of trying that you have figured out how a bacterium infects or a protein folds. That passion for answers doesn’t take breaks for the weekend.

For some of us, this kind of drive is harder to manage, because like a carrot dangling off a string, our goal, that answer, that satisfied curiosity is within reach — if we work a little longer, a little harder, just one more hour, or one more experiment. When do we walk away? There aren’t any fixed benchmarks for satisfying curiosity. It’s deeply personal. But over time, the image it creates has become universal.

The model scientist has no hobbies, no relationships, and they are consumed by the desire to answer the next question about our inner workings. My classmate is one of them. She recently asked me, “What am I supposed to do, just stop doing my work on Friday and wait until Monday to start again? I’d get bored!” Most scientists have points in their career where they share this feeling — it’s why we take on a profession built on failure.

But the realities of life — children or elderly parents, school plays, or even a promising date means many of us can’t spend every waking moment in the lab. Some need to recharge with a novel, cooking, or going on a long run. Without those breaks, they wouldn’t have the energy to keep going in the face of the failures inevitable in scientific research. I’d like to think that all of these work styles have a place in science, and that taking some time off shouldn’t be a cause for guilt.

Different work styles make the scientific field a richer place, but it doesn’t make the task of setting personal priorities any easier. Like every other scientist, I have to decide how much work I need to do to meet not only the external pressure to publish, but also to satisfy my internal curiosity. I have to figure out what balance of lab time and time spent with my family and friends will maximize my contribution to society and personal happiness. I have to recognize that I will work long hours in blocks, and I will occasionally take days or weekends off.

Right now, I have no idea where this balance lies. As the weeks pass, I’m tweaking my schedule; I don’t know if it’s possible to arrive at perfection. But I do know this: If you ask me what’s hot for my weekend, I’ll tell you — it’s the pancakes I’m cookin’, the date I’m going on, or the river I’m lounging by.

And I’m not ashamed of that.

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  • “the enormity of the (hopefully) four-year-long project necessary get my Ph.D. is sinking in”

    Oh man. I remember being that idealistic, so I almost don’t want to ruin it for you, but… 4 years? Yeah, no.

    It will be when your parents start asking pointed questions about when you’re graduating though! So that’s fun.

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