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Guest Post: “Science, the human endeavor” by Biochem Belle

A blog network’s not a network without connections to the world outside. So I’m reviving guest posts to CENtral Science, starting with a fantastic re-post. “Science, the human endeavor” originally appeared at Ever On & On, the blog of postdoc/multidisciplinary scientist Biochem Belle. The post sparked an intense conversation about work-life balance, with a good helping of jokes, at the Twitter hashtag #RealHardcoreScientists. “There are times in life we need to let up on the pressure we place on ourselves,” Belle writes. That’s advice that chemists and journalists should heed.

From astrophysics to microbiology to behavioral science, one common thread runs through all research – the human element.

Science is an intrinsically human endeavor. It takes human curiosity to ask the questions, human logic to design the experiments, human ingenuity to incorporate the results into an evolving model. Despite tropes portraying science as a purely logical enterprise executed by cold automatons, it is wonderfully, woefully, beautifully, messily human.

Yet sometimes it feels as though we’re expected to be both more and less than human. More in that we need to work longer hours at higher efficiency, through health and illness. More research, more papers, more grants – sleep is for the weak! Less in that we should not allow little things like stress and emotions and events outside the lab to influence our pace and focus. Chop, chop, no time for distractions – science waits for no human!

Sometimes the pressure to be more and less than human comes from external sources – those above us in rank or, more often in my experience, those at our own level. But much of the pressure to perform is internal. We see funding woes and dire job prospects and competitors’ papers, or maybe we just see an unanswered question, one that we know we can resolve if only we work hard enough. We dial up the pressure to be “better”. That compulsion drives us and can be a constructive force. We also use it to build unreasonable expectations we set for ourselves.

Sometimes we try to keep our lives outside the lab compartmentalized, to keep it from interfering with our work. But you know how we’re fond of saying that science isn’t 9-to-5? Well, life isn’t 5-to-9. It isn’t so easily contained, packed into a box and placed onto a shelf, to be taken down at a less disruptive time. We must take care of ourselves and the lives we have – lives that bring change and crises and good fortunes that demand our time, focus, and attention.

There are times in life we need to let up on the pressure we place on ourselves. If we’re really lucky (or choose very wisely), then we surround ourselves with people who help us accomplish that. We circulate the stories of the departments and supervisors who set forth maniacal models of how science should be done. We perpetuate illusions of the excessive standards of Real Hardcore Scientists(TM). Do these people and places really exist? Sure. But there are also real scientists doing good work who believe it’s important to have a full life, who do not expect themselves or anyone else to place elements of their lives in suspended animation for the sake of science.

Science demands that we work hard, but our lives demand, on occasion, that we cut ourselves some slack. Science has always been and, unless we are one day converted into cyborgs, shall ever remain a human endeavor, complete with all its humany wumany madness. And in spite of this (or perhaps with its aid), science has marched forward and shall continue to do so with mere humans making the way.

6 Comments

  • Feb 19th 201310:02
    by Carmen Drahl

    Belle- Thanks for sharing your post with us! I think experiencing life and really LISTENING when another person is reaching out to us is what makes us human- and what enables creativity. We’re not robots and it saddens me when I hear tell of environments that expect that level of work commitment.

  • Feb 19th 201311:02
    by Lauren Wolf

    “But you know how we’re fond of saying that science isn’t 9-to-5? Well, life isn’t 5-to-9.”
    Love that line. It’s something I struggle with daily. And even though I’m a science journalist rather than a scientist now, it’s no less true.

  • Feb 19th 201311:02
    by Sarah Everts

    Couldn’t agree more >> I absolutely believe that engaging in the richness of life will only enrich the science that gets done. (Or, as Lauren says, the writing that gets done or actually any process that requires some creativity…)

  • Feb 19th 201314:02
    by Jyllian Kemsley

    Hi Belle! Thanks for joining us for a post.

    I love the “life isn’t 5-to-9″ line, too (says the woman who had three kids home sick from school on various different days in the past two weeks). I think that work/life balance is hard across a number of professions, although depending on the person and workplace the pressure to perform and produce may be more external than internal. The statistics in this NYT piece were pretty concerning:

    “Today, almost 40 percent of men in professional jobs work 50 or more hours a week, as do almost a quarter of men in middle-income occupations. Individuals in lower-income and less-skilled jobs work fewer hours, but they are more likely to experience frequent changes in shifts, mandatory overtime on short notice, and nonstandard hours. And many low-income workers are forced to work two jobs to get by.”
    http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/17/opinion/sunday/why-gender-equality-stalled.html

  • Feb 19th 201314:02
    by Glen Ernst

    Some great observations, Belle! I’ve been fortunate, both in grad school and industry, to have worked in environments that stressed a healthy work-life balance—and meant it. The focus I’ve experienced has been more on the quality than the quantity of the work performed. But I know others who weren’t as lucky, and as a result, burned out and left science. A Real Hardcore Scientist might observe, “Well, then, they didn’t have what it takes.” Well, yes, they did—they were just working within a system that was greedy, and wanted to take everything they had to offer, and little concerned with the consequences.

  • Feb 19th 201317:02
    by biochembelle

    Thanks for the warm welcome and comments!

    Jyllian, excellent point re: external pressures. Some similarly disturbing statistics regarding paid leave are highlighted in this NYT Room for Debate piece, e.g that 40 million Americans don’t get a single paid sick day and that half of mothers don’t get paid for maternity leave.

    Schedule flexibility, especially in academic labs, can be a double-edged sword. As Glen points out, the culture of some labs and departments create expectations that make it very difficult to find balance, whereas others promote balance. Unfortunately the former seem to make for better stories (or at least, they garner more attention and discussion), and I worry that it perpetuates the idea that success in science requires extraordinary sacrifice in other areas of our lives. Countering that was one motivation for this post.

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