Does it matter to your P.I. what you did this weekend?

Slacking? Or improving laboratory productivity and morale? And is it any of my business?

A few weeks ago, I used this photo in a talk at the College of Pharmacy at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock. These are very exciting times at UAMS, capped by the recent dedication of their Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute tower. I had a lovely visit with pharmaceutical chemists, neurobiologists, clinical pharmacologists, and young exciting researchers and educators across the College. I also found that, despite the August heat, Little Rock is an enjoyable, medium-sized city with great cultural amenities and an excellent quality of life. However, my only previous experience with the Arkansas River that runs through the state capital had been way upstream at the headwaters just outside of Leadville, Colorado. This picture shows yours truly as a young assistant professor and some of our lab group taking a midweek day off to enjoy that season's snowcap runoff. My thoughts returned to this photo last week at the MEDI Lunch-and-Learn session on Chemical & Pharma Blogging led last week by C&EN's Carmen Drahl at the national ACS meeting in Boston, nicely liveblogged here by Lisa Jarvis. In my inaugural post last week, I noted with joy the chance to sit present and field questions together with Derek Lowe (In the Pipeline), Ed Silverman (Pharmalot), and Michael Tarselli of Scripps Florida.During the discussion, a women asked a question about the wisdom of blogging as a Ph.D. trainee as her forward-thinking institution asked her to launch a blog to chronicle the graduate student experience. I applauded the idea but recommended blogging under a pseudonym and writing more broadly on the experience rather than specific interactions with individuals in the work environment. But some in the audience and on the panel noted that mentors might object to such activities saying that every moment spent on another activity is a moment that could be spent in the laboratory. I called that hogwash, stating that we lab heads have no business in the personal lives of our trainees and their choice of hobbies - hiking, softball, music - on their own time (so long as they aren't writing online about my shortcomings as a P.I.). But much chuckling and groaning ensued, with my compatriot, Derek Lowe, noting that his major professor routinely stuck his nose into any penchant for non-lab activities. I'm sorry, my friends, but this is nuts. Yes, I realize we work in a competitive business and that many laboratories operate 24/7 with many trainees working 70 or more hours per week. But I don't think that is healthy. Everyone needs time away from the lab - not just to deal with personal or family needs but to simply rejuvenate and relax the mind. I encourage all trainees to pick one non-lab vocation to stick with during their scientific training. Mine was playing music (loudly and badly). My first graduate student was a rock-climber. My first technician who was preparing for a Ph.D. program coached youth soccer. I will submit further that time away from the lab is important for mental health and actually improves productivity and morale. I know that my view is not popular among my contemporaries. But you can still put in a few hours on Saturday morning, perhaps start some cultures on a Sunday night, and still have a great weekend. I have absolutely no business in dictating the private time of anyone in the lab. If the work gets done to everyone's satisfaction and everyone is putting in a robust effort during the week, weekend fun - yes, fun, I daresay - is good for all. And as for the slackers above? The ones that were mine include a tenured associate professor of pharmaceutical sciences, a new assistant professor of surgery, a Stanford Ph.D. grad, and someone who chose to use their career to raise a family and contribute to scientific awareness in their community. No Nobel Prize for me. But that's okay. How about you?

Author: David Kroll

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  1. face time in the lab is a stupid place to compete or judge science productivity

    • I find that face time in the lab is also sometimes used by others for the logical fallacy of confirmation bias: one decides that a lab member is lazy and then looks for every opportunity to say, “Ah-ha, not in the lab again.” I’m amazed that such a practice is so common among scientists – but it’s a faulty conclusion based upon a poor experimental design.

      Just as runners talk about avoiding putting in “junk miles” while training, I think it’s silly to put in junk hours simply to be seen.

  2. Applause from here as well.

  3. As a blogger & PhD candidate, I certainly hope my PI agrees with you… (=

  4. Hats off to you; a fine philosophy 😉

  5. I worked in Durham (UK)for a while and in my lab there were three other graduate students. One was active in a local drama society, the other cultivated carniverous plants and was a published author on the topic while the third visited ancient ruins and wrote spiritual reflections on the sites. Me? I just worked in the lab, published twice as many papers and walked straight into an endowed fellowship and then a faculty position. Life is short, try to draw straight lines between what you do and what you want.

    • Agreed, Liberal Chemist. The point of your story is that the decision to carry on as you did was your choice, your preference. Interestingly, your blog – title and content – has lovely balance. I don’t know how I’ve missed it. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  6. I think that if more PI’s agreed with you, we’d have a less “leaky” pipeline. While exceptions like Liberal Chemist do exist, the majority of grad students probably get burned out working all the time, and subsequently walk away from the bench after defending, not wanting to or not able to continue with that type of work ethic. I know of multiple people that left after several years with only a masters because their advisers “beat the love of chemistry out of them,” as a friend of mine used to say. Sad. And screwed up. And needs to change.

    Although maybe, right now, it’s a blessing in disguise. There aren’t enough academic and industry jobs to absorb all the new chemists anyway. So maybe it’s good that not all of us are staying in the traditional science job trajectory? (Just kidding. Kind of. Ugh.)

  7. During grad school I gave up hip-hop dancing because there was simply no time in the day, or night. (Though I was probably a rare grad student with a 45 minute commute every morning. The traffic on Route 95 ate up significant chunks of time).

    I wonder whether folks think that those types of PI’s are steadily becoming a smaller fraction of the whole. Does younger necessarily mean more likely to adhere to David’s philosophy? I’m not so sure.

  8. Dear David, I think the main important thing is the efficiency. I am labelled as the laziest person in the lab as I work from max 40-45 hours a week compared to other people – but those 40-45 hours are real work no coffee time complaining about the Boss or why the pipette does not work. I have to agree with Leigh that this work ethos beat the love of science out of me. I think there is also lack of appreciation in academia. Oh, I wish we have more people like you David!

  9. As a PI who spends her weekends climbing, hiking, biking or sleeping, I have no problem with my trainees having a life outside of the lab. Lab time is about being productive, not the number of hours you log each week.

  10. During grad school I built Habitat for Humanity homes a couple Saturdays a month. There was pressure to give it up, but I ignored it, and I was better for it. Building something concrete and tangible helped me weather those inevitable times when research temporarily stagnates.

  11. I totally agree with you. I wish there are more PIs like you.When I was in grad school I worked late during weekdays so I could have time for myself on weekends. You’re right it’s rejuvenating. Thanks for the article.

  12. The less time I’m at work the more work I get done. I NEVER go to work on the weekends.

  13. As a PI, I find the discussion here silly on both sides. Why don’t we all acknowledge that different people have different work habits? Some people like being in their lab doing their work and others need frequent breaks. Some people are sprinters and other as distance runners. Legislating or managing a group exclusively one way or the other is idiotic and close-minded.

    Are all of the people on this blog the “victims” of evil PIs? If so, have you ever considered that you and your peers may have different work habits?

    • I don’t understand your comment. The question was about what some PIs think about absence from the lab, and we haven’t heard any horror stories. However, we know PIs who are bad about it. Also, it has been noted that people have different work habits.

      You wrote “Legislating or managing a group exclusively one way or the other is idiotic and close-minded.” We know that, and we also know of PIs who do not.

      What, exactly, was “silly” and what was your point?

  14. My PI is always angered to hear that somebody has an interest besides chemistry. everybody goes home at night and does what the choose…its seems that if you go home and watch tv thats ok but if you go home and pursue another passion of your life (ie playing a musical instrument) this is looked down upon…i just avoid telling him or anybody else in my lab about my life or interests, its pretty sad.

  15. Back in the days when I was in graduate school, I found early on that every now and then I needed a break from the all-out focus on labwork that was the norm in top synthetic organic chemistry groups. I adopted the plan that I would always take Sundays off. Not for religious reasons, or for football-watching, but it just seemed to be a time when I could re-charge and go bike riding, play other sports, watch a movie, spend more than 15 minutes with my girlfriend (now my wife of 19 years), etc.

    I never got any grief for it, and the other days were very focused, probably moreso because of the break. My advisor never complained. He was not the ranting and raving type, though. I found that many big-named guys can often be outright loud, profane, rude, and insulting beyond what would be captured by the adjective “demanding”.

    Now as a PI, I never complain about anyone’s work hours unless they become truly bizarre. I just ask about results and if I ask often enough and get no replies, the message gets through that the experiment is pretty important.

  16. That partial agonist felt he had to explain, and make a special justification for, taking just one weekend day off per week, and then followed that up with a surprised ‘…and I never got any grief!’ then that just proves the point, doesn’t it?

  17. I never gave my PI a choice. I was in the lab when I was in the lab. I came in between 11 and noon, which looked bad to people who had little more function than busybodies. But I was the last person to leave the building most days as well. I got to meet with and discuss my work with the people I needed to and had complete and unobstructed access to all of the equipment in the building.

    Every couple of months, I’d get a talk about putting in face time, but it was always couched in the understanding that my PI knew I was being productive, but department politics were such that he had to put on a show or people would think that he was a bad boss.

    Would I have gotten done faster if I had been in the lab every minute that I was awake? Perhaps (if I didn’t quit), but I would also be divorced, and I would have run the lab’s operating budget into the deep and bloody red for the sheer need of supplies.