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Lab Mom

Lab Mom spent 15 years as a Lab Manager in Academia before off-tracking in 2010 to stay at home with her two daughters. She blogs about the juggling act of motherhood and a science career, which encompasses a lot more then the cliche work-life balance.

My posts are presented as opinion and commentary and do not represent the views of LabSpaces Productions, LLC, my employer, or my educational institution.

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Thursday, August 5, 2010

I recently stumbled upon this Scientific American Article about advice Nobel Laureates gave to young scientists about how to succeed in science and in light of the recent work-life balance series I can't resist commenting on it.

Some of the advice in the article was obvious: Know when to throw in the towel, be a good collaborator, be able to tell a good story.. Okay, duh. That is just common sense.

What I was more interested in was the less obvious, something I hadn't heard before, advice that was a little outside-the-box.

From the article:
Make Time for Your Family. “You can’t exist as a scientist without some sort of relationship with other people and family is the most important,” said Smithies. [Oliver Smithies, winner of a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2007] A particular challenge for experimental scientists is the need to keep their research chugging along without consuming entire weekends. “Maybe pick two hours each day on Saturday and Sunday” to balance the needs of science and home life.

It is refreshing to get the perspective of someone who is considered a success in science (Yes I am defining a Nobel Prize as a success, although I am sure some would argue that isn't a fair measure). When we think of their careers do we assume they must have put their family aside in order to achieve that success? Does their family even enter into our minds? In our minds is their life only about their science?

It is easy to forget that even the most successful of scientists are something other than scientists. Nobel laureates have wives, sons, daughters, grandchildren, even great-grandchildren. They don't quit living their lives in order to purse their science at all costs. So why are we so willing to dismiss our personal lives in pursuit of our career goals? It is really all about sacrifice in order to make it to the top?

We so frequently hear of the difficulty of maintaining relationships while striving to be a successful scientist. When you are in the midst of it you feel like you are failing at everything. Your science and your family life are suffering. There is a mindset that you have to choose.

Science or family. There is no good compromise.

I have heard some gut wrenching stories about the sacrifices people have made in order to advance their science careers, some temporary, and some without a foreseeable end. It begs the question: Are those who are sacrificing any more likely to succeed than those who heed that prize-winning advice and make family a priority?

Now I will be the first to say that everyone's scientific journey is personal. What works for one person who by chance goes on to win a Nobel Prize, may result in a totally different results for someone else. I in no way believe there is a single "right way" to succeed. I am sure they are Nobel Lauretes who are hermits who never speak to anyone other than the people in their lab, but notice they aren't the ones giving advice!

Dr. Smithies (who in the interest of full disclosure, I have actually worked with on a few occasions) does have the advantage of sharing his lab with his wife, which blurs the work/family lines a little. That is not something that many of could (or would even want to) do.

I also think setting aside 4 out of 168 hours per week to focus on your home life wouldn't be considered a success in my book, but that is a personal decision. If he makes that time a priority, and it works for his family, then I consider it a success for him, which is the message that I take away from his advice: Only you know what amount of sacrifice will work for your family, and when you are going to far on either extreme. But the excuse "You cannot be successful in science if you are [insert personal life here: leaving early to attend your kids' soccer games, meeting your wife for lunch, not going in on Sundays, etc.]" doesn't hold water. It isn't an all or nothing game.

If you take advice from people who have succeeded, it can put your own journey in perspective. Others have been where we are, they have made sacrifices and chosen when not to make sacrifcies, and they have still succeeded. It means that it isn't all gloom and doom when it comes to finding balance between your personal life and your scientific career. It is possible, and maybe it should even be a priority.

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Odyssey
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I also think setting aside 4 out of 168 hours per week to focus on your home life wouldn't be considered a success in my book, but that is a personal decision.

And certainly not in mine. That isn't "family time" by any stretch of the imagination.

I honestly don't buy into the "you have to be a scientist 24/7 to be a success" crap. We all have limits as to how much time we can spend working and still be productive. The key is to know your own limit, be as productive as possible in that time, and then go have a life.

Brian Krueger, PhD
Columbia University Medical Center
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Great post, Lab Mom. I was thinking the same thing when I read the quote about setting aside 4 hours on the weekend. Are you kidding me? Can you imagine how many important life experiences you'd miss out on if you only spent 4 hours a weekend with your kids? That's just unacceptable in my book.

Dr. O
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Hmm, I read that 2 hours each on Saturday and Sunday to mean 2 hours in the lab each day, not 2 hours with the family. Maybe I read it wrong?

On a related note, I was recently trying to contact one of the top-tier scientists at our institution to ask for his involvement in a postdoc training seminar. When I emailed him, I received a great out of office notification:

"I'm in Hawaii with my kids and grandchild and will be back in a week. If you'd like to hop on a plane, though, you can join me for an evening Mai Tai on the beach."

Perfect.

Geknitics
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Dr. O - I read it the same way. Weekends are family time, but a couple of hours a day can be spared to keep the experiments up and running when necessary.

Lab Mom
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@Dr.O/Geknitics.. I like the way you are reading it much better! (Although I don't know exactly how much I could get done in lab in only 2 hours!)

And that out of office reply is fantastic. Informative AND makes me jealous!

biochem belle
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Funny how we interpret the statement about taking 2 hours each day differently. Suppose that speaks to our individual mindsets, the views of science careers we've been fed?

I also am a fan of that reply. Nice to hear someone who's not embarrassed of the time spent with family.
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