After weeks of quarantine, universities are ramping up research, allowing scientists to continue their fieldwork and benchwork. For many of us, returning to the lab brings mixed feelings. Personally, I want to continue my research. But on the other hand, I haven’t missed the sensation of messing up an experiment or the agony of waiting for results.
Weeks of isolation have allowed me to think about what I want from my career. And many of my colleagues are pondering the same. As the scientists return to the bench this Summer and Fall, they are bringing a new attitude and perspective with them.
Flexibility in the workweek
The pandemic proved that when research is stalled, the world continues to spin. A truth that might seem obvious to an outsider, it was none-the-less a revelation to me. A setback in experimentation is common, an expectation more than an exception. But still, the slow creeping pace of science instills guilt in many graduate students and post-docs. To compensate for failed experiments and confusing results, we scramble to fit as much work into a week as possible, often working on weekends when we arbitrarily feel like we are falling behind. The long nights, weekend work, and obligation to hold a 9-5 schedule add up to a long workweek, which might, in fact, be less productive than we perceive.
Working more than 40 hours a week is correlated with poor performance and health issues. And although numerous companies have experimented with <40-hour workweeks and experienced beneficial results, many still believe the traditional workweek + overtime is the standard for a “hard worker.”
I regrettably have no studies to cite about the productivity of laboratory scientists vs. hours worked. But I do have less-substantiated anecdotal evidence. Since returning to the lab, I have not worked a 9-5. Instead, I let my experiments dictate when I come into the lab, and I set a reasonable expectation of the amount of reading and writing I should accomplish in the week. As a result, I take detailed notes in my lab notebook, I have time to address setbacks, and I have less failed experiments.
Prioritizing career development
Contrary to some academic’s beliefs, there is more to a CV than publications and conference presentations. To be a desirable candidate upon graduation or completion of your post-doc, one must pursue opportunities in your anticipated field actively. To the dismay of some of our PI’s expectations, that might take time away from our work responsibilities.
Although my experience may differ from many, I rocked at career development during the quarantine. I am playing towards my strengths and passions and am pursuing a career in either science writing or science policy. For both career paths, honing my writing skills is imperative. When working from home, it was easy to dedicate time to writing and editing. But continuing my writing ventures and returning to work will be a challenge.
Challenge accepted. Career development, whether it be learning to code, taking business classes, or teaching, is imperative to your education. Therefore, as a pre or post-doctoral trainee, continue to schedule in career development time to ensure you have a competitive resume when your training is complete. This may require you to jeopardize time at the bench, but as I mentioned in the previous section, time does not equate to productivity.
Mental health care
We all struggled with mental health in isolation. The uncertainty brought about anxiety, lack of socializing led to depression, and boredom cultivated alcohol abuse. Unfortunately, returning to work does not guarantee an instant bounce back for our mental health. As we return to the bench, we must safeguard our well-being.
Working a flex schedule and seeking quality over quantity, as mentioned above, is one avenue to nurturing our mental health. Additionally, working from home does not mean you cannot take time off this year. Quarantine was not a vacation. Spending time away from your home and work can help give you the energy and positive outlook you need to perform well in the laboratory.
Training as a scientist is certainly a journey. Choosing to fixate on the end-goal — the publication, the graduation, the defense — is a breeding ground for disappointment. Timelines in the laboratory are ambiguous and often out of our hands. This has only been exasperated by Covid-19. Your goals will likely not be met when you want them to, so it's important to shoot for results you have control over.
Focus on the small goals — learning a new technique, working on one chapter of your thesis, optimizing an experiment. Plan for the future, but don't live in it. Enjoy where you are now.
In this post, I’ve shared my perspective on how lockdown has changed my career mind-set. But I am aware that many other scientists’ experiences vary. The lockdown was welcomed by some, an opportunity to slow down and take a break from a sometimes-toxic workplace. Others resented being barred from the lab. In an earlier Bolded Science post, we learned how some scientists couldn’t bear being away from their treasured workplace and found creative ways to conduct science at home.
Scientists will have various feelings about research ramp-up as well. Some co-workers might need time to acclimate to a new routine; others are anxious to make up for the lost time. Be mindful of our differences. As we reopen, let’s practice thoughtfulness and kindness at work. When Covid-19’s prevalence lessens, the impact is here to stay.