Working Life

Rescuing my time from science

Science  23 Dec 2016:
Vol. 354, Issue 6319, pp. 1666
DOI: 10.1126/science.354.6319.1666

It was a cold autumn day a couple years ago when I first felt that pursuing a Ph.D. was warping my sense of time. I had started working at 8:30 in the morning. By 8 in the evening, when almost everybody else had left, I was still in my office. I had so much work still to do that I reluctantly called my life partner to tell her that I would not be home for dinner. As I finally headed home around midnight, walking down dark, empty corridors and through the deserted university square, I realized that I was living in a sort of time warp—which was particularly ironic given that I was studying how daily activities shape our sense of time. Now, though, after years of allowing my work to take over my life, I'm reclaiming my power to decide how to spend my time.

ILLUSTRATION: ROBERT NEUBECKER

“I am now consciously trying to balance my work and personal time.”

When I started working toward my Ph.D., I never expected that it would take up so much of my time. But as I observed many fellow doctoral students and postdocs working long hours in the lab, I felt that, if I wanted to become a scientist, I needed to do the same. As I learned more about the increasing competitiveness of the academic job market and the importance of publishing frequently and well, I felt further pressure to spend nearly all my time at work. I was lucky that my supervisor did not explicitly demand extreme hours, as some lab heads do. Even so, I—like many other scientists—ignored the “normal” rhythms of work. I spent evenings and weekends studying the literature, designing experiments, collecting and analyzing data, writing papers, and replying to reviewers.

I'm proud of the work I've done, but I've paid a price for it. I sacrificed what I hold most dear: time for my life partner, my family, and my friends. On many occasions, I turned down invitations for social gatherings and special occasions because I had to work. I most regret missing my best friend's birthday celebration last year because the next day I had two deadlines, one for submitting a paper and the other for a review. The worst part is that I hadn't chosen to prioritize my job over my personal life; I just let it happen.

After completing my Ph.D. studies this past February, exhausted, I took a break for a few days before starting my postdoc. I finally thought with a clear head about my doctoral journey and about how I would like my life to look in the future. I realized that I could not continue working as I had. For me, the time for change has come. My loved ones deserve this, and I deserve it, too.

So, little by little, I am now consciously trying to balance my work and personal time. I'm forcing myself to limit my job to five working days, only working during late night and weekend hours if it is strictly necessary, and I no longer feel guilty for taking time off. Thankfully, my adviser and my colleagues respect this choice. I'm learning to better organize my working hours by allocating time slots to specific tasks. I'm also starting to deal with deadlines more realistically, and I'm getting better at balancing my “no”s between my professional and social lives.

I do worry that these choices may put me at a disadvantage in the academic world. By aiming to work fewer than 50 hours a week, instead of my previous 70 or more, I will probably reduce my scientific production a little, even though I make a point of working efficiently and effectively. But I'm confident that my work's quality—which ultimately is more important than quantity—will remain high, or maybe even improve, especially in the long term. Regardless, this is the right choice for me.

It is all too easy to give too much power over important life decisions to our colleagues' behavior and the cultural expectations of academic research. For my part, I wish that I hadn't waited so long to take a step back from my work and reflect on where my time was going. But I'm heartened that I've done it now, and that I can finally spend my evenings with my life partner. And as my career moves forward, I will do my best to decide for myself how I want to spend my time.

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