Working Life

Finding community during coffee breaks

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Science  01 Nov 2019:
Vol. 366, Issue 6465, pp. 654
DOI: 10.1126/science.366.6465.654

I had always heard the stereotype: North Americans value independence, and Europeans value togetherness. But I never fully understood it until 2 months ago, when I left my Ph.D. lab in Canada for a 4-month stint in a lab in France. On my first day, Pierre—a Ph.D. student whose desk is across from mine—tapped me on my shoulder and asked: “Coffee?” I nodded and followed him down the hallway to the common room, where other grad students were filing in. One student brewed an espresso for me that was five times stronger than my normal Americano. Milk and sugar were nowhere to be found. So I sat there, gingerly sipping the bitter liquid and trying hard not to reveal my uncultured tastes, while lab chatter filled the air.


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ILLUSTRATION: ROBERT NEUBECKER

“It's … helpful to have a venue to share the day-to-day ups and downs of life as a grad student.”

I had traveled to France to work on a project with Pierre. We'd cooked up an idea for a collaboration when he was visiting my university, and we were excited to get started. I had no idea going in, though, that I'd also get a lesson in lab culture.

Coffee breaks are a ritualistic part of work life here. The chatter sometimes turns to serious scientific topics. But mostly, the meet-ups offer a chance to unwind—to share stories about life inside and outside the lab and to commiserate with people who understand what you're going through.

The lighthearted atmosphere and sense of community is a welcome contrast to my life in Canada, where I spent the bulk of my workdays in isolation. I went into the lab each morning with set goals for my day. At lunch, I'd keep my eyes glued to my computer while I shoveled forkfuls of salad into my mouth, trying to power through my to-do list.

Our lab held weekly meetings where we'd take turns presenting our latest work and getting feedback from colleagues. But we didn't take daily coffee breaks—or any other kind of communal break. My labmates and I were too busy collecting data and publishing papers.

Looking back now, I realize how much we were missing. Researchers need community because good ideas don't just come from reading literature and thinking deep thoughts; it's helpful to bounce ideas off others, particularly in a nonthreatening environment. It's also helpful to have a venue to share the day-to-day ups and downs of life as a grad student. How else are you supposed to know that you're not the only one suffering from challenges such as anxiety and impostor syndrome?

I could've used that kind of camaraderie 2 years ago. For 9 months, I struggled to figure out why I couldn't replicate the results of another study. I worried that something was wrong with my protocols, so I stayed up late at night reading papers, combing over their methods. My adviser was supportive, but I didn't want to pester her too much. I was also hesitant to ask my labmates for help because they had their own projects to worry about.

Eventually, my supervisor and I decided to switch our focus. At that point, though, I'd spent months feeling that I was failing in some way—that I wasn't smart enough to figure out what was going on, or that I was making novice mistakes that I wasn't even conscious of.

Would coffee breaks have solved all my problems? Probably not. But I think sharing my feelings and frustrations with my peers would have helped. They might have had ideas about steps I could take to solve my research dilemma. They might have also opened up about how they, too, suffer from setbacks and feelings of failure.

My time in France has taught me that it's important to create space for organic conversations about lab life—failures, incomprehensible data, and personal struggles. In places where that's not the norm, I think grad students should make a point of reaching out to peers, asking them to take coffee breaks or to meet up for lunch—something that I plan to do when I'm back in Canada. The life of a scientist can feel isolating, but it's much less isolating when you're connected to a supportive community.

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