So this is the new year…

Before Christmas, Nature published an article asking a few headline-taking researchers from 2015 how they would change the way science is done. In it, evolutionary biologist Danielle Edwards made a case for acknowledging that the culture of science rarely allows scientists to be treated as human beings with rich, full lives away from the lab bench. Today, on the first day of the year 2016, this is resonating strongly with me as I think forward to how I want to lead my own life as a researcher, and as a person.

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The life of a researcher is not easy, particularly in the case of young students and post-doctorals. They are typically expected to work extremely long hours, often simultaneously learning and applying technical and theoretical techniques in order to produce high quality research. This is supposed to result in the publication of a steady stream of research papers, the writing of which must fit around experiments. These pressures to achieve do not necessarily come externally from professors. The reality is that science is incredibly competitive and is constantly pushing forward. It is easy to feel like a moment’s break will result in being hopelessly left behind.

Compared to young people of similar ages and experience in fields like law or economics, this is all usually done for extremely low reward; in countries like Australia and Canada, PhD students are paid below minimum wage (albeit typically tax-free). So if you work in science, you do it because you love it. Very likely it is the only thing you ever truly wanted to do.

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I entered science 6 years ago, as a 22-year-old Honours student. Like many of my fellow students I had dreamt all my life of being a scientist, so I felt blessed just to be given a chance to do actual, real life research. I quickly threw myself behind the belief that if you worked in science you had to eat and breath it. By the time I was into my PhD and had published my first paper in a good journal, I was consistently in the lab late into the night. Weekends weren’t a time for relaxation, but a great opportunity to use the fancy lab equipment that was normally booked up during the week. Thanks to incredibly patient romantic partners I barely even noticed the pressure I was putting myself under.

This all came to a head in 2015 when it was time to prepare my thesis. I wrapped up my experiments, transferred all my data to my laptop, went home, sat down to write, and… nothing. Day after day I sat down at that desk, begging my brain to formulate the 100 thousand-or-so words I needed. I fluctuated between anger and depression, furious at my helplessness. Eventually the words came, in dribbles and spurts. But every single step was agonisingly slow, like pulling teeth in treacle. By the end I was utterly burned out, convinced that the finished tome that now lay before me was nothing but a testament to my failure as a scientist and a writer.

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Looking back, I take a lot of lessons away from that time. I can see now that the way I had made myself work in the lab produced a series of bad habits that would by their nature make thesis writing an excruciating task.

I had come to trust that I knew my work well enough that I could just put one foot in front of the other to carry myself through a big day, with a little help from adrenaline.A massive amount of my self esteem was tied up in whether the next experiment would succeed or if the microscope was working that day. I looked at the postdocs and other students who seemed to be enjoying constant success, and thought that I could always be doing more.

Working like this I treated 5 minutes scrolling through Facebook as a “break”, gawping jealously at friends who were inevitably having more fun than me. This meant that when I finally went home at night I felt like I’d already had my break and hadn’t earned the right to unwind any further than that. Of course I sat down with my partner and enjoyed catching up over a hurried late dinner, but there was almost always an underlying nag that I should be back at work.

While working and thinking in this way was effective for relentlessly producing large quantities of data, it established a rigid mental structure that endlessly reinforced and repeated itself. It was almost completely automatic and mindless. I left myself with almost no room to reflect on the day, to critically examine what had worked and what I could be doing better. Naturally, when it came time to write my thesis I had almost no capacity to think creatively and synthesise all that I’d learned in the previous 5 years’ work.

Through all this I continued to compare myself to fellow PhD students and postdocs, who seemed to be pushing ahead happily with their theses. I felt ashamed of my failure, and cut off communication from them so I could complete this struggle away from their pitying gaze. It never occurred to me that many of those people were struggling in just the same I was, and by isolating myself I was burning the one support that could truly help me.

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I should stress that I wasn’t unhappy while I was working in the lab. At the time I thought I was being immensely productive. I felt the internal nagging and pressure to be powerful motivators, and was grateful to have a supportive, loving relationship outside of the lab that gave me something to look forward to coming home to every night. It’s only on reflection that I see how unhealthy my habits were, that I was forming my own mental trap, and was treating my girlfriend not as a partner but as a crutch.

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It’s now Saturday, the 2nd of January, 2016. On Monday, I start my new job    my first postdoctoral position, at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. I’m excited: it’s a good lab, and I’ve been given almost complete freedom with my project. But it’s an extremely competitive field, and I’m aware that there will be significant external and internal pressure on me to perform. I also have greater responsibilities outside of the lab. My partner is taking on her own incredible work burden this year, meaning I will have to be ready to pick up more than my share of domestic slack. We also have our own proto-child now in the form of a puppy(!), who demands walks and pats and intensely competitive games of tug-o’-war. So, it’s time for some resolutions for this New Year:
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  • Remember that recent studies have shown that longer work hours do not mean more work done. Because of this there is almost no way to justify being in the lab for more than 9-10 hours a day.
  • Where long experiments demand that the above point has to be ignored for more than a few days at a time, allow myself to work a slightly shorter day when the busy period is over    even if it’s just to catch up on the scientific literature or write in my lab book at a cafe or home. Remember that the greatest advantage of working in science is the ability to run your own schedule.
  • Do not compensate myself after a busy period by sleeping in and getting into the lab later. Remember that I always felt the greatest pangs of depression and guilt were when I slept in. Get in on time, and leave earlier.
  • Do not sacrifice reading and writing science for more time spent in the lab doing experiments. Remember that science is nothing without reflection and creativity. That includes maintaining this blog    try and publish at least one article a week.
  • Working weekends can be inevitable. But it is to be avoided as much as possible. Weekends are for taking time think about the week that has been, and prepare for the week to come. A long walk somewhere green is an essential part of that equation as often as possible.

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Like most people who have pursued research as a career, I define myself by my job. People like me don’t “do” science; we are scientists. It’s an incredibly fortunate position to be in, so it’s easy to trick yourself into thinking you owe the work everything you can give it. But if that can’t be sustainable, then it won’t just be your life outside the lab but your work that will suffer. Our craft, our passion for science deserves better than that.

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That’s me for now. Here’s to a fantastic 2016! I hope you find that, whatever wishes you have for the New Year, you have the ability to make them happen.

And now, here is our puppy. Whaddababe!

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babes

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– J

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