Am I on the wrong track?
November 12, 2006 5:55 PM   Subscribe

Do research scientists have social lives?

I am an undergrad neuroscience major, with plans to go to graduate school and hopefully get a PhD. If I follow this route and go into research, say at a big university, what will my life be like? I have heard horror stories of 70-hour work weeks with no social interaction outside of lab; are these extreme cases? I may not be as outgoing and gregarious as some of my friends, but I have found that I enjoy drinking socially and dancing on the weekends, and occasionally on weekdays as a way to relax during/after a stressful week. Will this be rare or even unattainable in grad school and beyond? Once I have a career will it be possible to have a family and spend a reasonable amount of time with them? (I am female, which shouldn't make a difference but does unfortunately.) I love science, and have always thought that being a research scientist and putting out papers would be an ideal, exhilarating job. I just don't want to be an "obligate workaholic" through career choice. If you have a career in research science, what is your life like?
posted by mayfly wake to Science & Nature (16 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I'm a 4th year post-doc in neuroscience. A lot of my friends in the field are new faculty, most in large, prestigious universities. Most of them work 40-50 hour weeks and have plenty of time for socialising. I know this, because I sometimes socialise with them.
posted by gaspode at 6:07 PM on November 12, 2006

I'm in a research-intense social science PhD right now. We all joke about how we have no time, but really we have plenty of time to have fun too.

Often fun is had WHILE working on projects. We joke and laugh all day long.

As far as a family, some people worry that in the first few years working as a professor, one is too worried about getting tenure to have kids, so a lot of grad students try to have kids while in grad school, as one can take a term or two off and often the university has some sort of child care program.

My profs seems to be workaholics but enjoy their lives too.
posted by k8t at 6:49 PM on November 12, 2006

The short answer is yes... we do have social lives.

I have noticed that there is a tendency for many people to exaggerate how hard research is to people who are from a non-research background. This is often re-enforced by stereotypes of frantic PhD students in movies and television. But the truth is not so dire.

Sure I work 50+ hours a week, but many people work those sort of hours in the workplace.. not necessarily in science. I still find plenty of time to catch up with friends, relax or generally be a nuisance :)

The difficulty many researchers have is an inabiity to 'switch off' when they get home. I often find myself thinking about experiments and hypotheses when I should be home relaxing. But once again, I am sure that happens to other people in other jobs as well - in fact it goes part and parcel with love of the job.

My advice is... relax and enjoy your science for what it is. A PhD is one of the toughest things anyone can do.. but it is not so tough that you have to put your life on hold while you complete it.

Feel free to email me if you have any more questions :)
posted by TheOtherGuy at 7:57 PM on November 12, 2006

Short answer: Yes!

Background: I'm a PhD student in biomedical science.

I'm not going to lie - there are some people who work 70-80 hour weeks and practically live in the lab. There are also nazi advisors who demand this. These types of people are definitely a small minority, though.

Most of us manage to balance a social life with work without too many problems. I work between 40-50 hours a week, unless there's a big deadline coming up, in which case, I might stay late a little more often. I often come in on weekends, but that's because I often sleep in on weekdays. The best advisors don't care when you come in or for how long, as long as you're making good progress. I go out on weekends with other folks from school, and we drink on Wednesdays at dollar draft night.

So no, grad school will not consume your soul if you don't let it. A PhD is a marathon, not a sprint. You have to find a good balance or you'll go crazy long before your 4-6 years are up.

After grad school, a lot depends on what you want to do. In academia, you'll have to juggle teaching classes and other school activities with your research schedule. If you go into industry, you'll be more focused, and much more likely to work a standard 9-5 type job. Either way, there's plenty of room for a life.
posted by chrisamiller at 8:32 PM on November 12, 2006

6 months into a post-doc, I have I social life. And I did during my PhD as well. Sure it's possible, and sometimes necessary, to put in long working hours, but these hours are generally ones in an invigorating, fun environment (I hope...I guess it depends on the field and the vibe of the school). I find it difficult to comprehend people who are putting in 70 hours a week and having no social life, and I'm not sure they're actually achieving a whole lot more than those who are working hard for 40 hours a week then enjoying the time off. We all have beers on a Friday afternoon, cake and coffee most mornings, I usually don't do much work on my weekends aside from relaxing at home with some papers, and I've got plenty of time at home with my family.

You have to balance these things. Sure, you can spend 70 hours a week at it, crank out a dozen papers throughout the course of your PhD, and you'll probably be in a great position. But you can also take it easier, be more realistic about doing things well, and working to live, rather than living to work, and be a success. It depends if you're in it just for the "fame and fortune", or if you're in it simply because you love science. Scientists are not magical, mystical high-priests of knowledge. It is just a job, and despite what some folks on Metafilter have said in the past, you can leave it all behind when you head home for the day. There are plenty of folks out there who will want to make you feel like a failure if you do, but don't listen to them. I find it's much more productive to focus on communication and collaboration, than worrying about how many first-author papers you can churn out.

In academia, you'll have to juggle teaching classes and other school activities with your research schedule.

There are actually lots of different paths in academia, particularly if you look outside the square, are prepared to travel internationally. I'm currently working in a research-only school, which provides a great collaborative atmosphere, with no pesky undergraduate students to cramp my style. Maybe I got lucky.
posted by Jimbob at 8:49 PM on November 12, 2006 [1 favorite]

5th year PhD student here.
I've had periods of 60 hours a week when my project needed funding renewed and the other people on the project left and I had to do allll the experiments for the article before the grant deadline and, oh also I had to take a course and reclassify from Masters to PhD, but even THEN I had a social life. It was comprised of a lot of whining to poor people who couldn't help me, but I got through that really stressful time THANKS to my social life.

On the other hand, I can totally relate to this cartoon. The entire PhD comics series is based on reality, and these are the horror stories you've heard, but there are busy periods and not so busy periods, and you only ever hear people complain about the busy times.
posted by easternblot at 9:28 PM on November 12, 2006

I'm a neurosci post-doc. Throughout grad school and now, I have had plenty of time for both working hard and socializing. If you use your time well, there is no need for 70 hour weeks (except maybe the week before a grant deadline, or preliminary exams, etc.).

Of course it makes a difference that you're female! "Should" or "shouldn't" are irrelevant--the fact is that females give birth and nurse the young in our species, and will have an impact. ;) I don't think it will be a huge deal, but I would suggest to bear this in mind as you evaluate potential partners: do they have the kind of career that will be compatible with yours? You need a guy who can really share the load when your kids are young, so that you can keep up with your research as you raise your kids (even if you tone it down a bit). So I would avoid corporate layers, surgeons, etc.

Best of luck with it, it really is an "ideal, exhilarating job" and if you keep up that attitude I'm sure you'll succeed and have a great time doing so.
posted by tabulem at 10:03 PM on November 12, 2006

It depends a lot on the school and the advisor. I went to name-brand schools for Ph.D. and postdoctoral fellowship and had the typical horror-story life - no time for fun, no social activities, nothing but work and sleep. (This was about 20 years ago, if it makes any difference.) Other people who came from mellower, less competitive places had much more of a life.

If you stay in academia you'll probably find your work consumes more of your life as you'll need to write grant applications and teach, as well as do your research and write papers. If you go into biotech, you'll probably have a bit more free time until you start getting into the upper ranks of management, when the demands of the job start encroaching on your life again.
posted by Quietgal at 10:24 PM on November 12, 2006

It depends.

I did an undergrad majoring in Zoology(ish)/Biochem-Molecular-Bio/Philosophy. Aiming at medical school. Burned out and rejected medical school. Was unemployed for a while, then did a MSc in pathology-LabMed. Got that, working on a PhD in Neurosci.

It depends.

It depends on your supervisor and your project. If your supervisor &/or project is competitive, yeah, you're going to be working hard.

In my experience (and this has been a recent discussion amongst the other grad students at the same facility as I am) is that principle invesigators (PI) who got a lot their experience in the US tend to be more driven and drive their students more. Researchers with a Canadian background tend to be a little looser.

It's hard to say. Even in my lab, there are PhD students who work 80 hour weeks. I work 70 hour weeks, but at my own rhythm (ie., I'll do long days, I'll do months-without-break, but sometimes I'll take an entire long-weekend off or only work 1/2 days on the weekends).

If you make the effort, there's also the social life amongst graduate students. Especially if you've already got a significant other, this can be a good thing. If you don't already have a sigO, it can feel like everyone else has someone except you. There are also commonly programs that help grad students interact with the community - for example there is a program at my campus that matches grad students with the homeless/underpriviledged and has the grad students teaching science to them (or highschool students).

At the end, it boils down to what type of person you are and how much your supervisor expects out of you. If this is a concern, then bring it up in the interviews with prospective supervisors. It's an interview to determine if the PI wants you in their lab as well as whether you want to be in that PI's lab.

One of the postdocs in my lab got married before starting her graduate career, birthed a kid during her masters, birthed a kid during her PhD, and now as a postdoc, she has her oldest kid hang out at the lab after he finishes school (her younger kid has daycare).

It'll depend on your priorities and whether or not your supervisor(s) will buy into that.
posted by porpoise at 10:53 PM on November 12, 2006

My theory is that, in research, long hours are an indication of either procrastination or workaholism, more often than requirements of the environment.

Although, in the U.S. it seems to be quite important to appear to be working a lot of hours.

At both university and industrial research labs, I've had colleagues that worked 40 hours (aka efficient people or slackers) and others (aka procrastinators, workaholics, pretenders, or really pressure-cooked people) that worked 80 hours a week.

INANS, but I shared a house with a social, well-rounded, daily-swimming neuroscience post-doc at Big Research University: his 40h/week and Nature paper made his professor happy.
posted by meijusa at 1:42 AM on November 13, 2006

Most of the PhD students I know (I'm also one, have been for 4 years (eek!), though in immunology, not neuroscience - still biomedical though) have, if anything, better social lives.
There's always a lot of younger people around, many of whom enjoy going out.
The hours of a PhD can get pretty intense (just because many experiments require it), but there's also a certain amount of of camaraderie amongst fellow students, and you'll find friendships that will last a lifetime (hopefully!). What's more, a lot of them will go overseas for their post-doc, giving you free places to stay when you visit them in, say, Amsterdam :-)
It doesn't even get stale, either, since there's always new students, Post-Docs, Research Assistants, Technicians etc. that come into the lab/institute/building that are just as interested in enjoying a few drinks after work and dancing on weekends.
You'll get most of your weekends (except, perhaps, in your final year).
As for having a family.. well, to be honest, there do seem to be a large number of single women in science, but that certainly isn't the rule.
The problem with science is the money. Most of us do it for the love of it, and accept the reduced pay so that we can pursue the Next Big Question (there's ALWAYS a Next Big Question). If anything, that's the biggest dampener on any social life.
posted by kisch mokusch at 3:03 AM on November 13, 2006

UK genetics final-year PhD student perspective here....

The trouble with academic science is that some PhD students, postdocs, PIs etc. genuinely do not have a social life; therefore if you try to 'keep up' with them in terms of hours worked, you won't have one either. If you're wise to this, then you can definitely do research while having a good social life.

The other thing I would mention is that some disciplines are much more time-consuming than others. Most of my experiments are carried out on computers, so I don't actually have to be in the lab; I can leave stuff running overnight or over the weekend; I can log in from home to check my results. Other types of experiments (e.g. cell cultures that need to be fed nutrients every hour for 24 hours straight, etc. ) require the researcher to be physically there and are consequently much more time-consuming.
posted by primer_dimer at 3:13 AM on November 13, 2006

As a second year biomed PhD (in the UK) I do feel my social life has taken a hit. Compared with undergrad I have a constant backlog of homework to get done. I permanently have review articles, papers, ethics applications, progress reports, presentation etc etc that need doing. These are all tasks that weigh on my mind, and make me feel guilty if I take the weekend off, or even get drunk enough to be hungover on a Saturday. You just have to be sensible, prioritise, and be a little more organised and pro-active with your friends/significant other.
posted by roofus at 6:31 AM on November 13, 2006

I'm a 3rd year grad student in Pharmacology, and my experience more closely matches chrisamiller's. I generally work 40-50 hour weeks, some brief weekend time, and my PI is okay with that. I think it mostly depends on your advisor (does he/she trust you to set your own schedule as long as you're making reasonable progress? Is your project set up so that you can make reasonable progress?). So I have a social life. I have lunch or coffee with other grad students or postdocs most days, and have a majority of my weekends free.

As far as the family and kids question, it will be harder if you stay in academia. Attn. Larry Summers: That is one reason why there are so few tenured women in academic research - many go to industry or government jobs where you get, you know, maternity leave and stuff, and don't have to worry about your lab falling apart and losing funding while you're gone. In fact, the only female PIs I know with kids are MD-PhDs, which generally makes it easier to get tenure. I actually have a few horror stories about post-docs being pressured out of their positions after giving birth and wanting to work 9-5 (but that is very rare, and wholly dependent on how much of an ass the PI is).

k8t's comment above about having kids while getting your PhD is interesting. That doesn't seem to be the case at my institution. It seems a very difficult thing to do for me; although the university does give you a semester off, a typical grad school stipend doesn't go very far, and neither of the two research universities I've been at have any sort of subsidized child care.
posted by twoporedomain at 6:48 AM on November 13, 2006

I was a Ph.D. student in marine biology. I made the time to enjoy myself even though others in my lab were constantly freaking out and spending lots of late nights (I was one of those "efficient" people that meijusa mentioned.) I ended up finishing my degree in record time (4 years), and I believe that's because I took care of myself and stayed happy, and that reflected positively on my work ethic. Also, when I was working long hours, it was usually in the field, and it's hard to be upset about spending every day of your summer snorkeling. (Then again, I did put in some longer days doing mathematical modeling, but I loved doing that too.)

I am also married to a research scientist (for the government, not a university). He works normal hours (40/wk) but occasionally has to be in the field for a week and typically works 12 hour days during that time.
posted by nekton at 11:14 AM on November 13, 2006

Thanks everyone who answered this, I feel very reassured now that things are not (necessarily) as extreme as they appear to be. I wish I could mark you all as best answer but I guess that is kind of silly.
posted by mayfly wake at 11:27 PM on November 13, 2006

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