A new PhD Comic set science Twitter afire this weekend. The gist of the comic: in exchange for the flexibility of graduate school, students should expect to work on Saturdays and put in long hours overall. Some academics chimed in to let students know that they can have work-life balance, whereas others claimed that science should be a researcher’s #1 passion no matter what. From the perspective of a recently minted PhD, here are 4 reasons why graduate students shouldn’t be required to work weekends.
1. There are many ways to do science outside of the lab.
I figured out pretty early in grad school that I didn’t want to be a PI, and so I used some of my weekend time to hone other scientific skills. I volunteered at the Museum of Science Boston, where I helped visitors learn more about the human body through scientific demonstrations. Once I caught the science communication bug, I started writing for Harvard’s Science in the News. These activities led me to a science communication internship at Addgene, the company where I now work full-time. Lab work was only one component of my PhD experience, and I learned as much, if not more, doing my “side science.” As non-academic careers become the norm, it’s important that students have the time to pursue science-related activities outside of their bench research.
2. Scientists have other interests.
Scientists love science, but we also love many other things! In most cases, these interests help one recharge from a stressful week and prepare for a busy week ahead. Whether it’s cooking, athletics, spending time with friends, or curling up with a good book, time away from the lab keeps us happy and healthy, making us more productive when we’re actually in the lab.
3. Spending time with family is important.
One of my friends had her first child as a 4th year graduate student, and I remember being amazed at how she balanced all of her responsibilities. When I asked how she did it – she simply smiled and said, “It’s all about priorities.” Her weekends were spent with her husband and child, no matter what, and she fit her experiments into the work week. Grad school takes place at a time when many students are getting married and having children, but all students deserve time to spend with family and friends. Our scientific culture needs to understand these commitments and value scientists as people, instead of treating us as cheap labor.
4. ECRs must fight back against the “perfect grad student” stereotype.
One of our most popular PLOS ECR posts talks about graduate school and mental health. Many ECRs’ struggles, including my own, stem from impostor syndrome, the idea that you’re not smart enough, not working hard enough, and don’t belong where you are. Painting the picture of an “ideal grad student” who works long hours because of his/her dedication to science sets many grad students up for feelings of failure and inadequacy. This stereotype also discourages many would-be grad students from applying at all! As I wrote in our Grad School 101 series, the grad school experience is not one-size-fits-all. Students should not be evaluated by how many hours they work, but by their growth and development into independent, critically thinking scientists.
The purpose of this post is not to say that grad students shouldn’t work weekends – some students genuinely enjoy going to lab seven days a week! For others, it’s common to work longer hours before an important dissertation committee meeting or while writing a manuscript. Research should be a priority for grad students, but it’s equally important that we and our supervisors recognize that it’s not the only aspect of our lives. As ECRs, we must stand up for our individual, unique work-life balances rather than sacrifice health and happiness for our lab work.