We’ve already set up three members of your entourage: a coach, a dreamer, and a doer. These people are here to push you further as you build up your skills and expertise and are here to provide different perspectives on your work. But who is in your entourage who can see you as you are and be there for you no matter what you’re going through? Who’s first reaction won’t be to coach you through an obstacle but instead will listen to each aspect of your situation as it is? This person is the fourth member of your entourage, and is your ally: A person who is on your side, no matter what.
What exactly is an ally? The dictionary definition of ally (verb) is “to be united formally; to associate or connect by some mutual relationship,” and as a noun, simply “supporter”. Your relationship with your ally is founded on shared experiences, mutual support and understanding. While your other three entourage members provide new perspectives, your ally is someone who sees work, life, and a career in science in the same way you do. An ally is someone who shares your dreams, recognizes your anxieties, and understands your goals, and doesn’t always have advice or an opposing view point for each situation you face.
There are a lot of great examples of best friend/allies out there: Captain Kirk and Spock, Tyrion and Bronn, Spongebob and Patrick, Austria and Hungary. While allies do have complementary perspectives or skills, what’s key is that they are by your side through thick and thin. Why? Just because they’re your friend. While the goal of the coaching relationship should be clear in terms of what the expectations are from both parties, for an ally the relationship is simple: Just be there when your ally needs you, and they’ll be there for you in return. But ‘being there’ seems like a bit of a vague term: what is an ally’s actual job in your research entourage?
What makes a good ally?
- A person you can talk to and know you’ll get a straight answer from. A good ally is always on your side-but also knows the importance of talking straight. An ally is a person that you can trust to hear the truth from, a person that won’t pull punches, and one who will see things as they are. While the truth may not always be easy to take, having someone in your entourage who isn’t afraid to tell it like it is can help you see the truth in complex situations.
- A person who see the world through similar eyes as you. The best kind of ally is one who has a similar outlook on the world as you. Because your ally isn’t you, even though they are a lot like you, they can see a situation with a clearer perspective, and can offer advice as to what they would do in your shoes. This advice is generally well-given and thought out, because it comes from a person who knows you well, who sees your dreams and your worries, and who most importantly sees things from a similar viewpoint, but not the exact same one, thus providing a bit of neutrality in assessing the situation. A third party perspective from someone with a similar viewpoint can help you see a way forward when your own doubts or frustrations might be blocking the way.
- Laughs and celebrates with you during your good times and empathizes with your tough times. Allies are always the first ones to share good news with, the ones who will applaud the loudest at your presentations, and the ones who will be as excited for you as you are for yourself when you accomplish things. And when times aren’t as easy going or successful, your ally is there to listen to your story and to hear you out when you’re feeling down. No matter what, you’ve got someone at your back, good times or bad!
- The person that reminds you that your dreams are valid and you should go for them. Often times in grad school or research, it’s easy to get frustrated. Things won’t work the first time, we won’t make as much progress as we thought we would, we didn’t get enough papers, conference talks, grants, etc. It’s easy to tear yourself down in these situations and start to think that maybe you’re just not cut out for research, or wherever you wanted your own dreams of a career to take you. An ally reminds you that above everything else, you’re you, and that your dreams are never wrong if they’re truly your dreams.
- A person who listens and doesn’t always have a solution or advice, but sometimes just listens. Sometimes people can help us get out of a difficult situation, or know what to say to make us feel better, or know how to fix something, or even just make us smile. And sometimes those things are all hard to do. Sometimes all you can do for your ally, and them for you, is to hear the other person out. This is likely the hardest task for any ally relationship. It can be hard to feel like you can’t do anything, or to feel like you should say something or make a suggestion. A good ally recognizes that sometimes support sometimes comes just from being present, and nothing else.
Where do you find good allies?
Most often, your best allies are your lab mates, office mates, class mates, or colleagues met through other professional/outreach/extracurricular activities. While in the first week of work you may not have been sure if you’d get on well with your immediate lab mates, sometimes allies appear where you least expect them: perhaps you didn’t click with someone right away until you suffered through a really bad talk together, and spent the next hour chatting about all the same mistakes that annoyed you. While research tends to be a very independent day-to-day task, make an effort to step out of your own world and learn about someone else’s. If you don’t have an easily identifiable ally in your own research group, strike up a conversation with someone at seminar, or in the break room, a lunchtime seminar/workshop, or at the PCR machine you’re both waiting on. The key with finding good friends is being open to meeting them and not being overly drawn into your own world for the entire working day as you obsess over data, lab work, and other goings-on in your own little bubble.
I’m thankful for the many allies I’ve had in my graduate and post-doctoral careers who have become some of the best friends a person could ask for. Looking back on the good and bad moments of any career, my allies were the people who were there to listen, to laugh, to cry, and to complain with, and were the reasons that the day-to-day stresses of research felt manageable instead of insufferable. I’m happy for the people that I’ve shared cheeky Friday afternoon drinks with, espoused similar viewpoints on the mismanagement of scientific research, and most of all the people with a vision and drive to work for a world that is better in some (even small) way than the one we were currently in. As for my allies (both past and present), I can always trust in them to tell me what’s on their mind about an idea or a plan, to hold me back or to push me onward when needed, and to help me keep on dreaming big, no matter what challenges come about.
Research is not an easy gig, but the allies we have can make it seem like we’re not alone. They are there to support, understand, and listen, and should always serve as a reminder that what you’re doing is good and that there’s no reason that you can’t achieve what you set out to do. Now the entourage is almost complete, with only one member remaining: Your sensei. So until we finish our entourage series next week: be sure to tell your research ally thanks for what they’ve done for you, and go out and find some go-to friends if you don’t have one yet. Just be sure you don’t make the ally relationship too formal; if they ask for a signed treaty, retreat!
Monday morning alarms aren’t known for being my favorite part of the day. Coupled with the unexpected and sad news of the death of David Bowie after an 18 month-long battle with cancer, it was enough to put more than a bit of a damper to the start of my week. In addition to the numerous homages, obituaries, and tweets about our thoughts on this enterprising musician appearing on the internet this week, I wanted to honor this inspiring man, and fulfill one of our Science with Style new year’s resolutions by talking about the ‘style’ side of Science with Style.
In the inaugural post describing the concept of Science with Style, I mentioned David Bowie as one of my inspirations as a person with style. In many ways science is the easier part of the concept to define in clear terms, mainly because the term ‘style’ gets more easily confused with other things. Is it being fashionable? Is it following trends? Is it being different? Is it a specific or unique approach for doing something?
A google image search of ‘David Bowie style’ will lead you to a wide selection of eclectic hairstyles, fabric choices, and colors, in a way that seems impossible for it all to have been adorned by a single man in his lifetime. But it’s all him, and in all the pictures ranging from young to old and in costumes or street clothes, he seems to carry the same confidence and self-assurance throughout his long and equally colorful career. Whether you picture Bowie as Ziggy Stardust, Major Tom, the thin white duke, or any of his many alter egos, he started off as David Jones, an up-and-coming musician who just wanted people to stop disrespecting guys with long hair. Instead letting the things people said about his own style or ideas get to him, Bowie brushed them aside and personified who he was and who he eventually wanted to be.
While you could look at Bowie’s life and say that his characters were never truly ‘himself,’ you can also look at his colorful, chameleon-like shifts in persona and style as an analog of the metamorphosis we all experience throughout life. None of us are the same as we were in elementary school, or high school, or college, or anything in between where you are now and where you were last year. But the similarity between all of these stages in life is that we were ourselves, just at different points of understanding who exactly that person was. Part of the process of growing up is not in getting each step 100% right but in recognizing as you go what worked, what you liked, what made you feel good about who you are, and where you want to go next.
It may sound like an easy thing, but it’s amazing how hard just being yourself is to implement. In my own growing pains, I spent more time than I should have worrying about what other people thought of me. After finishing elementary school, leaving behind friends and entering into a new environment of class periods, gym class volleyball, and puberty, I had a sudden and frightening realization that I was weird. Instead of embracing who I was, I held back. I was shy in class, I didn’t seek out other equally weird friends, and I felt all the time that who I was as a person was lacking because I didn’t meet some nebulous expectation of what a 12-year old girl was supposed to be. While to a certain extent I grew out of the feeling, I still felt this tug during high school and college. But even with that tug of self-improvement and feelings that I wasn’t good enough, I started to grow out of my the self-doubts and continued to work on defining myself in better detail.
Graduate school brought a lot of new challenges: working in teams, learning how to fail (but also to keep on trying), and making PowerPoint presentations with less than 10 words on a slide. I’m thankful in my time as a PhD student that I also discovered that my weird wasn’t weird, it was just me. At the same time that I was starting to learn how to better be myself, I got “Life on Mars?” stuck in my head when my husband started singing along to a cover version of it. I then listened to the original, followed by a summer of having the "Best of Bowie" CD on permanent residency in my car’s CD player. Between blasting 'Rebel Rebel' while driving around campus with the windows down or singing along to 'Queen Bitch' during long pipetting sessions, I was soon completely enthralled with Bowie.
But it’s not just the songs I danced to, drove with, or sung out loud to that made Bowie enthralling. Amidst the stresses and uncertainties of research and grad school, I found solace and relaxation while listening to the “Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars” album, usually on repeat for hours on end. Never before had one album had a mix of songs with such power and emotion: from the relentless guitar intro of ‘Hang on to yourself’ to the slow build of ‘Five Years’ (which I still haven’t listened to all the way through this week without getting choked up). While it’s considered one of the best rock albums of all time, I didn’t know that fact before I fell in love with it, I just loved the way I didn’t feel alone after listening to it. “Oh no love! You're not alone; No matter what or who you've been; No matter when or where you've seen.” [David Bowie, 'Rock and Roll Suicide']
And in life’s moments that weren’t so serious or in need of a helping hand, I found Bowie was still there to remind me that sometimes the best thing you can do for yourself is to do what you want and not care what anyone else thinks. I got married in September 2012, and while I was not an overly worrisome bride, I still wanted everyone to enjoy the day. I avoided diving too deeply into my eclectic musical favorites for the reception playlist and instead focused on choosing a few songs that I knew certain family members or friends really wanted and let the DJ do the rest of the work. But apart from the slow dances with my husband and father, the song that stands out for me the most was when I heard 'Modern Love' start up on the speakers. I shot a smile at fellow Bowie fan and newly minted husband, and despite neither of us knowing much of anything about dancing, we gave it our all. We probably looked like some damn dancing fools, but I didn’t care. It was one of the best parts of my wedding. It was our song, and we danced our hearts out to it.
I find that even now, with a PhD and a year and a half of postdoc experience in hand and more serious thoughts of what career I’m setting out for, I still have moments that I need reminded of that 'Modern Love' dance, reminders that I’m weird AND I’m me, and that I’m not one without the other. Life as a scientist and as a researcher has a way of making you feel like that who you are as a person is somehow lacking. There’s always a paper that needs to be written, data that needs analyzed, cells that need split. Or an email reply, meeting, conference talk, or collaboration on the ever-growing to do list. Some days we don’t get work right the first time around, and some days we simply can’t do everything that needs doing. Some days we don’t feel like we fit in, especially when we compare ourselves to what we perceive people spend their time doing with a ‘normal’ 9-5 job, while we’re spending Saturday afternoons in the lab contemplating raw data, unlabeled test tubes, and half-written manuscripts.
It’s in those moments of self-doubt and uncertainty that we all need to learn how to better embrace our own sense of personal style. Whether you waltz, samba, tango, or just nod your head to the beat, dance along to the music as life gives it you while you figure out how to fold in your own rhythms to it. Style is not about trends, or fashion, or doing things right or wrong: it’s about doing things in your way, in a way that makes you shine. You won’t get it right the first time, and you won’t meet everyone’s expectations, but as long as you strive for finding yourself, whoever that is, you’ll succeed in the end.
While we can’t tell you how to find your own sense of style, since it is yours after all, hopefully with this post and a few short tips you can set yourself on your way to becoming your own Ziggy Stardust of sorts:
Throughout his life and musical career, David Bowie shared his music and showed us the meaning of style. If science is a way of thinking, then style is a way of living: we are thankful for his legacy of style through music, fashion, and in just who he was as a person. Bowie will certainly continue to be an inspiration here at Science with Style and a go-to musician for times that need comfort, support, strength, and, of course, those moments when you need to just dance.
Hello from the red rock valleys of the Mountain West! This week I took a break from posting to enjoy the scenery of home and to prepare for a busy week of short posts and tweets from the 36th annual Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry meeting next week. It will be a busy week following the science communication and outreach sessions and talking to other toxicologists about the SwS blog.
I'm also working on a survey which I'll keep a link for in the Contact section. I'd like to hear about your experience in research, what training programs you think would enhance your career, and how your expectations of life in science were met or not.
Until Sunday, I've got a couple more days to enjoy the sun and rocks before a busy week of science and networking in the stylish Salt Lake City. Follow us on twitter for live updates during the conference on the #SETACSLC hashtag. For those of you heading to SETAC, see you soon!
In the summer of 2011, I went on a scientific pilgrimage to Japan as part of a quest for knowledge and self-discovery…or at least that’s the way I’ll present it in my autobiography and made-for-TV movie life story. In reality, at the end of my 2nd year of my PhD I was awarded an incredible fellowship, the East Asia and Pacific Summer Institutes, from the National Science Foundation. This fellowship was coordinated in Japan by the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS) Summer Program, and the program is also available for those of you from Canada, Germany, UK, Sweden, and France. During my two month fellowship, I worked at the Center for Integrative Bioscience in Okazaki with of one of the molecular toxicology greats, Dr. Taisen Iguchi, and under the direct tutelage of Dr. Yukiko Ogino. Her papers on sonic hedgehog gene regulation in mosquitofish were some of my most-read papers in grad school and she was something of a science hero for my PhD project. Trying to finish in situ hybridizations and fish exposures in such a short window of time was exhausting, but I loved the work and the lab and the chance to spend a summer in Japan.
In between work, sightseeing, sweating, and eating copious amounts of katsudon and unagi, I spent some time getting back into martial arts, not really as a pre-planned activity but rather something that came about as a whim. I had mentioned to one of my Okazaki lab mates that I was curious if there were any karate schools in the area, and with that one brief mention she set to work and I was whisked off the next week to my first class. I didn’t have time to back out or say no thank you, so instead I went with it. It was only two days a week for an hour at a time, so I thought it wouldn’t be that much of a hindrance on the rest of my jam-packed in situ hybridization, sightseeing, and sweating schedule for that summer.
As with everyone I met in Japan, the instructors were incredibly friendly and helpful. While English didn’t come easily for some, all of the black belts tried their hardest to teach me the moves and to explain the stances and forms as best they could. I never really felt that I caught on as well as I could, likely only partially due to the language barrier and more with the fact that karate was very subtly different from tae kwon do. A bit more of a flourish to a block, a foot that was slightly at an off angle for a stance, and at the end of a long day at work it was easy for my arms to get twisted in knots instead of making smooth movements. Nonetheless, I really enjoyed my time as the class’s gaijin (foreigner) and white-belt-in-training.
As the summer progressed and I became less awkward in my movements (and better at following the commands in Japanese), I was invited to attend a class at the main dojo in the neighboring city of Aichi. I soon learned that my little Okazaki karate school was affiliated with a HUGE school, with branches and classes all over the Aichi prefecture, all coordinated by an absolutely enormous dojo at the prefecture capital where I was headed to meet with the Grandmaster himself. The instructors at my school did quite a bit to prepare me to meet with the Grandmaster. Between the small language barrier and their descriptions of how I needed to be polite and respectful at all times, I had the impression that I was meeting the Lord and Master of Karate himself. I was a bit nervous to meet him, especially as the only American in a room of Japanese karate students, and I wanted to do my best to leave a good impression. Needless to say, the train ride to Aichi for the first lesson was a bit nerve-wracking.
I soon found that Grandmaster Jun Tamegai was actually one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met. He was so excited to meet me and had one of those electrifying and warm smiles that made you feel completely welcome and relaxed. Then when class started, he suddenly became very intense as he instructed his students, myself included, with one of those auras that made you want to do everything he said and do it at 110%. Even after the very warm welcome, I could see why I was prepared by the black belts at my school for this meeting, and why all the other instructors both adored and respected him. He seemed like the kind of person who would invite you into his home for tea and katsudon while being ready at a moment’s notice to take someone out at the kneecaps if they snuck up behind him.
I went to the main school in Aichi for a few lessons at the main dojo, each time being given the honor of a one-on-one lesson with the Grandmaster. His English was good, although hesitant, but that seemed more from nerves at speaking with a native speaker as opposed to not being good at English, or perhaps he just wasn’t that talkative. I cherished these one-on-one lessons and was even more surprised when he invited me to a barbeque along with the other black belt instructors from my school. It was my last weekend in Okazaki and I spent the day at a lake with these wonderful people, enjoying some lakeside activities, and eating delicious teppanyaki. At one point in the day, I went on a jet ski ride with the Grandmaster, speeding around the lake at more than 90 km/h (he seemed to get a kick out of my incessant screaming as we drove around the lake at seemingly impossible speeds). At the end of the day he gave me my last lesson and I went back home to Okazaki (after even more delicious izakaya food). I was truly and deeply thankful for everyone in the school’s patience, hospitality, and guidance that summer. I was happy for that whim of mine that became a reality.
While I’ll probably never really get the hang of karate due to too many years of training for tae kwon do motions and stances, I took home several lessons from my summer karate camp, lessons that reflect back not just on martial arts but on my work as a scientist and on living a life of balance. In one of the private lessons, the Grandmaster introduced me to the concept of rubber and steel in karate. Rubber meant being flexible, relaxed, fast, and able to move freely and easily. Steel meant being strong, unwavering, persevering, and able to withstand whatever you’re put through. Grandmaster told me that both rubber and steel were important, that you couldn’t just be good at one, you needed both if you wanted to excel at martial arts. He told me this in the context of his own views of me and how I looked when going through the motions in class. He was the first person to tell me that I had so much steel, so much power and fury, but that I needed to be more rubber if I was going to improve.
I continued to think about that lesson in the rest of the summer, at the same time busy finishing up my project in the lab and trying to travel to as many places as I could get to before my flight home. I thought about Grandmaster himself, the man with a welcoming smile and a ferocious intensity, both coming from the same person. I thought about his vision of me, of all my steel. Was I just too much steel in martial arts, or was I too much steel in other parts of my life as well?
The concept of rubber and steel isn’t just about how you punch and kick, it’s about how you react to the world around you through good times and bad. Work as a scientific researcher, and as a graduate student especially, is a place where you can certainly feel like you need to punch and kick your way through, the fight for survival in academia and the cut-throat world of science. It’s here that the concept of finding the balance between rubber and steel is something that the Grandmaster can teach all of us, in order to help us find the balance between our own natural tendencies and to help us recognize when we need to be more rubber or more steel in order to improve and succeed.
As Grandmaster noticed, I was more steel, and in hindsight I probably was more steel long before starting the karate lessons. I have always been very hard-working, determined, strong of mind, and unwilling to give in. I always did well in school, from my first day in kindergarten all the way through my undergrad studies. I worked hard to get good grades and hear praise from my teachers, and after getting my bachelor’s I set out to do a PhD program and to change the world through my research. On the flip side, I would become frustrated when I ran into walls and couldn’t progress with what I was doing, feeling like I had nowhere to go. I was self-confident when doing well but would lose that confidence if I slipped even a small amount. I always worked relentlessly, coming in on weekends and after hours to try to get as much data as possible. I was set to succeed and would let nothing get in my way. The problem with being all steel is that it makes you rigid and frustrated when you can’t do something right. It can make you feel anxious and tight for no reason other than your need to succeed. Steel might not wear out easily, but being 100% steel all of the time will undoubtedly wear you out.
But if steel is where all the strength and perseverance is, then what’s so great and useful about rubber? Rubber is about relaxing in the face of stressful moments, of going with the flow of life and the problems that come at you. Rubber is about coming to a wall and bending around it instead of trying to break it down. Rubber is about not doubting yourself even when you slip and stumble because you know you can adapt and mend. Being rubber means you stay loose and free instead of tight and anxious. But as with steel, being too much rubber does not make for a balanced life. Too much rubber can mean that you’re so relaxed that you don’t do anything and don't feel an urgency to work hard at something. Too much rubber can lead to too much flexibility and wavering instead of following a plan of action. Rubber is fast and flexible and free, but if you’re 100% rubber then you won’t stand up for what you believe in or persevere when things get difficult.
When you examine your own tendencies, you’ll likely find that you tend to spend more time as one over the other. While steel people are hard-working and tough, if driven too hard they can end up defensive when challenged, short-sighted about finishing a task because it needs to get done, working long hours without having a concrete reason, and when stressed may not be as likely to ask for help or reach out to others. On the other side, rubber people are cool and calm but may find themselves being lazy or distracted during working hours, may lack of motivation in completing a task, can have a tendency to procrastinating, and can end up juggling around side projects or ideas instead of staying focused on a single project or concept.
In addition to knowing your own tendencies towards rubber versus steel, another point of the Grandmaster’s lesson is to know when to act like steel and when to act like rubber. There are times when you need to be steel, when you need to stand up for your project and your work and defend what you know to be true and right. There are times when you need to just power through something, whether it be data analysis or a day’s worth of pipetting, in order to get things done. On the flip side, there are times when you need to be flexible to changes in direction in your project, times when you need to stop doing the same assay over and over and look at what the data is telling you about where you should go instead. There are times when you will be challenged and the only way to come out ahead is to walk away or change directions instead of fighting back.
The key is to recognize the need to find the balance and to focus on embracing the good parts of rubber and the good parts of steel. Finding a balance is about knowing yourself as much as it is working towards that balance, because knowing your tendencies will help you figure out where you need to go. Steel people need to know when to relax and be flexible to challenges, rubber people need to know when to stand firm and stay focused. By recognizing if you’re more rubber or steel as well as seeing when to embrace either your rubber or steel side, you can get closer to achieving that balance between cool, calm, and collected, yet ready to strike at a moment’s notice.
While I’m still striving for finding my own balance of steel and rubber, I often think back on that summer and the tutelage of Grandmaster Tamegai. I finished my time in Japan with a 5-day excursion exploring around Hiroshima and Kyoto on my own. I found myself really relaxed, reflecting on a great and productive summer, but at the same time a deeper sort of relaxation than I’d had before. Was this what being rubber was all about? I still strive for that relaxation in my life, which is sometimes more difficult than it was during that 5-day train trip exploring oceanside shrines and eating katsudon. For me, becoming more rubber is still a work in progress, but recognizing when I become too hard or shortsighted or frustrated helps me know when I need a break or when I need to step back and take a breath. At the same time I’ve learned to embrace my steel side, knowing that it can bring me focus and determination and can help me push through difficult times that need to be pushed through. I hope someday to have that same balanced demeanor and attitude that Grandmaster had, with the warm smile that welcomes you as his friend accompanied those powerful eyes that stay focused and locked on target. Although I’ll likely refrain from driving around students on a jet ski while going 90 km/h. But maybe that’s just another lesson I didn’t learn yet.
A final note: If you are still a graduate student from the US, UK, Germany, France, Sweden, or Canada and are interested in having a rewarding research stay in Japan, check out the JSPS summer program and apply to go on your own spiritual summer science quest. やった!!
How to make a fulfilling break: Using your time away from work to achieve a better work-life balance
People like to comment to me about how much I travel, asking where I’m jet-setting off to this weekend and if I ever stay at home. I’m not sure how to respond sometimes. Most of the time I’m proud of all the places I get to see and things I get to do, but occasionally the comments make me think that I travel a bit too much. This feeling is greatly enhanced by the irony that this week’s post is currently being written from a hotel room in Dublin on a RyanAir-enabled weekend away from home (with flights so cheap, why not?). While marking off cities and countries from my massive travel to do list is something of an obsession of mine, it’s also one of the major ways I unwind. Spending an afternoon wandering the side streets of a new city on the look-out for hidden cafes and photo-worthy architecture or scarfing down a ham and cheese sandwich on the summit of a hike are things I greatly enjoy. More importantly, these adventures, both big and small, help me unwind when I’ve been twisted and my tightened by stress, responsibilities, and the daily grind. Traveling allows me to rebuild my respective, refreshes me, and leaves me feeling ready to tackle my work's problem when I get back home.
So often as PhD students, post-docs, and senior academics, we feel like we just can’t take a break, as if something just has to be done right away. While there certainly are moments when deadlines and teaching commitments and emails pile on us endlessly, a lot of the ‘academic guilt’ comes during times when our workload is at more of a steady state. We very easily let ourselves fall into this mental trap, in which we think we should be doing something at every given moment: reading/writing a paper or getting lab results analyzed or trying to find a date for that continually-rescheduled meeting with your collaborators. Academic guilt is necessary, to some extent, for academic life to function, since a full-fledged academic is essentially their own boss and has no one to tell them during the day when they need to get back to the grind. At the same time, too much urgency can be a hindrance both to our productivity and to our work-life balance. For those of us working in academia, it's crucially important to balance our work with our personal lives, using well-timed breaks coupled with periods of sustained work. Scientists seem to be pretty good at the periods of sustained work part, but can be terrible at the well-timed breaks part.
The key with taking breaks (and not feeling guilty about it) is to make each break a fulfilling one, one that leaves you energized for the rest of the day or week ahead. There are many effortless alternatives to working, as any Tumblr and Netflix binger knows all too well, but simply not working is not always a fulfilling break. In order to have a fulfilling break, one where you come back to your problem with a clear mind and a go-get-it attitude, you should use your free time to purposefuly unwind, unthink, un-everything. We all need moments to scroll through the vast wasteland of the Internet or to watch our favorite TV series with a glass (or three) of wine, but in order to come back to work the next day or after the weekend ready to tackle what you left unfinished, your free time can’t be spent with only these types of breaks.
A break can be a large one or a small one, maybe a lunch outside on a sunny day or a Saturday out with friends instead of working on that experiment that just ‘has’ to get done. Whatever your schedule and needs are, a fulfilling break should enable you to do the following things:
- Step back and see the bigger picture of what you’re doing and why you’re stressed about it. If there’s a hard deadline for a paper resubmission or grant application, it’s easy to see why getting things done for that time is stressful. But what about those moments when you feel rushed but don’t really have an explanation? A lot of the times that we feel stressed, we may not even know why and there may not be a concrete reason for it, or we might be making a mountain out of a molehill. Many people respond to stress by working, even when the stress originates from some other part of our life and issues outside the lab. Maybe your 10-year high school reunion is coming up, where you know all your classmates will ask what you’ve been up to for the past 10 years, which somehow triggers your memory into remembering that you didn’t work on that manuscript for a few weeks, and then, What have I DONE with my life, why didn't I just get a 'normal job' like all my other classmates, and also why do I have nothing to wear to the reunion? At times like this, its important to take a breath and consider whether getting more data points is really the solution for addressing what may be some bigger issue that has nothing to do with your research. At times like this, that weekend trip to the lake or an evening drink with friends instead of working nonstop can give you a better perspective on your life, your stresses, and the necessity of stepping back and taking a deep breath now and then.
- Let your mind refocus when you run into problems. Problems in science tend to require a lot of focus to figure out. Why did all my cells die? Why am I getting this error message while running the data processing script that was working perfectly 2 days ago? Staying focused is good, but if you stare at something for too long you’ll lose your sight along the periphery. You can easily end up banging your head against a problem trying to throw everything you have at it, only later to recognize the solution while walking out of the building three hours later. Taking a step back from a problem, difficult or simple, is a good strategy because it gives you a chance to think about all the components of what you’re working on instead of the one thing that’s giving you trouble. Often times the solution was a simple one, maybe you forgot to add serum to your media or you saved your data file as a different format. Taking a break at the moments when you get the most frustrated can help allow your brain to get to those ‘a-ha!’ moments of remembrance and insight that can’t come when you’re staring a problem in the face and letting it get you flustered.
- Let your brain disconnect from work, as much as it can. It’s difficult to unwire ourselves completely from our work, especially with those 11pm emails from your advisor asking what you’ve been up to in the lab for the past week. As hard as it may be, work on setting aside a part of your day and your week when you don’t check emails or work on the pile of data/papers you brought home. This gives your week more structure that you can fill with a fulfilling break, knowing that you won’t have to be bothered by some science emergency (which usually ends up not being a real emergency at all). Professors do tend to send emails at odd hours, perhaps due to their own odd life-balance, but likely it's because they just enjoy science that much and want to know what you're doing. It's both full-time work and hobby for some, but remember that you don’t have to reply to every one of their emails instantly. Most likely they’re releasing a barrage of emails to all their collaborators and students at once when they have a free moment, so don’t always feel like you’re being singled out.
- Have Internet-free moments. In the wired workplace especially, this goes hand-in-hand with disconnecting from work. Whether it’s during the work week or on the weekends, take some time to unplug from your laptop/tablet/phone/whatever. Go to a museum with a friend, take a long walk somewhere new in your town, or go out to dinner and leave your phone on airplane mode. It’s hard to unplug when you have the world in your pocket 24/7, so when you have moments where you can enjoy the moment, be sure to do so.
- Take time to focus on a different problem/idea/concept/activity. While binging on the internet and Netflix can help us disconnect, it’s not always the best way to focus away from work. We can get good at multi-tasking, watching TV at the same time as checking our phones or reading a paper. So make your brain take a break by thinking about something else. Read a Sherlock Holmes story and see if you can figure out the case before he does, dig our your oil pastels from your high school art class, learn how to say ‘the turtle drinks milk’ in a different language, or call your grandma and ask her if she has any extra knitting needles. Whatever suits your style, find something that you’ll enjoy doing that provides an external focal point for your brain, something that’s not as easy to let professor emails and thoughts of your next experiment slip in without you being ready to tackle them at your desk the next day.
To find your ideal fulfilling break, all you have to do is look for something that fits your style, something that helps building you up when you’re feeling down and that unwinds your knots when you’re twisted around. My fulfilling breaks come both from travel and from tae kwon do. Both give me a reason to not check my phone for emails for blocks of time. Both give me things to focus on, like figuring out which trail or street to follow or remembering all the moves in my pattern. Both make me feel happy when I’m done (even though I may be physically exhausted from endless walking or kicking, depending on the activity), and that good feeling reflects back on the rest of my life and my work. Both take time away from when I could be reading papers or analyzing data, but when I do come back to work I feel like I have energy and take on those tasks with more fervor than if I just trudged through them constantly. I can also enjoy both at different time scales: tae kwon do is there twice a week to finish off a day in the lab, and travel is there on the weekends to clear my mind after a busy week (or two).
There are also strategies you can use to relax during the work day to keep yourself from feeling like you’re banging your head against a problem or when you fall into a pit of unproductivity:
- Take a walk. This is especially good for those of us that spend most of our day at a computer. You’ve likely already heard the lecture on taking a break from staring at your computer monitor so you don’t go cross-eyed, but stepping away from your monitor is also good for a quick 5-10 minute mental unwinding at work. If you feel yourself being unproductive or opening a few extra tabs of buzzfeed articles, take a walk somewhere in your lab building or make an excuse for a short walk around campus. A trip to the corner store or a lap around your building gives your eyes a chance to re-focus on the world and can let your brain think about the idea or problem you’re working on when you don’t have it staring you back in the face.
- Have a fika. No, its not a new Science with Style candy bar (although that could be a good way to pay for the URL registration). ‘Fika’ is a Swedish word/concept which means ‘to have coffee’, but it’s more than just a way to get some extra caffeine. Fika is having a break with colleagues, friends, or family, and if you work in Sweden then you’ll even have a dedicated break time during your work day. It’s a time when you socialize but also to take a step away from your work for a few set moments of your day. You may not get a set time off from work (or have any fikabröds to go with your coffee) but you can start your own fika trend with office mates or lab mates and bring some of that Scandinavian culture to your own daily schedule (IKEA mugs and blåbär juice are a great fika starter kit, and tea is an appropriate substitute for those who prefer their caffeine from other sources).
The hardest part about taking a break is that there are times when we feel like we just can’t. When we feel anxious about getting something done or that something MUST be figured out right away. The thing about a career in science is that it’s not an easy job to have. A lot of the answers are unknown and won’t always come to you easily, especially if you’re in an endless staring contest with them. Recognizing where your stresses come from as well as recognizing when you’re stuck can help you not only figure out what you can do to feel better but also to move forward with a problem and be more productive with your work. Any job, and science especially, comes with a lot of external pressures and stressors, but staying focused on the bigger picture of your world can help you face the stresses that you have to face and keep at bay the ones that you make for yourself.
And now as this post is ready for some editorial wrap-ups, I can feel free to wander the streets of Dublin again before my flight back home and another week of work. Before taking my 313th flight (yes, I’ve counted the total number of flights I’ve been on in my life. Everyone needs a hobby!), I’ll pop over to the Porterhouse brewery to enjoy some Irish music and a final pint, knowing that I’ve crafted a decent post to self-validate my incessant need for travelling. But while there’s still free wi-fi, I might look into the weekend flight prices to Prague in the autumn, as I’ve heard that Czech beer (and sightseeing) is divine!