Thursday, February 24, 2011

Dear Dr. Knowitall,

I love my postdoc appointment but I am finding it difficult to maintain our lab’s work habits, which often include late weekday and multiple weekend work sessions.  I really want to be a team player but this work schedule is becoming too stressful on my family life.  How should I approach the team with my concerns but still let them know that I am committed to the project?
--Signed Overworked

Dear Overworked,

    Your current dilemma may not be as difficult to manage as you think. Many notable researchers including Nobel Laureates have found positive ways to balance family commitments with their love for research. Often times, finding that balance requires you to obtain a clear perspective regarding the expectations of not only your research team but also your family. Understanding these expectations will enable you to set healthy boundaries regarding your work and prevent the ugly term “burnout” being applied to your situation.

     Since family life is a major priority to you, Dr. Knowitall recommends that you create a weekly schedule that includes non-negotiable family time. In your case it appears that some of this time would include weekends and some weeknights. When you have a solid understanding of this non-negotiable time request a meeting with the Principle Investigator (PI) of your project. At your meeting gently remind your PI about your commitment to the project and suggest a probationary change of your schedule that will not infringe upon your non-negotiable family time. Present this probationary schedule to your PI as a trial period to demonstrate that this schedule change will not negatively impact the project productivity.   

     This change should give you some much needed family time but be sure to remain productive so as not to alarm your PI to take concern with your new schedule. Also, be sure to set tangible productivity goals with your PI that you agree will be accomplished during the trial period. Completing these goals (e.g. manuscript and proposal submissions or data collection) will provide evidence that your new schedule is efficient. Hopefully, this probationary schedule works for your situation. In the case that it does not, here are some other options/questions to consider:

• Is there a role in this project with a more reasonable work schedule that I might easily transition into?
• Should I consider projects outside my current lab that will allow me to conduct research at a more reasonable pace?

Most importantly remember that a primary objective of science is “to improve the quality of life for society” so be sure that the “doing” and not only the “results” of science also improves your quality of life.

Happy Researching,
--Dr. Knowitall


  1. Thank you Dr. Knowitall!

    Your valuable advice does not only apply to overworked people with families and children, but basically everybody. I think every researcher needs some reserved time to themselves to be healthy and productive. I hope all postdocs are taking notes.

    Looking forward to more of your advices. Best regards..

  2. I've learned something useful from my PI. He is taking one day per week off from work, either Saturday or Sunday, for rest and/or family time. This is a "hard" rule, which he never breaks. I'm trying to follow this rule and so far, the "one day off per week" rule is giving me quality time with my family and with my hobbies.

  3. Dear Overworked,

    Welcome to the club. The easiest way to deal with your problem is to gradually inform and keep up to date your lab mates about the challenges of you life outside the lab while working hard to keep up with your project. If they are reasonable you all will find a way to work it out in term of scheduling. Remind them that they are in science trying “to improve the quality of life for us all” so making your life better will fit that purpose too


  5. Also, spending time with your family relaxes your brain from your work; a rested brain is much more productive than a stressed, tired one...