Dear Postdoc

What is your experience with work/life balance as an academic postdoc?


Contributed by Brian (May 10, 2013) | When I hear the word balance, I immediately think of a seesaw. For this device to work properly, the lever must pivot around the support point. As such, two positions can exist within this system – stable and unstable. It is relatively easy to imagine the most stable position - when only one person is on the seesaw, leaving one end at the ground level and another end up in the air. However, to ‘appreciate’ the unstable position, or horizontal equilibrium, it requires a well-managed and calculated balance of the system input.

Now that the childhood memory of the seesaw has been convoluted, I want to explain how this system is related to your work/life balance. As a husband, father of three children (all under 5) and two dogs, one may think I spend most of my time on the ground level of the seesaw with no counterbalance. However, this has never been the case. To be honest, I have an enjoyable life filled with many hobbies and time to devote to my counterbalance. How is this possible? The primary answers lie in your ability to identify what you value as important.

Work will always be a top priority because it provides you with an income and hopefully, some happiness. However, in academia these incentives may not necessarily apply to every postdoc. For example, some enter the postdoc world for high impact publications, a chance to work for an incredibly talented investigator, learn a new technique, or to get proper training to obtain the prized academic PI position. A common theme to these reasons is, ultimately to be challenged and increase intellectual stimulation, which may drive happiness. Unfortunately, this may leave you sitting alone on the seesaw only later learning you missed out on many great opportunities to be an active participant in life outside of your laboratory. Many postdocs understand the value in having a social life and the importance of family, however, not all PIs, family members, or friends understand the delicate balance of the postdoc ecosystem. Therefore, in order to maintain a balance in academia, I have developed a system (highlighted below) that works well for me to manage my work/life seesaw.

1.    Always be motivated but understand what an investment of your time really means. This requires one to multi-task and understand time management. Tip 1: Synch email accounts to your phone and integrate tasks directly with your mobile Google calendar. Keep track of volunteer work or tasks performed. When you are updating your CV/resume this will save a significant amount of time. Incorporate ‘project management’ applications into your daily life.
2.    Plan ahead, set reasonable goals, and think of what’s next. Tip 2: Plan your calendar a month in advance and section your days into work and family time. Share this calendar with your family (and possibly your PI) so you are held accountable.
3.    Determine what you want and communicate effectively. PIs are not mind-readers. You have to communicate and negotiate with them. At the end of the day, you need to make sure that the value you add to your lab is somehow balanced with reasonable incentives. Tip 3: Meet with a career counselor and join the national and your postdoc associations. The time devoted to work versus the time for career development or family must be close to 50/50. This is where one can really lose focus. Effective communication is critical in science and outside.
4.    Evaluate your progress. In academia, we often do not get a chance to evaluate ourselves, our progress, experience, or PIs. Tip 4: Sit down with your PI as early as possible and work on myIDP together. Plan your projects and career with your PI. Make sure that they understand what your goals are and how they can help you along the way and add value back to you. Keep track of these interactions using a weekly progress report, tracking your activities, goals, and completed tasks.
5.    Reward yourself. Take time off to spend with your friends and family. They are your support network. Tip 5: Increasing the numbers of hours you are in the lab does not necessarily correlate to an increase in productivity, and can often lead to burnout. Time away from the bench allows time for reflection.

Contributed by Michelle (May 10, 2013) | Being a postdoc is all about eating, sleeping, dreaming, breathing, smelling, lab, lab, lab, 24/7/365. Otherwise, you’ll be a miserable failure, never publish papers, never have your own lab, and end up asking people if they “want fries with that.” Right?


There are other facets to your life: family, friends, significant others, children, pets, responsibilities, physical fitness, hobbies—that you are neglecting if your end-all, be-all is defined by your lab work. Your success as a human being (not to mention your sanity) depends on your ability to balance all of these. After all, the point should not be hours spent in lab, but productivity. Is a postdoc who works 16 hours a day in lab twice as productive as postdocs who work 8 hours a day? Probably not. Tired, unhappy postdocs are more likely to make mistakes and waste time and resources—they’re also a real drag to be around. The average postdoctoral research, according to a 2003 study by the National Science Foundation, reported an average of 50.33 hours per week for postdoctoral appointments [1]. That’s not to say that you should work 50 hours a week: rather, strive to become as efficient as you can so that you are productive, but have time and energy left to devote to the other important facets of your life.

It’s important to establish open lines of communication with your mentor from the get-go: set goals and realistic time frames to achieve them. If you have kids, be proactive and have that discussion right away. Do you come in early to work or come back in the evening to make sure you can get everything done? Maybe. Do you analyze data and/or read papers at home? Sure. Make sure that your mentor understands your strategy and is confident that your work ethic is strong. It’s not a bad idea to keep track of the hours you spend doing lab work, whether you’re at home or physically in lab. Talk to your mentor often, and make sure he or she is happy with your productivity, and gauge that against the hours you’ve been putting in. Don’t be defensive or take comments personally—just discuss how you can address them in the context of your outside needs and responsibilities.

There are times, for example, when grant deadlines are just around the corner or an exciting story is in danger of being scooped—when spending long hours in the lab is a necessity and everything else falls by the wayside. Again, talk to your mentor. “Last week, while we were scrambling to get X grant application submitted, I let some things slide that I really need to take care of. I’d like to take tomorrow off to get caught up.” Most mentors will be reasonable with such requests. There is increasing recognition that long hours spent in lab do not necessarily equate to more results [2]. Moreover, the perception that a career in science means a life of 24/7 research turns off creative, young scientists who want more of a balance in their lives [3]. Unless this issue is addressed, the scientific community will find itself hemorrhaging its youngest, brightest scientists.

1.    National Science Foundation/Division of Science Resources Statistics, Survey of Doctoral Recipients, 2003. 
2.    Ledford, H. 2011. Work ethic: The 24/7 lab. Nature 477, 20-22.
3.    Overbaugh, N. 2011. 24/7 isn't the only way: A healthy work–life balance can enhance research. Nature 477, 27–28.


Contributed by Kurt (May 10, 2013) | I have been a postdoc for two years. I am recently married and do not yet have children. My wife and I work in different cities and I have a one hour commute each way, which puts a little strain on the time I have to divide between work and home. My PI is a clinician and is not in the lab every day; therefore, our interactions are limited to discussions of the broader progress of projects. This allows for some flexibility in my work schedule, but comes with a little more pressure to reach tangible milestones on a consistent basis. Overall, I currently feel my work/life balance is healthy, but I always wish I had a little more time for both.

Maintaining the work/life balance requires exceptional time management. This starts with planning experiments to effectively fit into a regular schedule and trying to work as efficiently as possible with the time you have. I have no problem working late to complete an experiment if unavoidable, but I try to avoid sitting at my desk reading or writing late into the evening. I bring this work home. By maintaining a regular schedule I am able to have dinner with my wife most nights. Admittedly, it is difficult to get back to the work I take home and I am trying to improve my self-discipline.

In order to make sure your time management is in line with the important figures in your life, clear communication is crucial. It helps to explicitly share with your significant other the time commitments you intend to make for work and then try to maximize the time you have together at home. In dealing with your PI it is important that you keep his/her expectations reasonable. The best thing for each project is to clearly articulate all of the steps that need to be taken and point out any foreseeable hurdles so that your PI has a realistic timeline in mind. This helps alleviate last second pressure to pull really long hours or work on the weekend.

Contributed by Uyen (May 10, 2013) | I recently finished a book called “Never Eat Alone” by Keith Ferrazzi, a successful businessman and an acclaimed “relationship guru,” and in his book there was a chapter titled “Balance is B.S.” In this chapter, Keith outlined his daily schedule where he wakes up at 4 AM to juggle phone calls and emails for three hours before going off to business meetings all day. Keith ends his day with dinner and drinks with friends until the late hours - all to start the following day at 4 AM again.

While we’re not Keith Ferrazzi, I think the microenvironment that postdocs live in often requires that we work 12+ hours in the lab – very much like the schedule of a busy businessman. Although I am still chipping away at postdoc’ing, I have come to an understanding that “balance” is really a personal definition. As postdocs, we all recognize that the pace of one’s project depends on the results we obtain. Therefore, we may find ourselves spending over 12 hours in lab to follow up on an exciting lead. However, when the bench work is slower, we may spend less time at work. It is the nature of our work. With that said, there is one piece of advice I would like to share that I learned through the wisdom of those that come before me: Communicate your career goals and personal priorities to your PI. Despite how uncomfortable it may be, I believe that being cleverly transparent will work to your advantage. This will undoubtedly prevent some problems that may arise, especially when time off is discussed. I believe communicating your goals is a valuable skill worthwhile to continue improving on. I will be working on this as I progress in my career.

So what does Keith Ferrazzi’s advice to those who seek balance? He believes that if one can integrate their personal life with their work life, then the balancing act will not be as challenging. How does one do that? Well, I’m still figuring it out.