There’s a lot of talk in grad school about how much time a grad student should spend in lab. Some people go in every weekend, ultimately working 7 days a week; others only go in on weekends when it’s necessary for the experiment, such as if there’s a timepoint to check, or animals or cells to take care of. The number of hours a grad student spends in lab each day varies, too. Some students spend the whole day in the lab regardless of whether they need to be behind the bench or not; other students might leave early on days when there’s less work to get done that needs to get done in the lab. This variability brings me to the topic of this post:
Time, or time management?
Or, to put it another way: can you get just as much done, and spend less time in the lab?
I’m not convinced that more is always better when it comes to time spent in lab.
Now, I’m not saying that you can spend no time in lab and still get good results. Obviously the point of being in grad school is to do research, and it’s important to spend as much time in lab as it takes to get good, publishable results- that’s what grad school is all about. But I argue that there’s a “critical mass” of sorts when it comes to being in the lab- that you can reasonably do so much behind the bench, but not more, and that any time past that can be better spent elsewhere- maybe doing science-related things, like reading papers, writing, etc.; maybe not- but certainly not staying behind the bench, and maybe not in the lab if you can perform those other tasks better elsewhere.
Of course, the amount of time it takes to reach that critical point depends on your lab and your PI’s expectations, and even more importantly, your specific project(s). Some projects inherently take more time behind the bench than others do, so there’s not a specific amount of time that works for all scientists. But for each person, I would argue, there is a general amount of time after which productivity does decrease, whether it’s because the person simply cannot perform any more, or because the experiment being worked on doesn’t really require any more benchwork that day.
I want to emphasize that science requires two things to work together: benchwork- the time and technical skills required to physically perform experiments day to day; and thinking- including reading papers, staying up to date on goings-on in the field, writing, and formulating questions and designing new experiments. Benchwork requires a physical presence in the lab, while the activities listed under “thinking” may not, especially as a student, and that’s what I am trying to emphasize here. Time management can be just as key of a technique in being successful as a grad student as the time spent in lab is- specifically, balancing time behind the bench and time not.
I’ll use myself as an example. I function much better if I have time every day to myself, to decompress, without any work to worry about. That means that I try to get as much work as possible done during the day- lab work (including time behind the bench, writing, and reading papers) as well as classwork. Yes, it requires thoughtfulness during the day, remembering to read a column or two of a paper during a 5 minute spin, or bringing a textbook to lunch to get readings for class done, but most nights, keeping this type of schedule affords me the time I need to relax when I get home. I do tend to be more productive doing work in lab than at home, because there I’m surrounded by science and not all the distractions of my apartment, but sometimes I will leave lab early to take a break during the day, and get back to doing work later in the evening at home. If I go for too many days without time set aside for myself, I get emotionally exhausted and I notice my productivity decreasing across the board. My mind doesn’t work as quickly when I’m trying to run an experiment, for example, and I have less energy to put forth into everything. So it’s important for me to have some “me time” set aside.
Is that the case for all grad students? Of course not: the other point I want to emphasize is that every grad student is different, and I hope I’ve made that clear up until now. But conversely, it’s also not the case that every grad student needs to spend 7 days per week in lab, or put in extremely long hours each day to be successful. So grad students having one experience are wrong to judge those having another.
During orientation in August, one important point that was brought up by a psychologist that came in to speak to us was that if there’s an activity you do that keeps you grounded, don’t give it up when you get to grad school. I like to think of it as keep doing what keeps you sane. Very few people can successfully do science 24/7 forever, regardless of how many hours per week they try to spend in the lab. I believe it’s key to have other interests or activities to turn your mind and attention to every once in a while to allow the science portion of your brain to rest. If that means spending Saturday at the library, or a weekday evening taking a fitness class, then so be it. Sometimes, science can wait.
Even better, sometimes, all the science that can be done is done, freeing up time for those other activities with no regrets.