Friday, May 4, 2012

All play and no work?

I generally love the lab that I am in: I’ve learned to patch cells here and even though I (still) don’t have my own funding, my PI allows me to do the research that I want, and I even got a technician who is helping me with that. I love that we go sailing in the summer on a weekday, and I love that every single person in my lab likes to cook and eat delicious food (which we often do). I love that we help each other out: this past week all 15 of us helped a labmate move to a new place. I love a lot of other things about the lab that I am in too.
What I don’t love (and I’ve written about this before), is that all this fun that we’re having means that some people rarely ever do any work anymore. There are days when people come in, start with coffee at the coffee table that is strategically placed in the middle of the lab, sit there long enough for lunch to start, and then hang out until it’s time for an ever-present beer from the lab fridge. New people that join our lab do so because they like that we’re having shots at 2PM or because we have a potluck every week when the PI is traveling. 

And I hate to feel like such a grumpy person, but this really annoys me (as I said this morning on twitter). Especially now that I have BlueEyes, I try to work pretty efficient, which means that for most of the day I am busy doing something. And being busy while other people are sitting at the table laughing together makes me feel lonely. It makes me feel a loser for being at work instead of hanging out. And when I’m doing a slice experiment, I’ll usually hang out and talk when I’m waiting for my drug to wash onto my cell, but especially on days when I’m working hard but stuff doesn’t work, it makes me feel alone. 

I’ve debated whether I should talk to my PI about this, but that feels too much like telling on people. Besides, I leave everyday around 4PM to pick BlueEyes up from daycare, so who am I to say something anyway? And my PI takes pride in his so-called ‘hands-off’ mentorship. The one time I suggested that one of the grad students could perhaps use a bit more guidance (he’s in his 7th year with no papers yet); he said that he wasn’t that type of a mentor.

So I guess I’m going to continue to find a balance between work and play, keep a smile on my face and remember that somewhere in the world there are people working.


  1. The vast majority of my day is spent staring at a computer screen. As do most of the people around me. It gets lonely too.

  2. I hate working when I can over hear people having fun without me. That sounds totally distracting and isolating, and I find ephys to be rather lonely work anyway.
    How big is your lab? It seems like it must be relatively productive. I mean there is funding, work must be getting done somehow. It seems like a happy laid back lab could really be the perfect place for particular people to flourish, especially post-docs who should be 'bridging to independence' anyway. But some grad students, like your 7th year guy, obviously need more structure and probably some pressure.
    I would say do your work, get your papers, and move on as soon as possible. And when you run your own lab, run it your way.

    1. Thanks for your comment. Our lab is about 15 people (grad students, post docs and techs) and we're pretty productive, but not super productive... especially a couple of new people who are also new at e-phys are having a hard time getting data. Our lab does a bunch of things that not a lot of people can do, and my PI is REALLY good at networking, so a lot of the grants and papers that he has are through collaborations, which explains why a situation like this can exist. However, two of the major grants in the lab are ending next year so we'll see what happens then.
      I've also thought to myself that I should try to get out of this lab and into a more stimulating environment quickly, but I also want to finish the project that I thought of for myself, and that might take at least two more years. And I'm definitely learning about how (not to) run my own lab!

  3. Fascinating post. I've often dealt with similar issues. I had a lot of the same thoughts, but eventually decided I couldn't control the personality of the lab. I just kept my head down, took shots at 2 pm when I wanted to, and waited until I could start my own lab. (Now wonder if my own students have the same feelings...)

  4. Glad to know I'm not alone! I have to say that how annoyed I am is really dependent on my mood and on how well things are working in the lab. And when I think about it on a day that I'm not annoyed, I guess I prefer this type of lab over a lab in which everyone is quiet all the time.
    I do think that the energy within a group can be changed, but I think that academic PIs are not particularly trained to do that (compared to people in industry who are probably more skilled in people management).

  5. I wrote a response but my computer ate it...

    It is frustrating to work in a lab that has a personality that doesn't fit well with you. I don't know if there's much you can do if the others want to be a bit slack. As long as it doesn't affect your work. Part of it may be the difference between being a young childless grad student and being a postdoc with a family. Their time is just way more flexible.

  6. In my postdoc lab there were all sorts. Those that spent 12+ hours per day in the lab (but of course 4-6 of those hours were spent goofing off, working out, socializing) and those like me that worked a solid 8 hours and either stayed to hang out or went home to families, partners, whatever. But it wasn't too bad, nobody felt pressured into one style or the other. Other labs I've known though, joining the lab is joining a new lifestyle like you describe yours. One lab I knew was described by a colleague as "They've got this whole Club Med thing going on over there". But nevertheless, they managed to be productive. Since I'm also an electrophysiologist I know how one is tied to the experiment once it starts, and that's just the nature of the work. Which works fine if you like to be efficient and not intermingle socializing and working throughout your day. But whatever you do, don't feel bad or pressured. You can always join them if you have time afterwards.