My lab table was full of tubes and pipettes, remnants of an experiment that had refused to work for several weeks. I cringed against the bank, desperate. It was very far from how I had felt a few months before, when I started my teacher's research project. At that time, I thought I had deciphered the code for academic success. After years of excelling in the clbadroom through intensive study, the idea that I would be rewarded if I worked hard enough was deeply rooted in me. So I spent long hours in the lab, I filled pages in my notebook and was praised for my diligence. When my experiments did not produce the exciting results they should have, I thought I just needed to work more.
However, here he was, working harder than ever, but without getting anywhere. Not know what to do.
It was late at night. Another person was still in the laboratory: a postdoc, who noticed my anguish, came over and asked how I was doing. I told him about my problems with the experiment. I did not tell him that he was also asking me what was wrong with me and that I felt like a failure. After talking about the experiment, the postdoctoral said: "I think it's time to go home and get some sleep." He added with a smile: "Taking a break is also hard work, you know?"
Those comments planted the seed of a new approach. Previously, when my friends who did not investigate asked if the spirit of "always working" that is common among academics was normal or healthy, I had ignored their concerns. Now, I realized that they were in something. I began to be easier for myself, to try to make the fact that being in the laboratory from early morning until late at night was the exception and not the norm. Rejecting the belief that long working hours are the hallmark of a good investigator was difficult, and I went back to my old routine more than once. But things improved a bit. I felt less stressed and my research began to progress. However, in the back of my head I still felt guilty for not having worked "enough". I had not fully understood what the postdoctor was trying to tell me.
A few years later, during my PhD, the penny fell the rest of the way. My advisor and I were in a cafe, discussing an obstacle facing our field of nanomedicine and many other biomedical fields: that research rarely translates into better clinical outcomes. When he finished his coffee and rubbed his forehead, he said: "We need to work smarter, not harder." I had never heard that mantra before, although now I know it's common, and it resonated with me. It also helped me see how the academy is often organized around the opposite premise: working harder and longer is seen as a virtue, regardless of how "intelligent" that work is.
That conversation helped me understand that new and exciting ideas do not come from a mind that is constantly under pressure. My best ideas and "aha" moments almost always come after allowing my mind to relax, either playing video games with my brother, preparing a good dinner or taking long walks with my wife. Part of the smarter work, I realized, may be taking a break. Combat the rule of overwork of the academy to separate for a while and experience something more is an effort, but it is worth doing.
Today, a decade after that night of revelation in the laboratory, I try to transmit this mentality to my own students. Not long ago, in the lab, one night, I walked with one of my students, who was slumped on his bench. I asked her kindly how she was doing. With a defeated look, she replied that the protocol refused to work, once again, despite many attempts. I could not help seeing myself so many years ago. We talked for a while about academic life and what it means to be a researcher. I asked him why we do what we do. Often it is about pursuing curiosity and pbadion.
How can we nourish that spirit? The answer does not include working ourselves to exhaustion. The balance between work and personal life is not a detriment to excellent research, or an optional bonus, but an integral part of it.