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Do you believe in life after lab?

He was the academic lecture hall equivalent of a heckler. Last month, during the Q&A session after my keynote at the Preparing Science Professionals symposium at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, someone asked about an embattled subject in academia: life outside the lab.

I’m a big proponent of life outside the lab—or, as I call it, “life.” My fondest grad school memories are not of repeating the same damn fluorimetric assay six dozen times; they’re of playing poker with my friends, traveling to a postdoc’s wedding in Spain, and my housemate’s weekly Homemade Pasta Night.

I also spent nights and weekends working odd theatrical jobs, including ghostwriting jokes for a fitness convention, faking my own death at corporate murder mysteries, and appearing as a thug in some sort of Korean soap opera I still can’t identify, I told the audience. Now, many years later, I’m still doing these kinds of things, though most of the jobs are thankfully less odd.

I didn’t think twice about publicizing my hobbies—until the campus newspaper published a short profile about the grad student who did comedy on the side. In response, my grad school thesis adviser summoned me to his office and called my extracurricular activity an embarrassment to the department.

I learned two things that day. First, my thesis adviser wasn’t always right. And second, I should start taking measures to conceal my private life.

Because that’s what it was: private. My time outside the lab was exactly that—my time—provided it didn’t affect my research.

A professor in the back of the lecture hall stood up. He strongly disagreed, he said in kind of a loud and scary way, with my “provocative” recommendation of secrecy. Students need to have honest conversations with their advisers, not hide activities from them.

I replied that his comments presuppose that all advisers are reasonable. And, of course, most are. But I’ve heard enough thesis adviser horror stories in my visits to graduate schools across the country to know that this is not always the case. And sometimes, if your boss tries to overreach and control your outside interests, I believe your best bet to retain control of your time is subterfuge.

This reply thoroughly failed to convince the professor in the audience.

“I wonder how much you hide from your wife!” he shouted at me.

Um.

“It’s the same thing!” he yelled.

Okay, let’s all calm down. First of all, I hide nothing from my wife—except sometimes the car keys, and that’s not on purpose. (Well, I don’t think I ever told her about the raging diarrhea I had during the Mathcounts competition in eighth grade, but some things are better left unsaid.)

More importantly, it’s not the same thing. My wife, unlike my thesis adviser, lives in our house, co-parents our children, and imparts wise counsel—like telling me I probably shouldn’t put the bit about diarrhea in this article. My thesis adviser does not live in our house, unless I’m in for a creepy surprise.

Of course I understand where the professor is coming from. He’s probably seen students, still learning how to effectively manage their time, who traipse into the lab for an hour and then disappear. (In grad school, a professor in my department once interrupted a group conversation to turn to an often-absent third-year student in his lab, shake his hand, and say, “Hi. I’m your thesis adviser.”) But just because some trainees get derailed, that doesn’t mean advisers hold authority over Homemade Pasta Night.

After the Q&A, I was inundated with vicarious apologies from students and faculty members who called the professor’s reaction excessive and assured me that he did not represent their university—he was visiting from Texas. And there’s one more thing that several students, independently, said to me that day: “This guy clearly hasn’t met my adviser.”

It’s a beautiful world in which advisers and advisees can chat openly. Principal investigators (PIs) should be able to hold honest conversations about their expectations, and their students should be able to go home for dinner without worrying whether they’ll be suspected of indolence. However, because advisers and advisees are human beings, it’s not always so simple. And when honesty fails—when your PI calls your hobby an embarrassment to the department, for instance, or emails you to request data at midnight, or raises an eyebrow because you didn’t work on Saturday—what’s a student to do?

Coincidentally, around the same time I was responding to accusations of lying to my wife, the Times Higher Education tweeted, “Academics, professional staff: How many hours do you work each weekend? Tell us via our major work-life survey.”

“Silly question,” one associate professor replied. “For real academics work=life.” Thus began a Twitter battle between a few #realacademics commiserating over their long hours of admirable dedication and a lot of people who prioritize work-life balance and resent being told that doing so means they’re not #realacademics. The hashtag soon morphed into satire, as Twitter users bragged how #realacademics sleep under their desks, drink their own sweat, and somehow find a way to work 26 hours a day. It’s the classic debate heard at universities around the world: “I work more than you do” versus “The fact that you work more than I do propagates unrealistic standards for how much I’m expected to work.”

Both of these incidents remind me of one more lesson I learned from grad school, which I didn’t realize until much later in my career: There is no single right way to be a scientist.

In a 1987 Atlantic Monthly article (later a book), writer Paul Hoffman profiled the eminent mathematician Paul Erdős, who slept 5 hours a night and spent his waking 19 hours thinking about math. In the same article, Hoffman described Erdős’s colleague and frequent collaborator, Ronald Graham, who excelled at juggling, trampolining, bowling, and boomeranging. He was also learning piano and Chinese. Erdős, who died in 1996, was a lifelong bachelor; Graham is a married father of four.

Erdős believed in working every possible moment; Graham enjoys life outside the lab. Both are incredibly successful mathematicians. And while some scientists are single-minded Erdőses, others are multifaceted Grahams—and that’s okay.

We’re all still #realacademics.

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