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For scientists’ working hours, what does ‘done’ mean?

When I started grad school, I wanted to know how many hours a day I was expected to be in the lab. Not that I was planning to put in the minimum effort—on the contrary, I was young and eager, and I didn’t have much else to do anyway. But it still seemed like a reasonable question to ask at a new job, such as “Which fridge can I keep my lunch in?” or “Why is no one adhering to the safety protocols from the training video?”

I don’t remember who answered my question. But I do remember that they shrugged and gave some variation on, “It doesn’t matter, as long as you get your work done.”

That seemed reasonable. After all, I knew from my previous research experience that sometimes I’d end up staying in the lab until midnight because experimental protocols demanded it. I also knew that sometimes I wouldn’t get to the lab until noon because I was taking or teaching classes in the mornings. An “as long as you get your work done” policy seemed like a great way to acknowledge that grad students are largely responsible workers who enjoy science and sometimes need flexibility to accommodate the demands of coursework and teaching, along with the fact that research doesn’t inherently fit into a 9-to-5 schedule.

I never stopped to think about the most important word in that phrase: “done.”

As long as I get my work done? Super!

But come to think of it … I’ve never met a scientist who has, even for a day, considered their work “done.” At a stopping point? Yes. Good enough for publication? Sure. But “done”? Ha! There are always more experiments to conduct, discoveries to make, questions to pursue.

Not only is that the general nature of knowledge, but for many scientists, it’s part of the appeal of the work: There are always interesting new avenues to pursue and scientific truths to elucidate. But if there’s no such thing as “done” in science, and you’re supposed to work until you get your work done, your working hours are—oh, hey, neat—theoretically infinite.

Though it may seem like a sensible tradeoff—flexibility in exchange for responsibility—the insidious side is that you can never really pull away from work. You can always do a little more, and a little more, but that extra effort doesn’t ease tomorrow’s workload. Now, especially, as working hours and home life blend so thoroughly while the pandemic stretches into (checks watch) July, how can you ever know when you’ve worked enough?

It might make sense, then, for scientists to gauge our progress in terms of results rather than time spent. If the point of most science jobs is to generate knowledge and solve problems, surely we can measure our output in terms of knowledge generated and/or problems solved.

But what about those times when you work extra hard and the experiment fails, or the bacteria choose to not grow, or your funding is pulled, or another scientist reaches the finish line first? You can invest all the effort in the world and have nothing to show for it. That effort should still count for something, right?

The fact is that we don’t have a reliable way to gauge how productively a scientist works. And in the absence of such a metric, many scientists end up working under the premise that all is well as long as they get their work done—in other words, that they should just kind of work as much as possible forever until they die.

So we find ourselves at an impasse. Limiting work to specific hours isn’t practical, rewarding us only for results isn’t fair, and our research is never finished. The consequence is a system of “let’s just all work a bunch.”

The problem, then, isn’t the de facto arrangement we’ve ended up with. It’s the undue pressure that can cause scientists to feel inadequate because we misunderstand that our work will someday be “done”—that the scientists down the hall must have figured out how to achieve a state of “done,” because they go home in the evening, but however much we’re working, it isn’t enough.

Even in industry, where some 9-to-5 science jobs can legitimately be found, there’s a difference between 9-to-5 and 9-to-5-wink-wink. I spent a decade working at a biotech company, and salaried employees there often had to work long hours, deep into the evening and beyond, without compensation—kind of like a volunteer, only not the kind who actually volunteered for something.

If you find yourself working hours that feel theoretically infinite, especially in this time of (checks watch) apparently still July, know that you’re not alone. We’re all working hours with an indeterminate finish line, and we’re all doing the best we can within that vague constraint. Accept that “as long as you get your work done” doesn’t mean you’re always lagging behind where you should be. It doesn’t mean you should freak out if you have to stop working at 4 p.m. one day. It means, “We trust you to make a genuine effort and manage your time responsibly.”

And now you can stop reading. At least you’ve gotten this article done.

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