The high-pressured research life – and how it’s glorified

The research landscape is currently at its most competitive: funding is becoming increasingly difficult to obtain, while post-doctoral positions are dwindling. This creates a pressure pot, where researchers feel forced to perform way past their capacity. A common result of this is burnt out, tired researchers – an image that is sometimes glorified in certain circles. Lack of sleep, running on fumes or staying in the lab until 2 am are being increasingly viewed as badges of honour, where improbable amounts of work seemingly endow you with endless bragging rights.

Normalisation of this type of behaviour is highly detrimental to the mental and physical health of young researchers. This article offers some suggestions for more healthful ways of working.

A.    Resist the culture of suffering

In many ways, your peers may be enticing you to overwork yourself by perpetuating the idea that research is conducted by living and breathing it, and therefore requires extended, unreasonable hours. This feeling is often engrained in research groups, especially amongst PhD students, who usually feel as though it’s par for the course to be miserable. (Learn more here about peer pressure: Dealing with Presenteeism and Peer Pressure in research and academia)

However, it must be stressed that this is not the case, and the glorification of such work practices and experiences perpetuates an unhealthy working environment. If you feel that this is the case, your best option is to take your concerns to your principal investigator, so that it can be addressed as quickly as possible.

B.    Stop relating productivity to hours

The misconception that longer hours equal higher productivity arises from two major factors.

·         There is the very natural desire to please your supervisor and to be able to say “I didn’t finish working until sunrise!”, which can sound impressive.

·         You may be working from the mistaken idea that more work results in more productivity.

Both of these myths need to be dispelled.

·         Your supervisor will more likely than not be concerned for your wellbeing if they know that you are working yourself into the ground.

·         In terms of productivity, it is very clear that as a more rested, more alert researcher, your productivity will increase, and thereby the overall quality of your work will benefit.

The bottom line is: take better care of yourself and your work will automatically improve too. It is more impressive to your supervisor to present a fabulous piece of work and hear about your weekend plans than know you are suffering under the strain of constantly pushing yourself.

C.     Maintain yourself to maintain your joy in research

Don’t forget that your job is to learn and that learning is fun. Prioritising your work over your own wellbeing means that you may lose your job satisfaction due to your marred experience. By taking care of yourself and establishing a healthy balance, you maintain interest in your research and can look forward to heading to work in the morning. Try to remember why you do the work – it likely isn’t to impress anyone, but to feel fulfilled, to make a new discovery and to expand your own knowledge.

Being a researcher is a privilege that should be enjoyed. The notion of suffering for your research is an outdated, unhealthy one and it must be stopped in its tracks. The most fulfilling way to conduct research is by doing so in a nurturing, collaborative environment. So, try to create one by encouraging it for both yourself and your colleagues. 

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