Work-Life Balance

When I was in graduate school, I was married with 2 young children, and it was sometimes hard to balance my studies and family life. My Dad once visited us in Madison and told me:

“Son, you are forming your life-long work habits now, and it is important to always have time for your family”

George Edison

That stuck with me, especially since my Dad himself always struggled with work-life balance as a busy physician who never joined a group but insisted on his own solo private practice. He made house calls, regularly visited patients in nursing homes, and pretty much went to the hospital every weekend and holiday to see sick patients.

Charcoal drawing I did for my Dad’s birthday in 1987.

I had been used to working hard before grad school, having worked in shoe repair shops for 2 years, as a saddle maker apprentice for a year, in a saddle shop for 3 years, and as a caretaker on a ranch for a year. During this time I learned a lot and met many creative and talented people who worked long hours.

One of my favorite books is “Working” by Studs Terkel. He writes about working people who do jobs ranging from barber to cop to lawyer to janitor. The main message I got from this book was that regardless of the job, most people work hard and take pride in what they do. My boss Wayne at Tip Top Shoe Repair was a perfect example of someone who worked long hours and was extremely proud when he could take an old pair of shoes and make them beautiful and functional again.

One time when I was a new assistant professor at the University of Florida and feeling particularly stressed about getting grant funding for my new lab, Ben Dunn, a senior full professor in my department told me:

Art, stop complaining. You don’t have it any worse than an owner of a bagel shop.

Ben Dunn

Ben was telling me that the bagel shop owner and I were both running small businesses. Mine was getting grants to support my research and students and the bagel owner was making and marketing good bagels so that he could pay rent, buy machines, and support his employees. Given that contrast, I was happy to write grants rather than wake up each morning at 3 am to get bagels ready for the day!

In graduate school, especially in the sciences, our students get their first exposure to expectations of long hours in the lab and stiff competition for fellowships and jobs. Many academic scientists almost seem to be proud of their stress and long work hours. I find myself regularly slipping into that mindset and need to keep in mind how non-linear the relationship between long hours and creative accomplishment can be.

The real danger is that so many students are stressed and either decide not to go into academics or science at all, because their mentors and professors are too busy and stressed. Mentors often are examples of what students don’t want to become.

The irony is that we value independent and creative thinkers as scientists but often discourage creative outlets during grad school, because we think that the only formula to success is long hours in the lab. It is true that real accomplishments require real effort and often long hours. But people need to be recharged during and after these efforts or they burn out.

I’m now not only a father and husband but also a grandfather. I think my daughters get the work-life balance thing better than I do, but it sometimes seems harder to start families and careers now than 20-30 years ago. The world is faster, more populated, and more competitive. My students get notices about new papers in their field every morning on their phones. When I was a grad student, we waited for the paper journal to show up in the library so that we could make a photocopy.

I think we should talk about work-life balance more often. As the world speeds up, it is more necessary than ever to stay healthy, nurture creative outlets, and spend quality time with family and friends. It is also important to work hard and to recognize that most people work hard and take pride in what they do. The world seems generally more stressed these days with politics colliding with serious issues like climate change and immigration. It is probably more important than ever to spend quality, creative time away from work and news and screens and enjoy being with real people who do real things.

How do you maintain your work-life balance?

Author: edisonleatherworks

I'm a biochemistry professor and leatherworker who likes bicycles, travel, art, education, and music. Walking is my favorite form of transportation, and I regularly practice Tai Chi.

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