Is fascination for science worth the sacrifice?

Too much pressure on early career scientists may obscure the enjoyment for science
Is fascination for science worth the sacrifice?

Following blogs such as naturejobs (, every now and then you come across an article dealing with the issue of work–life balance for scientists, and in particular for those in the early years of a scientific career. But research defined as exploration of the unknown is not a normal job. It is like reading an intriguing novel when you are unable to put the book aside. In the best case your research occupies your mind day and night, not only in the lab. Because of that, fixed time schedules are counter-productive in scientific research.

However, concerns are growing that young researchers are under too much pressure from many different sides. Indeed, it is not easy to say No to excessive demands from your boss or to postpone writing, reading and experimenting for vacation or recreation. To find the individual balance between life in and outside the lab is almost an art – and easier to find when you enjoy your science and with experience. And there are less fascinating times in which routine, time-consuming or even boring experiments need to be done.

Eurodoc, the European Council of Doctoral Candidates and Junior Researchers, has issued a statement on FP9 prepared by the European Commission and expected to be presented in the summer (, which was commented on elsewhere in ) asking among others for safeguarding of the balance between  ‘normal’ life and life as a researcher in the lab. It should be taken seriously since not every PhD student in Life Sciences will choose a career in research and such students should not be unnecessarily alienated. PIs should be willing to welcome and accommodate PhD students aiming at a degree but not at a career as a scientist.

With postdocs it seems to me that it is different: to enter a postdoctoral training and consequently a career as a researcher means to be prepared to live for science, to be fascinated by the adventure into the unknown and to be determined for the discovery. And yes, it means to make sacrifices in your life such as associating literature with scientific pidgin instead of G.B. Shaw or Saturday Night Fever with never-ending weekend experiments instead of J. Travolta. It may well be that as a postdoc you realize that you do not want to pursue research under the current conditions, but then it is better to leave this career path early.

The real tough career obstacles are of a different nature: success is the only measure in your life as a researcher, and a lot of times success is also a matter of good luck. People tend to forget or hide this contribution to their success. Still the biggest hurdle is to find a position suitable for your expertise and qualification, and again it is not without luckiness to find a good match. One year too early or too late may be decisive for a whole life.

To not have a normal but a challenging “job” holds true for any intellectual and creative work, and is by no means special for scientists. How do other areas deal with the feeling of not getting it done in time and with growing competition? What kind of action do you expect from the scientific community?


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