Working as a research scientist means being constantly pushed to produce results in the lab, not to mention applying for grants, writing papers, teaching, marking exams and assignments, and balancing family and social commitments. This article provides some coping strategies and insight for those struggling with the pressure to produce and feeling the effects on their personal lives.

Stay Active

It’s difficult to overstate the importance of exercise, not just physically, but also for mental health and brain function. You’re probably aware that regular exercise helps reduce stress, increases blood flow (including to your brain), improves sleep, releases mood-boosting hormones, and wards off disease, but did you also know that it can enlarge the size of and reduce degeneration in the part of your brain responsible for memory? [1]

Unfortunately, when you’re working long hours in the lab or writing a thesis, going to the gym or heading out for a run is probably one the first commitments you let fall by the wayside. But it’s incredibly important to maintain at least a semi-regular exercise routine.

Luckily, it’s become increasingly easy to find short, effective workouts on YouTube and other platforms, often with no equipment needed. In fact, a recent study found that even very short bursts (four seconds!) of high-intensity physical activity several times a day is enough to impact your health, [2] so you don’t have to try and fit in an hour at the gym every day.

Practice Breathing Techniques and Mindfulness Meditation

If you’re incredibly stressed because you’re trying to submit an article or finish a series of critical experiments by Friday at 5 pm, chances are your cortisol levels are pretty high and you’re taking shallow breaths. This is less than ideal for your long-term health but can also have negative short-term effects, such as increasing your chance of making mistakes.

Remember to occasionally pause and take some deep breaths to activate your parasympathetic nervous system. This will help you feel less stressed and more focused and hopefully stop your hands from shaking so that you can pipette accurately. Even as little as 10 deep breaths a couple of times a day can work wonders.

Mindfulness meditation is also a helpful tool—a growing swathe of scientific literature has shown it has significant benefits, from alleviating depression and anxiety to improving cognitive function. If meditating sounds a bit bizarre to you, you’re skeptical about its benefits, or you don’t know where to begin, I highly recommend the article How to Meditate by Sam Harris.

Tackling Procrastination and Setting Boundaries

It can often be a challenge to stay focused, especially when in a shared office space or working from home. Unless you are very disciplined, chances are you end up either:

  • procrastinating and getting distracted, therefore not being very productive or
  • working too much, making it difficult to differentiate between work time and personal time.

If you fall under the former category, you might find it useful to set up a ‘reward system’ to combat procrastination or read about the psychology of why we procrastinate and how it can be treated. [3] If the latter, you could consider taking scheduled breaks and setting strict time limits so that you know when to call it quits for the day and spend your spare time with family or friends. If you’re struggling, read up on how to work from home effectively. If you’re forced to work from home because of pandemic lockdowns, illness, or parenting duties, you might want to check out some ideas on how to spend your time productively.

Feed Your Brain

You’ve probably heard about recent studies linking diet and mental health. Not only can the food we consume ward off depression,[4] but it can also affect the size of the hippocampus [5] and potentially prevent stroke and brain diseases. [6] To clear ‘brain fog’ and function at your best, try to eat as healthy and unprocessed a diet as possible.

We’ve all fallen victim to using food, alcohol, or other substances as a coping strategy at some point. There’s nothing wrong with occasionally indulging in chocolate or some other comfort food after a terrible day in the lab or to get you through the afternoon slump. Doing this on a regular basis, however, is generally not a great idea because it can lead to long-term patterns of negative behavior. Instead, find healthier ways to cope with stress so that you don’t have to rely on food or alcohol to get you through rough times.

Nurture Your Creativity

Sadly, PhD supervisors are commonly unsupportive of their students having hobbies that keep them away from the lab, and some (including my own) actively discourage it. This is unfortunate for many reasons, not least among them being that creativity is important for problem-solving—a fundamental aspect of science.

No matter what your boss tells you, nurture your creative outlets in your spare time. You may have a genius idea, make a connection between two seemingly unrelated concepts, or finally figure out the solution to a months-long problem when you’re cross-stitching, playing guitar, or painting.

Stay Connected

Even if you’re lucky enough to have supportive and understanding family and friends, you can still feel like you’re missing out if you’re working long nights or weekends in the lab while everyone else seems to be sipping prosecco at the beach or having ‘Insta-worthy’ brunches.

It’s often useful to spend time away from social media, perhaps on a regular basis. But that doesn’t mean withdrawing completely from social connection. Reach out to the friends you really want to speak to. Sometimes silence can be misinterpreted. Instead of keeping quiet because you know you can’t spend time away from the lab with your mates, let them know you’re still there and thinking of them.

Look at the Bigger Picture

“Oh, you aren’t dead? Then why didn’t you reply to the email I sent you on Saturday at 2:53 AM?” Your supervisor asks in your weekly meeting after you had the nerve to take the weekend off. Everything seems urgent all the time, and the concept of ‘inbox zero’ seems laughable even on a quiet day. Of course, there’s also that nagging sense of guilt that tends to accompany you when you spend time away from your thesis or experiments.

There are days when it seems like it will all be worth it and others when you’re sure no scientific breakthrough is worth the toll it takes on your health, sanity, and personal life. It may seem as though you’re the only one struggling with this, but trust me, you’re not alone. Many scientists have had to make sacrifices for their careers, but only you can decide what sacrifices are worthwhile.

It helps to remember that it’s ok to say no sometimes—you have rights as an employee, and your boss shouldn’t be constantly pressuring you to work extra hours or weekends, even if they do it under the guise of caring about your future career. Remind yourself that it’s ok to have a life outside of work—it doesn’t make you any less of a scientist.

Plan Your Exit Strategy

At some point, you may need to decide which is worse: the guilt of having a weekend away from your experiments, or the guilt of missing yet another coffee date with your best friend. If that’s where you’re at right now, you might want to learn about alternative career options. If the idea of leaving academia makes you feel like you’ve failed in some way, you haven’t. A surprisingly low number of science PhDs stay in academia long term.

Do you have any other tips on how to be productive and stay sane? Let us know in the comments.

References and Further Reading

  1. Broadhouse, K.M., et al. Hippocampal plasticity underpins long-term cognitive gains from resistance exercise in MCI. NeuroImage: Clinical. 25 (2020). doi: 10.1016/j.nicl.2020.102182
  2. Wolfe, A.S., et al. Hourly 4-s Sprints Prevent Impairment of Postprandial Fat Metabolism from Inactivity. Medicine and Science in Sport and Exercise. Published ahead of print (2020). doi: 10.1249/MSS.0000000000002367
  3. Rozental, A. Understanding and Treating Procrastination: A Review of a Common Self-Regulatory Failure. Psychology. 5 (2014). doi: 10.4236/psych.2014.513160
  4. Lai, J.S., et al. A systematic review and meta-analysis of dietary patterns and depression in community-dwelling adults. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 99, 1 (2013). doi: 10.3945/ajcn.113.069880
  5. Jacka, F.N., et al. Western diet is associated with a smaller hippocampus: a longitudinal investigation. BMC Medicine. 13, 215 (2015). doi: 10.1186/s12916-015-0461-x
  6. Psaltopoulou, T., et al. Mediterranean diet, stroke, cognitive impairment, and depression: A meta-analysis. Annals of Neurology. 74, 4. (2013). doi: 10.1002/ana.23944

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