Trading Sleep for Results

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Trading sleep for results

Chemjobber on fighting the temptation to work long hours in the lab

Like so many stories from graduate school, this is a familiar one: After a week of running reactions and columns, I had stayed late in the laboratory to start one more reaction with a precious synthetic intermediate. My plan was to head home afterwards for some hard-won sleep, then come back to the laboratory, refreshed and ready to take that material onto its next synthetic step.

I learned an important lesson that night: Putting in long hours doesn’t always pay off. Of course, rather than getting some sleep and starting fresh the next morning, I pedaled back to the lab to start the laborious synthetic sequence over again. It was 2 am.

Why do we do this to ourselves? There’s something about science that beckons to those who are willing to work long hours. There is always another experiment to run, another condition to try, and one more paper to download and read.

We all know situations where working long hours (especially in the lab) have paid off. One particularly successful lab mate of mine suggested that it was like a gambler’s hot streak—one successful reaction leads to another and another and another, and after the long droughts that are the sign of doing research at the frontiers of chemistry, it seems like utter madness to step away from the laboratory until the streak is over. It’s not often that those streaks happen, but enough of them can generate sufficient results to write papers and grants and advance careers. It’s not a surprise that pursuing them can quickly lead to 60 or 70 hour weeks.

Of course there are also wrong reasons to stay in the laboratory. The laboratory can be comforting in its isolation and can act as a shelter away from the pressures of life and conflict with friends and family. We can fool ourselves into believing that we are better chemists when we work longer hours.

The most familiar reason that we work long hours in the laboratory, especially in research, is that “nothing is working!” Because things aren’t working, we believe that longer hours and more experiments can help us succeed. And in many cases, they can. But the illusion is in mistaking the process of long hours for the results of novel, useful scientific data.

So what is a chemist facing a big project, or a short deadline, to do? First, we ought to do what we can to avoid these situations. The disciplined among us are able to avoid overwork with planning. They know when they’re the most productive, and they can immediately tell when their motivation is flagging and know how to turn it around.

I am a pessimist, so I believe that planning can fail and the late nights will inevitably come. For those times, determining discrete tasks (“I will go home when I’ve finished purifying this compound”) and setting hard boundaries (“I try hard not to work on Sundays” or “I will always make time for exercise”) are good strategies for maintaining one’s sanity when crunch time happens.

Now that I work in industry and I have a family, I have found myself more resistant to the call of late nights. That said, I can’t entirely avoid them. I was recently running a crucial reaction that would determine the success or failure of a particular project. Being that some of the starting materials were rather toxic, I was loathe to leave it alone. I decided to forego dinner with my family and completed the reaction around 9 PM that night. My wife was kind enough to bring me dinner, and as I sat and ate my rapidly cooling plate of pasta alone at my desk, I was reminded how easy it is to fall to the temptation of long hours in the lab.

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