Long hours in the lab

A while ago I worked in the lab from 08:30 to 23:30 on a Friday. I worked for 15 hours straight. I ate and drank in the lab. I got home at midnight and ate the dinner my boyfriend had saved for me and drank a glass of wine with him and apologised for ruining the nice evening we’d planned together. I cried, not for the loss of the evening but from the dread of having to do another shift that long again and from the concern that even with all that effort my results might not be any good.


Occasionally staying an extra few hours in the lab is inevitable. Some experiments just take a long time and there isn’t much getting around that. Staying ‘til 7 or 8 pm doesn’t bother me too much as long as it isn’t too often – everyone has to do it now and then. However, the later it gets the more distressing it is. Quite aside from it being a bit miserable, it can be dangerous, as when it’s late there are fewer other people around to come to your aid during an accident. Plus there’s plenty of research to suggest that as people get tired they make more mistakes, that potentially both enhances the danger and reduces the quality of data.

Our department actually has a policy that people shouldn’t be alone in the labs after 6 pm. In practise this is quite difficult to enforce and to plan for. No one wants to tell their lab mates, “My Friday evening is ruined so I’m ruining yours too; you have to stay here with me until my experiment is done.” Even if you’re feeling particularly vindictive it isn’t always obvious when the experiment starts that it isn’t going to take another 12 hours. So there’s the problem of realising that it’s 6 pm and most people have already gone home but that you’re only half way through. Then you have to decide whether you’re going to abandon the experiment for your own safety, wasting the results you already have, or to risk it. Most people usually risk it.

As it happens, my data from that run now looks like it might be OK, but I still dread another 15 hour shift. I’ve spoken to my supervisor about this now, and we may have a way around it – the first half of the experiment is pretty simple set up that someone else could do, then I could come in late and finish it. So long as that “someone else” gets credit, it should be OK. This doesn’t avoid those days, perhaps when running slightly different experiments or taking advantage of unexpected resources, when I might unexpectedly have to stay late. Hopefully that won’t happen very much.

Part of the problem is that PhD students (at least physics PhD students in the UK funded by STFC or EPSRC – I haven’t done enough research to know how far this extends beyond that) don’t have much by way of employment rights. Their income is a “stipend” which makes it untaxable. They keep their student status which includes student cards and student discount and gives them council tax exemptions. Their working hours are often long but they’re usually also flexible. In exchange for these perks they find themselves unable to properly unionise, they don’t get sick pay or overtime, if they decide to have a child they aren’t entitled to maternity or paternity leave (although many Universities do offer it anyway). This has been discussed elsewhere.

The result is that they’re often seen as cheap labour. That they will work hard because they don’t only want  their meagre income but that they also want their qualification. That they can’t really do much to fight back if things get unfair, besides walking away from the degree. Most PhD supervisors are actually pretty reasonable people but it’s easy for them to lose track of how much work their students are doing and how well they’re coping with it.

There’s also the tendency for people in academia to want to work long hours. It’s not just a job for some people; it’s also their passion. They get up extra early and stay late because they love what they do to the point of obsession. They have to carefully limit themselves to 70 hour weeks so that they don’t lose contact with friends and loved ones. That’s fantastic for them but for their colleagues with better work-life harmony it can be detrimental. When a PI sees how much someone who works a 70 hour week has achieved they’re bound to praise it, and then to ask someone who has worked a 40 hour week why they’ve managed so little by comparison. It forces others to work more, without any extra pay or other benefits, just to keep up.

I don’t know what they solution is to any of this. Personally, I will try to avoid long hours. I’ve never been one for working over evenings or weekends if I can avoid it – I really like having a life. I’ll try to plan work carefully enough that I can share long shifts with others. So I should be ok, most of the time, but the system is desperate for a change. I think all it will take is some high powered lawyer with a bee in their bonnet about labour law to take a look about how PhD students work and it could all come tumbling down. That could be disastrous for academia in the short term but I think it will be good for PhD students in the long term.

Originally posted here:

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