By Lori Bystrom, PhD
Although 2016 may have been rough for some, most of us are still optimistic about 2017. We all want to start the New Year happy. Fortunately, more and more businesses, institutions, and even countries and cities are focusing on happiness. Companies, such as Happy City in Bristol, England, aim to keep people content. The Center for Health and Happiness at Harvard is gaining a lot of interest (see The Atlantic article). Many countries and cities are being ranked based on happiness (check out the happy planet index). And just look at the United Arab Emirates, which appointed its first “minster for happiness” early in 2016. All of this sounds wonderful and promising, but what about the happiness of scientists?
I am not sure that many people would equate “science” with “happiness.” As an academic scientist, I recall happy moments of scientific discovery, but those are memorable partly because they are rare. I particularly recall one glorious moment during the last month of a project — after many failures and nearly passing out — when I was finally able to get publishable results. Oh how long I waited for that happy day! More often, however, the scientific work environment can be tough, especially in academia, with little positive feedback, low pay, and competitive/high pressure work. This is all compounded with constant trials and tribulations of everyday science, all of which can take a toll on the mental health of scientists.
It may seem grim to view scientific work as so difficult, but this does not stop many scientists from loving science. In fact, I think science would probably be very boring if amazing results were so easy to achieve all the time (well, it would be a little bit exciting). I think many scientists would agree that there is something appealing about the challenge of discovering and exploring the unknown in order to reach that happy eureka moment. That being said, though, science research does not need to be as depressing as it is. This is to say: there is much that could be done to make scientists less unhappy.
So what can be done to make or keep scientists more content with their job? More money is always nice, of course, but this is not always the answer, nor is it always feasible. There are, however, other approaches that may improve work conditions for scientists. Here are a few ideas for promoting happiness in the lab, especially for academic scientists.
Listen to all; respect all
This may seem obvious, but this was often a major problem in the labs where I have worked. I think it is always good to listen to what everyone has to say about a project. I have witnessed people at all levels in the academic institution fail to encourage this kind of healthy discourse. Everyone should have a voice. Not only that, but scientific discovery comes in many shapes and forms. Even a young scientist may see something that a more experienced scientist might not, because they are too lost in the detail. Different perspectives may help shed light on problems that initially seem too complex to solve.
Excluding people from intellectual discussion hinders the creative flow in research and leads to unhappy scientists. Most researchers would like to provide some feedback about projects in the lab. Scientists should not be treated like robots. This only makes scientists angry. And once a few colleagues are upset, they are liable to take it out on everyone else, leading to a lab infested with unhappy scientists.
Define and communicate expectations
All mentors should have their students and/or employees define what kind of expectations they have of each other at the beginning of a project. These expectations should be reviewed over time, as they will likely change. You may not see eye to eye with your mentor, but they are also not mind readers. This is why expectations from both sides should be reviewed. And if you are not a good match then it is better to find out early.
In addition to short-term goals, both mentor and mentee should also define their long-term goals. Not everyone wants to go to medical school, be a PI/advisor, or stay in the lab, and therefore scientists should work on projects that are relevant to their long-term and short-term interests. Furthermore, if you need advice you should ask, and if someone asks for advice, you should respond. No one has a crystal ball and so dead silence does not help anyone. Ultimately, good communication prevents miscommunication and an unhappy lab environment.
Aim to achieve little goals
It is not reasonable for everyone in a lab to expect to be the first author on a paper in a high-ranking journal after a short stint in research (I have had many summer students expect this!) For this reason, I think it is important for scientists to aim for small goals, especially at the beginning of a project or career. By starting out small you can build a strong foundation for a big project. For students that are new to a particular field of science, or even science at all, it may be good for them to work on projects already in progress by developing small and relevant side projects, as well as providing them small incentives (e.g., name on poster or something that they can put on their CV). This way there is less confusion in the lab and the outcome of the project is more likely to keep everyone happy.
More senior scientists can also benefit from taking on smaller projects within or outside of their own research. This can help because many scientists may not see the light at the end of the tunnel when their project is not working as planned. In such an eventuality, having smaller projects on the side allows them to take a break from their main project by using their expertise in small doses to help other projects, especially those close to being finished. This, in turn, may help them better visualize their problem, keep their publication record up, and boost their morale.
Keep everything organized and transparent
I think organization is crucial in a lab. This not only pertains to cleaning the lab space, decluttering lab supplies and maintaining instruments, but also to finances. It would be nice if someone at the institution other than the PI had to deal with this. Unfortunately, this is not usually the case. It is a lot to ask that one person manage research, lab drama, and also lab finances. I find that academic scientists (myself included) are not trained how to do this very well. Therefore, it may be good if everyone in the lab sat down and discussed what is needed for various projects in order to make sure the money is well spent. If financial conditions are becoming a problem in lab — as they often are, even in the most prosperous labs — it may also be good to have everyone write a budget for their project. Transparency about the financial situation of the lab also helps people understand the state of the lab (and perhaps the mood of their PI/boss), and may encourage scientists to think again about paying extra for something not necessary (do we really need pink pipettes?). A lab that is organized and financially transparent helps prevent unnecessary stress and avoids a lot of unnecessary resentment.
Don’t forget to socialize… and take a break!
I know that I could not have survived my lab experiences without the support of other fellow scientists. I found that lunchtime was something I looked forward to every day because not only could I eat (nom nom), but I could vent about experiment problems, laugh, or learn from other colleagues. I think all mentors should encourage this and celebrate any scientific achievement with some kind of social event, even if it only occurs during lab meeting. A friendly and social environment makes for happier scientists.
Additionally, overworking scientists leads to less efficient and productive work. Before a big deadline is about to approach, it might be good for scientists to take a few hours off to recompose themselves. This might be a good time to take a walk or eat a nice dinner. Otherwise, if there is no time for that it might be good to take a longer vacation after the deadline is over so you can come back more refreshed and ready to tackle more challenging moments in science. I know I have denied myself vacations many times because I thought maybe if I just kept on working I would get the data I needed sooner. Unfortunately, this often led to less productive work. This is why it might be good to enforce that all researchers take vacations, especially after stressful periods.
Perhaps in the future, there will be organizations to help manage the happiness of scientists, although I am not holding my breath for something like this to appear anytime soon. Maybe the first step, however, is acknowledging that there is a lot of unnecessary unhappiness in the lab and that we should try to do something about it. The future of science will be better if we keep scientists smiling 🙂