The Life Scientists’ Guide to Wellbeing
“Wellbeing” feels like the buzzword of the moment, no matter what industry you work in. Employers across a range of different sectors – including life sciences – are finally starting to put their team’s wellbeing first, moving away from a culture of competition and burnout, to one of support and collaboration.
We know you love what you do, and we understand how hard life scientists work – and that it’s often out of choice, rather than necessity. But working hard doesn’t mean you have to neglect yourself. Signe Asberg puts it brilliantly in this article about the importance of work/life balance in academia: “My philosophy is that I love science, but I won’t die for it.”
With this in mind, we’re looking ‘beyond the buzzword’ at what wellbeing actually is, and how we scientists can look after ourselves better, and support our colleagues to do the same.
What is “wellbeing”?
At its simplest, wellbeing is: “the state of being comfortable, healthy, or happy.”
If you’re interested in psychology, you might have heard of Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, published in his 1943 paper A Theory of Human Motivation. It can be visualised as this:
The bottom four layers of the pyramid refer to what Maslow called our "deficiency needs": esteem, belonging, safety, and physiological. Although, to survive, we only need to meet our physiological needs, Maslow proposed that if the requirements of the other three layers aren’t met, we’ll feel anxious, stressed, and tense.
Maslow further suggested that our “deficiency” needs must be met before any of us will desire and focus on the higher “self-actualisation” needs – and it’s these needs that fuel our ambition and dedication, ultimately making us brilliant scientists.
So, when it comes to our wellbeing, Maslow’s pyramid is a helpful framework to use to remind ourselves to focus on what matters most.
Focus on the basics first
Ultimately, wellbeing starts with our physiological needs. It sounds obvious, but the moment we get “too busy”, or a project starts to feel all-consuming, our most basic of needs are usually the first to slip out of the window. If we’re relating to these needs as the foundation of our ‘wellbeing pyramid’, we can see why neglecting them can make everything else feel like it's falling apart.
Drink enough water
One of the easiest things to neglect is our hydration, and a great way to make sure you drink enough water during the day is to buy a water bottle with reminders. We love this one by More Water which gives you hydration targets in time segments, with a reminder to refill halfway through the day (and a positive “well done”!)
Eat properly and take breaks
Remind yourself to eat properly by scheduling a lunch break into your diary that pops up with a reminder on your phone or computer. If we consider our natural ultradian rhythms, our brains, on average, are only able to focus for 90 minutes at a time and need at least 20 minutes rest after that. However, research shows only 1 in 5 people take a break during their working day.
While it can be tempting to “push through” when you’re on a roll or on deadline, the long-term effects of doing this every day without nourishing your body with food and your brain with breaks can take its toll on concentration, energy, and health. Instead, schedule in time to take a proper break in the middle of the day, and other slots where you can focus your mind on less exhaustive tasks to avoid burnout.
Get enough sleep
While it’s tempting to work hard and play hard when you’re in a high pressure role, one of the best things you can do for yourself is making sure you get a good eight hours’ sleep most nights.
In his book Why We Sleep, sleep scientist Matthew Walker argues sleep is more important than diet or exercise. He explores how sleep enriches our ability to learn, memorise, and make logical decisions. It also recalibrates our emotions, strengthens our immune system, boosts our metabolism, and regulates our appetite.
Find your security (however that looks)
The next step up the pyramid focuses on safety / security. For life science researchers, this can pose a challenge to our wellbeing for a number of reasons:
- Competition for funding and unstable or short-term positions
- Lack of budget for the work that we want to pursue
- Difficulty balancing a family and a demanding job
- Financial planning when income is uncertain
With only 25% of life scientists believing it’s likely they’re going to get funding, and 65% of scientists telling us it isn’t easy to be a scientist and have a family, you can see why the “security” layer of Maslow’s hierarchy might feel like the most difficult one for us to address.
So, how can we find a sense of security when it feels like so much is beyond our control?
It’s true that academic positions can be challenging to secure. The good news is, as a life scientist, you have an incredibly diverse skill set that plenty of organisations will be crying out for. The Cheeky Scientist website is packed with advice on careers in science. Their mission is to get more PhDs into high-flying positions by helping with the transition from academia to the corporate world. Check them out, and if you’re in need of reassurance of your brilliance, you can get inspired and excited by how many options there are for you.
Remember, there’s no one route to success, and if you feel like academia might not be right for you in the long term, there’s no shame in that at all.
If you’re certain you want to pursue a research career, that’s brilliant! The best thing you can do is surround yourself with people who are also finding their way, and share the same worries, fears and concerns as you. Support each other, and remind each other why it is you’re doing what you do.
It’s important to build relationships with people who inspire and reassure you, who have been there and done that, and who want to help you succeed. It will make a world of difference to have a support network committed to your success.
Which leads us nicely to the next level...
Find your community
“In most cases, you are a lone ranger in the lab. You don’t really work in a team as you would in an industry. Your project is your own and no one really cares about your work except you and your PI,” says Ryan Raver in his article for The Grad Student Way.
This shows why cultivating a community is so important for life scientists, especially early career researchers. Depending on what suits you, you can do this in a number of different ways.
In your own organisation and department
“Having a place and a medium through which everyone can share their progress and setbacks can really help bond individuals together as a group,” says PhD student Lizzie Mann, whose department has regular PhD meetings every two weeks. “A group dynamic works best when everyone knows they can rely on others for technical or emotional advice when things get tough or feel lonely. If your department doesn’t have an equivalent, you can always try setting one up.”
On social media
Social media, especially Twitter, is a great place to build connections with other life scientists. Just take a look at hashtags such as #phdchat, #phdlife, and #academictwitter to see how many helpful and supportive conversations are happening. As Emma Yhnell highlights in her recent blog post for us: “I’ve had an overwhelmingly positive experience of using social media in a professional capacity. Social media can provide a tremendous sense of community and belonging.”
Around your research area
Dr Samantha Murray, a researcher at the University of Otago, told us how reaching out to the wider community surrounding her research made a world of difference to her PhD: “My lab group was hugely involved in the Huntington’s disease community, not only the wider research community, but engagement with patients, their families and caregivers, and clinicians. It really kept me motivated, when times were hard in the lab, I had the patients and families in my mind, always so enthusiastic and supportive of our research.”
Boost your self-esteem
The “esteem” level of Maslow’s hierarchy covers feelings like self-esteem, confidence, achievement, and respect. One of the biggest challenges to this in the academic world is comparison.
“It can be all too easy to catch yourself comparing yourself to others,” says Dr Emma Yhnell. “Early career researchers can be particularly susceptible to this. In a cut throat and competitive academic environment, seeing someone regularly posting on social media about their successful grant application, accepted publication, or promotion can make you feel downright rubbish about yourself.”
It’s important to remember is that when you hear people speaking at events, posting on social media, or presenting at conferences, they are showing you the best versions of themselves. You aren’t seeing the full picture of their failures, doubts, and frustrations – which every single person has, no matter what stage of their career they’re at.
Take note of your successes
Celebrating your successes, and reminding yourself of the ‘best bits’ of your life, is vital for self-esteem. “Beware that naturally there will be ups and downs,” says Dr Yhnell, “so use your support network when you need to and appreciate the successes and accomplishments, no matter how small they are!”
One way to do this is to keep an “accomplishments journal”. At the end of each day, before you go to bed, jot down all the positive things you accomplished that day. If you’re struggling and can only think of what didn’t go to plan, write down what you learned and what you would do differently next time – that’s progress, which in itself is an accomplishment!
Be on guard for ‘imposter syndrome’
Imposter syndrome is rife in science academia. This is a psychological pattern in which we doubt our accomplishments due to an internalised fear of being exposed as a “fraud”. And it’s no wonder so many scientists feel this way, when every day we’re surrounded by some of the most intelligent people in the world.
“In my first week I went to a talk about life as a PhD student and I was introduced to the concept of impostor syndrome. Nothing has resonated with me more,” says PhD student Harry Potter. But remember, he says, “Within three or four years, you’re literally going to be a world expert in your niche field, so don’t worry about feeling like a fraud. Ask the really basic questions, go to the talks where you feel out of your depth, and be content knowing that you don’t need to know everything. Soon enough you’ll gain the confidence to talk about your subject like a pro.”
Go after what you need
And finally, we come to the very top of the pyramid: “self-actualisation.” Remember, according to Maslow, it’s only when our fundamental needs are met that we can operate at this level.
When we feel healthy, secure, and supported, we can be more creative, spontaneous, and open to new ideas. All of which are vitally important not only for a successful career in science, but for our long term happiness.
So if you find yourself in a position where these “higher” needs aren’t being met, it might be time to take a step back and ask yourself what needs to change:
- Do you need more responsibility or autonomy?
- Do you have a passion you can turn into side project related to your day to day work?
- Do you want to expand your knowledge through training?
If the answer to any of these things is yes, communicate to your supervisor, manager, CEO, or colleagues. The opportunities in life science really are endless, you just have to go looking for them.
What are your biggest wellbeing struggles as a life scientist? Have you overcome some wellbeing hurdles that would be inspiring to others? If so, we’d love to talk to you about contributing to our blog.