As a student in my 20s, I loved
working all hours. There was a tacit
system of bragging rights among
students (and some professors)
over how late we stayed on campus. I joined right in, never considering the impact of this culture
on my peers who could not or did
not want to live that way. I was a
night owl and passionate about my
research; I rarely went home. I participated in the night janitor’s coveted bartering club, where a plate
of homemade cookies or a fruit pie
would get me a jar of his homemade moonshine. Every spring, I
moved 1500 kilometers away to live
at a research site for 3 or 4 months.
I just turned off the lights, locked
up my apartment, and left.
In my 30s, I worked for a government lab, which required that my
weekly 40 hours be arranged around “core business hours.”
This meant that I left the office by 6 p.m., and I never met
the janitor. I was frustrated. After 6 years, I left to manage
a field project in Finland, where I happily resumed my long
work days and weeks-long field excursions.
Then, my son was born. His schedule was uncompromising. While on maternity leave, I adjusted to a lifestyle with
clear limits on when and how long I could work. To my surprise, this time I had no regrets. I appreciated the pressure to
work efficiently and then step away. The constraints taught
me to set achievable goals for each work session, and to be
honest with myself about what I could accomplish. Working
a strict schedule also allowed me to bond with my son.
Now, my son’s school and sports schedules limit my on-
Like many others, I complete a
campus hours to weekdays from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., and
there is no amount of money, moonshine, or free child
care in the world that could call me back to campus after
I’ve gone home for the night. I am focused and productive
during the day, and I have eliminated the time-wasting
habits of my former lifestyle. My
fieldwork is on hiatus (some moth-
ers are brave enough to bring their
kids out in the field, but not me),
but I have learned new computer-
based research techniques. These
approaches sometimes turn into
collaborations with people I never
would have worked with otherwise,
bringing fresh perspectives (and
fun) to my work.
good deal of my work while not “at
work,” especially when deadlines
are looming or inspiration calls.
I revise manuscripts during bath
time, read papers at the gym, and
grade exams at my son’s hockey
practice. Occasionally I resent this
multitasking, but I remind myself
of its necessity during these child-rearing years, which are just a short
period over the long course of my career.
Other times, I avoid “homework” and simply enjoy my life
outside of work. This time helps clear the cobwebs and allows me to focus more intensely when I am working. I’ve had
some of my best ideas while changing a diaper or walking the
dog. “Work-life balance” is not a zero-sum game for me. My
work makes my life better, and my life makes my work better.
In 10 years, when my son goes off to college (or, as he
plans, becomes a demolition derby mechanic), my hours
may change. I might become acquainted with the night
janitorial staff again. But I will strive to keep my good habits: to continue to work efficiently, set achievable goals, and
take time off to recharge and brainstorm. And regardless of
my schedule, I will always be a scientist. ■
Audrey L. Mayer is an associate professor of ecology and
environmental policy at Michigan Technological University in
Houghton. For more on life and careers, visit sciencecareers.
org. Send your story to SciCareerEditor@aaas.org.
“There is no one
schedule that best produces
A scientist on any schedule
At times, my life as a scientist has resembled what many see as the archetype: available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to go to the lab or out to the field, with no personal responsibilities that can’t be sacrificed or taken care of by others. I have lived this life—and enjoyed it. But since becoming a single mother, I’ve realized that it is only one of many ways to be a scientist. Now, I have a satisfy- ing career as a professor with a reasonable work schedule, and I’ve come to appreciate that there is no one schedule that best produces excellent science or demonstrates dedication to its practice.
By Audrey L. Mayer