CAREER COLUMN

Seven steps towards health and happiness in the lab

A productive lab need not be a negative environment, says Fernando T. Maestre.
Fernando T. Maestre is a professor of ecology in the Department of Biology, Geology, Physics and Inorganic Chemistry at Rey Juan Carlos University in Móstoles, Spain, where he runs the dryland ecology and global change lab. Twitter: @ftmaestre

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Scientists with balloons

Happy scientists make better scientists.Credit: Getty

Throughout my career in science, I have encountered principal investigators (PIs) who think that running a successful lab requires them to be in tight control of every lab member’s schedule, and to expect long hours and frequent weekend work to maintain lab productivity.

This view is totally false, according to my own experience. I have been a PI for 13 years, and I believe my lab has been successful when it comes to funding, research outputs and public outreach. In my opinion, the key to running a healthy and productive lab can be summarized in a single word: happiness.

Studies show that if we are happy, we work better and are both more creative and more productive1,2. Here are seven key principles that I follow as a PI to make the staff and researchers in my lab as happy as possible, and to maintain a nurturing and collaborative environment:

1. We are people before we are scientists, and our personal lives and health are always more important than our work.

2. We are all in control of our own schedules. We should be judged by the results of our work, rather than by the number of hours we spend in the lab or in the office.

3. My lab members work with me — not for me. We are all in the same boat and are working in a way that is mutually beneficial. The better we do as a lab, the better for everyone who is part of the lab. To facilitate this, I encourage continuous discussion between lab technicians, graduate students and postdocs.

4. Everyone is doing a job just as important as everyone else’s, and there are no ‘hard’ hierarchies in the lab. Of course, as a PI, I have the final word in many issues and I have to make decisions every day, but I always try to discuss important decisions with everyone involved.

5. I never expect anyone to do the same as I do. I have worked long hours and have been extremely stressed many times during my career. I usually wake up early and start working while everyone at home is sleeping, but that work–family balance works for me. I devote my afternoons, weekends and public holidays to my family, and I take a full month of holiday during the summer. Everyone in my lab should find a balance that works for them.

6. I never compare anyone with anyone else. Every person is different; my role as a mentor is to foster each person’s individual capabilities, and to help each of them achieve their goals and potential.

7. We all have deadlines and specific times in our career where we have to work really hard and for long hours. But this should be an exception, not a rule. Our working hours are regulated by law, and we must have a life outside work. Some lab members might prefer to work long hours or on the weekends even when I discourage them. I also respect these individual choices: every person must do whatever works best for them.

As we say in Spain: “Every teacher has their own book.” I do not want to say that what works for us will work for everyone. But I have learnt over the years that controlling people’s schedules, not respecting holidays and expecting long hours of work will not make for a productive lab, and, in the long term, will foster frustration and create a toxic environment.

The power of happiness, kindness and humility in the competitive academic environment is under-rated, but I firmly believe that they are a force for change for the good of scientific practice. In my opinion, widespread application of these principles could vastly improve the quality of life of scientists and university professors worldwide.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-07514-7
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References

  1. 1.

    Walsh, L. C. et al. J. Career Assess. 26, 199–219 (2018).

  2. 2.

    Oswald, A. J. et al. J. Labor Econ. 33, 789–822 (2015).

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