Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Side Projects, and Also - Ouch!

A couple days ago I got a comment from a labmate that has stuck with me - and really bothered me. I asked to use his scanner to make .pdfs of some papers, and he of course didn't mind and agreed. As he was scanning the papers, he noticed that they weren't related to research. He laughed and said, "I won't even ask what you are working on now!" 

I said, "Oh don't worry - it's just a small side project I'm finishing up."

And he replied, "I figured. Everything you do is a side project. I don't think I've seen you do 10 hours of actual research in the year that I've been here. I mean, that's pretty impressive."

I think he was joking, and the other two people listening kind of chuckled, and so I smiled and just let it go.

But I'm not sure how to take that. I mean, ouch! I know I've done more than 10 hours in a year, obviously, but it's also true that he spends a lot more hours actually in lab than I have this summer. And yes, I work on a lot of side projects. (Sometimes I get stuck on them.) I have a lot of interests - I'm an RA, I'm an officer in a student club, I work on business ideas, I like to cook, I take exercise classes, I like going on random adventures. And, of course, I write this blog (although my labmates don't know that).

I've talked a little before about how I don't work weekends, and a lot of people do. I think all the things I do are part of a healthy, balanced life. I am happy with my life, I've tried really hard to position myself so I can advantage of a lot of opportunities.

And beside the point of how many hours I spend on actual research - if my advisor is happy with my progress, it really doesn't matter how long it takes me to do my work. The labmate who made the comment also will casually toss into conversation that "well last Saturday when I was in lab," or "on the holiday Monday when I was working on my project." In my experience, people like that who feel the need to brag about working long hours may not actually be getting any more done than I am.

That's why I love grad school, or working in a small company, and particularly dislike large structured workplaces. I like to be free to schedule my time how I see fit, not according to other people's expectations. When I've worked in large companies, people would judge you harshly on how many hours you were at your desk. People would talk about going in to work "just to show my face" even if they didn't have to do anything in particular. I think that's ridiculous. I like the entrepreneur model, where you work as many hours as it takes to get things done, whatever hours those may be, and then you stop.

That being said, I do want to graduate eventually. I do need to work on PhD related stuff. So perhaps I need to swing the pendulum back and focus a little bit.

How many hours do you spend on side projects or your own interests?


  1. As long as you and your advisor are happy with your progress, don't let others get to you.

    I think there will always be those people who have to brag about how much they are working. In my experience, people who spend 80hr a week in the lab and often not getting much more actual work done than those that spend 40hr there. I used to be bothered by some labmates who were like this but I eventually realized I was getting more productive work done than them.

    I do think that it is possible to get too occupied by "other things" if you are not careful but only you can really judge if you have reached that point.

  2. How many hours do you spend on side projects or your own interests?

    none at the moment (I lack some computers, would like to build a computing lab here to test some ideas).

    regarding the rest of your post, I would only look at your labmate's comment as an occasion to see if you are as efficient as possible in your research work but then, I have been one to spend all my waking hours on classroom time, school work or RA work, seven days a week; the end result is that I'm still paying the price (this was back in 2007) and I don't ever want to do that (be it for myself or for other peoples).

  3. I usually spend from 60-80 hours in the lab a week. Not all of it is working. I usually spend 10 hours a week working on side projects and one of my side projects I designed I am in the process of patenting through the technology transfer office.

    I think working hard in the lab is necessary if one plans on pursuing a career in academia or research science. If one has other aspirations I do not think this is necessary. I view it as the fact that my boss's recommendation for me is going to be based on my work output and/or my apparent work output. If he sees me in the lab on a weekend or late at night it probably gives him the view that I work hard. This may or may not be true but if I am at the lab 80 hours a week and goof off 30 of those hours I still work 10 hours a week more than someone who only works 40. I think I am not that intelligent to make 60 hours of progress in 40 hours so I work 60.

  4. Are you getting your work done? Is your boss happy with your progress? Then there's nothing to worry about. You should be pleased with yourself for having a balanced life, and just pity the fool who has nothing better to say about himself than bragging about how he was in lab late on Saturday evening because that's all he's got to occupy himself. Face time in the lab does not equal quality time in the lab. Some people work hard to achieve a balanced happy life where work doesn't suck every bit of energy out of them and leave no room for anything else. If you are already there, good for you.