The Path to Happiness in Research

For thousands of years, philosophers, psychiatrists and Eli Lilly have attempted to define the path to happiness, but remarkably, a singular solution remains elusive.  Yet finding daily happiness in the lab is key to our success as the process of discovery is long, arduous and will try the patience of even the most dedicated researchers.  In hopes of empowering scientists at the bench, we present the BenchFly Theory of Lab Happiness.

Although the exact definition of happiness may be subjective, we propose that the path to happiness requires the same three components whether we’re a grad student, postdoc or PI.


A Sense of Control

Nobody enjoys being someone else’s robot.  This is especially true in the laboratory where much of the excitement of research comes from developing and testing hypotheses – our hypotheses.  For those of us who have enjoyed the smothering regime of a micromanager, it’s clear that being told exactly what to do and when to do it is less than stimulating.

To be clear everyone has a boss – even Steve Jobs has a board to answer to.  So it’s not about having total control, but rather a sense of control – the feeling that you have some say in how your day or your job will progress.  A sense that someone trusts you enough to give you the responsibility to contribute to the project.  Clearly, rotation students will be given less control over a project than a postdoc, but there is plenty of room to let them handle the reigns in a limited capacity.

Try this: Diagnose your situation – do you feel like you have any control over your project?  If not, perhaps it’s worth discussing with your PI.  The boss wants to know we can manage our projects, so one way to initiate the conversation is to present the PI with a plan for the project including specific experiments you designed based on a clear hypothesis.  Alternatively, a great way to gain control is by starting a side project.  We’ve discussed the importance of side projects and their proper design previously, and while they may be a bit risky, we’ve yet to see a boss that’s not excited to see good data, whether they knew about it or not…


A Sense of Progress

Ever troubleshot a single experiment for a month straight?  Or spent a year working on a project only to find out it was a complete failure?  Not fun.  Nothing spells apathy like the feeling of wasting time.  Hours in lab tend to be long and involve significant sacrifices, like nights and weekends.  Hard work is easily justified – even exciting – when things are working, but it’s agonizing when they’re not.

If we need instant satisfaction to be happy, research probably isn’t the best career choice.  However, that doesn’t mean some satisfaction isn’t deserved.  Feeling like a project is moving forward is an essential component of the path to happiness in the lab.

Try this: Set a goal for each day, no matter how small it may seem.  If the goal is “publish a paper”, there will be many, many nights where we’ll walk home disappointed and discouraged.  However, “run assay and work-up data” is something we can check off the list.  Of course, when the project hits a prolonged stall, it’s not terribly encouraging to look at the same goal every day.  This is another time when a small, straighforward side project will help maintain the sense of progress.  Or perhaps write a review with the boss.  Something – anything – to keep momentum moving forward.


A Connection to a Larger Vision

As scientists, we want to know that our work fits into a bigger picture.  Whether understanding biological processes, elucidating mechanisms of disease, or working towards new cures, we want our research to advance knowledge in a meaningful way.  Of course, exactly how closely related we are to the big picture is a personal choice, but knowing that our results will contribute in some way to the vision can be a powerful motivator in both good times and in bad.

Try this: Take a step back from the project and figure out how your work fits into a greater story – be optimistic, assume best-case scenarios, and believe it.  Standing at the bench it’s easy to focus on the details and forget that our work is significant, even if it doesn’t feel like it at the moment.


The path to happiness in lab may sometimes feel like a rough one, but by maintaining control, progress and connections in our research we can stay motivated and fulfilled and keep science moving forward.



Any other tips for finding happiness in lab?



2 comments so far. Join The Discussion

  1. zachary

    wrote on January 26, 2011 at 10:52 am

    micromanagers are #1 on my theory of UNhappiness.

  2. praveen

    wrote on February 20, 2011 at 11:55 pm

    Completely agree with the pain of being a dish cleaner to your adviser. Makes one unhappy. I only realize now how good freedom can be after having been made a PI for some small thing that I did for a group. Responsibility is good.

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