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Academic work schedule: Early bird or night owl?

Academic work schedule: Early bird or night owl?

What’s your work schedule like? Are you one of the first people in lab, or one of the last to leave? Maybe you’re just somewhere comfortably in the middle.

Lately I’ve been getting up really early and heading into lab a few hours before I normally would. Aside from the feeling dead part, it’s been pretty great. Having a few hours of solitude before any of my other lab-mates (and my PI) get in allows me to be more productive and have some “me time” at the bench. It’s also strangely calming to be alone with only the hum of the 80’s.

It all started as a way for my husband and I to spend more time together during our day. His job requires him to be at work very early in the morning, and he had been getting up alone in the morning while I slept in. While this system definitely was easier on my sleep cycle, we both agreed that the mornings felt a bit lonely. We had entered graduate school together (different programs), with him pursuing a Master’s and me a Doctorate degree. For the two years we were both students, it was so nice to wake up and commute to campus together. After he graduated and started his “real person job,” it was a bit of a rough transition. Suddenly, he was gone before I woke up, and oftentimes we only had a few hours together at the end of the day before we went to sleep. Those few hours were usually spent cooking, eating, and getting ready for bed. Then we’d do it all again the next day. I would describe it as a 9-5 grind, but realistically, he was pulling 12-14 hour days on the regular. So it was just a lot of work and not a lot of quality time together.

It was hard to go from having such compatible schedules to feeling like we were two ships passing in the night. So I thought maybe if I got up with him in the morning, I could help him get ready and we could spend some time together before he went to work. It also allowed me to head in to the lab sooner if I chose to do so. After the first morning of doing this, I could tell we were both much happier (despite the lack of sleep). Just being together for a little while before we started our workdays took away the feeling of loneliness we both felt when we got ready alone. And although I don’t get up with him every morning (Mondays are SO rough), overall I would say it has improved our happiness and job satisfaction greatly. And, like I mentioned before, it’s been pretty nice to have the entire lab to myself in the morning.

The only thing that’s been weird is figuring out when I should leave. The first week I started this new routine, I told myself I was going to leave earlier some days since I was getting in earlier. But once I was in lab it was really hard to convince myself to go home. Once everyone else arrived, I felt weird cutting out “early,” even though I had gotten in hours before them. I guess I was just worried people would think I wasn’t working a full day (which is silly, since my lab typically doesn’t have that culture). But to be honest, even in the most well-adjusted lab, there’s still a bit of stigma that if you’re leaving earlier in the day, you’re working less. If people only overlap with you for ~5-6 hours, they somehow only process those hours that they can vouch for. Anyway, it could just be my anxiety, but that’s how I felt.

As a result, I worked 12+ hour days every day and was extremely burnt out by the time I got to the weekend. After confiding in a friend and getting some reassurance, I tackled the next week with a bit more self-care in mind. While it was difficult to peel myself away (why does all the action happen after 3pm?!), I found it extremely mood-boosting to be able to leave around 3-4pm instead of my usual 6pm (Daylight?! What is that?!).

Anyway, I’m curious about what you guys do in terms of scheduling and work-life balance. What is your typical work schedule like? Leave a comment below. I’d love to hear from you!


Queen of the Bench is a PhD candidate in Cell and Molecular Biology. This story was published on September 30, 2018, on the blog Queen of the Bench (available here) and has been republished here with permission.

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