Following Jesus as a Graduate Student in Life Sciences

This may not relate to the typical conversation around the intersection of science and faith, but it is something I have been wrestling with during my time in graduate school. I am currently a graduate student in a Ph.D. program. I consistently feel that my Christian convictions surrounding how to live my life (e.g. the importance of time with family, sabbath, etc.) bump up against the culture of higher education, specifically the life sciences, to work long hours in order to produce research at a high rate. My question is has anyone else felt this tension? If so, how do you deal with it? Do you have any practices that have worked for you to be able to balance both?

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Hi, Landon - and welcome to the forum! At the risk of seeing in your challenge a “nail” for which I may have just picked up a hammer this morning, I’ll presume to paste a bit of a meditation I wrote down which I think relates - at least peripherally - to the work-life balance you speak of. My apologies if this misses the boat. Pasted below, and just off my keyboard mere minutes ago.

My imagined Mary and Martha narrative revisited (the opening bit inspired by a skit I saw many years ago and can no longer find anywhere.)

After the initial squabble about the unfairness of Martha’s work load, they end up washing dishes together after the guests have left, and then eagerly retire to grab some ‘sister-time’ in the living room while Mary continues to share and fill the now-eager Martha in about what she learned from Jesus that day.

My take-away from that was that relationship is preeminent over all else, and that work – while important – is done in the service of relationship, and should never to be allowed to get in the way of it: not just for Mary, but for Martha too. And furthermore, this lesson should be taken on board by Mary as much as Martha. Martha feels the sting of Jesus’ initial words directed straight at her, to be sure, and so the “main lesson” of the parable has been a well-worn groove in our mental mapping of this story. We see Mary enjoying the affirmation of her choice, and the over-worked Martha suffering the yet further sting of an apparent rebuke. And the “Marys” of the world can easily drive that critique even farther home, pointing out to the Marthas that the world won’t stop spinning should their personal supervision of some detail falter, and that listening time is not to be held hostage to the busy mind’s never-ending list of things that could be done. But this is already too much rehearsal of our well-worn, replayed script. Mary also needs the reminder that listening time is often made possible in the first place by preparation and work – and Martha needs her rightful say as well.

There are tasks which, when attended to, can greatly enhance and enable the opportunity for more and improved relationship-building time – or the neglect of which will lead to distress and distraction away from such fruit. And the Marys of the world would do well to be sensitive and attentive to their care-taking sisters in order that Martha too is not impeded from access to these most important matters. A home in which to invite others and the hospitality Martha provides to them are significant offerings toward these ends. Mary does well to not deprive her sister of the sweeter fruits of all that labor, and while this “parable” does not have Martha being explicitly affirmed then and there for her essential role in providing these necessities, it would seem a safe inference that loving Christ figures would not have denied gratitude, love, and yes – help given, toward their hosts. It certainly fits with what we’ve learned of the Christ Spirit and our call to be this for each other now. This is not to be treated as some sort of zero-sum game where one member’s gain is another member’s loss. Rather, there should be an abundance of “both-and” thinking here, in which Martha too enjoys respite from labor and her own time in the company of Christ. Our metaphor of the entire body should serve us well here. Mary and Martha should be Christ to each other, both in the labor of their hands and in their repose in each other’s (that is, Christ’s) company. We all need such sabbath repose, while not forgetting that the six days of our ‘week’ devoted to life’s labors is no small or insignificant thing to be forgotten or belittled. Indeed, we had better cultivate in ourselves the habits of integrating relationship into all those labors if we want to grow in Shalom with each other.

-Merv Bitikofer

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And now to address your post more directly …

Yes! And I try to maintain a bit of a “firewall” between the occupational demands of life and my “relationship time” with others - especially family and close friends.

I once heard a pastor (I think it was Tim Keller) say something that struck me as really wise - here is my paraphrase: It isn’t a matter of whether or not you will give yourself (your body and mind) a Sabbath. There is no “if” - it’s only a matter of when and how. You can either take it in a regular, planned and joyfully prescribed way, or you can get it painfully and expensively from a hospital bed or psychiatrist’s couch. But one way or another - you will get your sabbath rest eventually. Nobody has any choice about that.

[Oh - and I forgot to mention - I consider my “firewall” to be very much a semi-permeable membrane of a quite porous nature. Not everybody will have this luxury with their job, but I am fortunate enough to be in a situation where just as my teaching work follows me home (and everywhere) with regard to lesson planning and prep, I am also then dignified with the consistency of my employer not begrudging leakage of personal needs or tasks into my “on-the-clock” time at school. I don’t hesitate to answer a personal email or attend to imminent personal/family needs as I can at school - which is as it should be if an employer hopes that the employee, in turn, won’t begrudge them more-than-occasional productive time from their “off-hours”. Could that lend itself to abuse? Of course. That is part of the risk and trust of any partnership.

But if you are “your own boss” as may be the case for aspiring graduate students who need to get work done for their own sakes, then you can probably encompass both sides of this wisdom in yourself. Your are both “employer” and “employee” - and so in a position to watch that you aren’t burning yourself out in the service of ambition - which in the end will almost certainly cheat you of both yourself and your ambition. And even if you do “successfully” achieve your ambition, the question will likely remain: “What does it profit one to gain the world at the expense of their soul…?” ]

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I had a relative in neuroscience. Many of the experiments were long baseline which had to be benchmarked at strict intervals. That meant visits over the weekend were imperative, which although only a couple of hours, meant you could never get away. Comes with the territory of things that grow and die.

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It’s hard especially when you can rationalize a lot of sacrifices as being “just for this season.” But of course the cycles and routines and habits we cultivate when we are overextended bleed into the rest of life when things don’t have to be quite so demanding.

It sounds like you are married and so my one hard-earned piece of advice would be that you need to regularly communicate about the roles and expectations you have for one another and pretty consistently renegotiate them so you both feel your compromises are fair and willing. Many people who are incredibly productive academically or in a career have a spouse who essentially handles all of the rest of life for them. Granted some spouses are happy and fulfilled in that role, but some are not and it’s not fair to just expect it as a norm, especially if the spouse has areas in which he or she would also like to be productive and supported. It’s also not fair to expect that because someone agreed to a certain arrangement that it means that arrangement will be a good one forever and all time. You need to keep adjusting as the realities of situations and how they are affecting everyone become clearer.

Sometimes meeting your spouse’s expectations and pulling your fair share of the weight of the relationship, family life, and dealing with all the things in life that aren’t work means you will not be as competitive as people who have someone who completely enables their success and productivity or people who don’t have spouses and children that make demands on their time and mental/emotional resources. It takes a lot of honest communication to avoid resentment and keep the sense that you have a good partnership that is going to work for the long haul.

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First the good news. This is probably the hardest time of your professional life. Post -doc aint easy either, but its better than grad student. I remember feeling exactly the same way about the academic culture of total devotion to the lab. I couldn’t do it, and while many predicted I wouldnt make it, didnt have the needed passion, didnt spend enough time, etc. I just kept plugging away on my own schedule. I guess it worked in the long run. I got tenure at a major university, had a large research group, published over 200 papers (h index = 57). Then I became a Christian, and that also took some struggle with the culture.

Believe in yourself, do it the way you need to do it, and ignore what isnt important. The biological sciences are the most challenging of all, and while hard work is always part of the life, so is thoughtfulness, creative ideas (which you can have on a beach, as well as in the lab) and a deep understanding which comes from a good and balanced life. Be well, and be blessed.

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