The pros and cons of flexible working in science


As a research scientist working in academia I have a lot of flexibility in my working hours. My boss doesn’t mind when I arrive or leave work (providing I’m getting stuff done) so I have almost total control about when I work. Not all bosses in academia are as flexible as mine but it is generally understood that science isn’t a 9-5 profession.

Flexible working has a lot of advantages. If I need to go to the dentist or wait at home for a delivery, I can do so without having to ask permission. If I want to go away for the weekend I can arrange my work so that I can leave early on a Friday to beat the rush hour crowds, knowing I can make up the lost work on another day. It is common to have a mix of busy and quieter periods of work in science and it is nice that I don’t have to hang around at work “watching the clock” on quieter days just to make it appear to my co-workers that I am working hard enough.

It is fairly common for scientists to work late into the evening or over the weekend. Sometimes this is necessary, for example during an experiment where data has to be collected at specific times/days meaning that some “out-of-hours” work is unavoidable. This is especially true in biology experiments, which tend to involve waiting for living things to grow (e.g.bacteria, plants or animal cell cultures). Often, weekend or evening working can be more productive because there are fewer people around to compete for equipment, or to interrupt you while writing an important report.

The trouble with flexible working is that people tend to work longer hours than they might otherwise. Generally, I think scientists work long hours because they are passionate about their work and are driven by the wish to succeed in their careers. However, because it is accepted that scientists tend to work long hours, in some work places this can cease to be “optional” and become “expected” (Follow this link to see what PhD comics has to say on the subject). I’ve heard tales of labs where scientists feel obliged to work evenings/weekends because their boss would think them lazy otherwise. In one lab I went to for a PhD interview, the PhD students told me that for the first year I would have to work virtually every weekend but that in second year (when I would have more control over my time) I would be able to take some off. Needless to say I didn’t continue my application with that lab…

Working long hours reduces the amount of time that can be spent relaxing so maintaining a work-life balance can be difficult. Without at least some leisure time people tend to become stressed and worn out and this can lead to health problems. Mental health in academia are on the rise (1) and, what’s worse, it seems that mental health issues amongst PhD students are becoming considered as a normal part of the process(2). In universities and institutes there can be good support for people suffering for mental health problems, but in my experience there seems to be a lack of education and awareness amongst the academic community as a whole. Prevention is better than cure, and if we all had little bit more knowledge about mental health they may be more understanding of others, but may also be better at spotting the signs that their own health might be suffering.

So, flexible working can be both a blessing and a curse. Just remember that it’s supposed to be work being flexible around you, but not you being flexible around your job!


1) The Guardian. Dark thoughts: why mental illness is on the rise in academia. Claire Shaw and Lucy Ward. (Retrieved 23/03/14)

2) The Guardian. There is a culture of acceptance around mental health issues in academia. Academics Anonymous Blog. (Retrieved 23/03/14)


One thought on “The pros and cons of flexible working in science

  1. Pingback: One year of blogging at Plant Scientist | Plant Scientist

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