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Career Tips

Trading sleep for results

Chemjobber on fighting the temptation to work long hours in the lab

by Chemjobber
January 11, 2017 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 95, ISSUE 3


Credit: Shutterstock/C&EN

Like so many stories from graduate school, this is a familiar one: After a week of running reactions and columns, I had stayed late in the laboratory to start one more reaction with a precious synthetic intermediate. My plan was to head home afterwards for some hard-won sleep, then come back to the laboratory, refreshed and ready to take that material onto its next synthetic step.

I learned an important lesson that night: Putting in long hours doesn’t always pay off. Of course, rather than getting some sleep and starting fresh the next morning, I pedaled back to the lab to start the laborious synthetic sequence over again. It was 2 am.

Why do we do this to ourselves? There’s something about science that beckons to those who are willing to work long hours. There is always another experiment to run, another condition to try, and one more paper to download and read.

We all know situations where working long hours (especially in the lab) have paid off. One particularly successful lab mate of mine suggested that it was like a gambler’s hot streak—one successful reaction leads to another and another and another, and after the long droughts that are the sign of doing research at the frontiers of chemistry, it seems like utter madness to step away from the laboratory until the streak is over. It’s not often that those streaks happen, but enough of them can generate sufficient results to write papers and grants and advance careers. It’s not a surprise that pursuing them can quickly lead to 60 or 70 hour weeks.

Of course there are also wrong reasons to stay in the laboratory. The laboratory can be comforting in its isolation and can act as a shelter away from the pressures of life and conflict with friends and family. We can fool ourselves into believing that we are better chemists when we work longer hours.

The most familiar reason that we work long hours in the laboratory, especially in research, is that “nothing is working!” Because things aren’t working, we believe that longer hours and more experiments can help us succeed. And in many cases, they can. But the illusion is in mistaking the process of long hours for the results of novel, useful scientific data.

So what is a chemist facing a big project, or a short deadline, to do? First, we ought to do what we can to avoid these situations. The disciplined among us are able to avoid overwork with planning. They know when they’re the most productive, and they can immediately tell when their motivation is flagging and know how to turn it around.

I am a pessimist, so I believe that planning can fail and the late nights will inevitably come. For those times, determining discrete tasks (“I will go home when I’ve finished purifying this compound”) and setting hard boundaries (“I try hard not to work on Sundays” or “I will always make time for exercise”) are good strategies for maintaining one’s sanity when crunch time happens.

Now that I work in industry and I have a family, I have found myself more resistant to the call of late nights. That said, I can’t entirely avoid them. I was recently running a crucial reaction that would determine the success or failure of a particular project. Being that some of the starting materials were rather toxic, I was loathe to leave it alone. I decided to forego dinner with my family and completed the reaction around 9 PM that night. My wife was kind enough to bring me dinner, and as I sat and ate my rapidly cooling plate of pasta alone at my desk, I was reminded how easy it is to fall to the temptation of long hours in the lab.

Chemjobber is an industrial chemist who blogs about the chemistry job market at Find all his columns for C&EN and suggest future topics at

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.



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ZBV (January 11, 2017 1:13 PM)
From my perspective, as an individual who had a family during graduate school, the long nights are a direct result of advisor pressure to get things done. I agree that some people will have times when excitement about a reaction can result in a late night. The day after day long hour drudgery was usually a result of what kind of advisor you might have. Other groups did not work late nights or weekends, but that didn't matter when you advisor may pop into the lab at 11pm and expect an update the next morning at 7am. I am pleased that my industrial employers have always had a focus on job/life balance which results in a happier and safer working environment. We should not underestimate the impact that long work hours will have on lab safety.
Organic Chemist (January 11, 2017 1:48 PM)
Sorry, C&EN, this is a horrible article.
"Chemjobber", really? If I was interviewing you and you told me this story, I likely wouldn't have hired you. You obviously didn't use your lab notebook properly, sleep-depraved or not. And screw the reactions: if you're that incoherent, you're a danger not only to yourself, but also your labmates. Lab safety should be your priority. I sure hope we don't work at the same company now.
John Duchek (January 15, 2017 9:04 AM)
I am with you a 100%. A lab is a dangerous place for the sleep deprived. I am retired now, but learned early on if I had been in the lab for more than 9-10 hours I needed to leave. In one of my jobs, I was the emergency night manager. If the night manager called in sick, I would leave and return at midnight to handle the night shift. At 3am one morning, I blew up a reaction in a hood. I had closed the hood in time, but watched the reaction spray itself all over the inside. My reaction was to stand there and laugh. Next day after some sleep I realized that wasn't the most appropriate response. Certainly not one I would have had in the daytime. Chemistry is unforgiving. One has to respect that.
borehead (January 21, 2017 3:01 PM)
I think Chemjobber is aware that tales from grad school aren't fit for a job interview, why would it come up? I would also expect that anyone interviewing a chemist would be familiar with, if not guilty of staying late in the lab during grad school, anyway. I think you overreacted a little to this story, in the rudest way possible. Also, what does sleep depraved mean? Like when you sleep so badly it corrupts your morals?
Robert E Buntrock (January 26, 2017 4:43 PM)
Although I agree with the safety aspects (safety has been and is better in industry), your response is overly harsh and uncalled for.
James E Huffaker (January 11, 2017 2:00 PM)
It takes lots of experience and time in chemistry to learn e.g. purification techniques. MY MS thesis was based upon 2 years of lab work involving synthesis, purifications and identifications basically testing a rearrangement hypothesis, nothing important or interesting but is what you do to move om
Thomas H Pritchett (January 11, 2017 2:01 PM)
As someone who is responsible for maintaining much of the instrumentation in our Chemistry Department and troubleshooting them when problems occur, there is often the temptation to keep at it trying different approaches until a problem is solved regardless of how long it takes, especially when student research is on hold because of the problem. However, I have found that sometimes it is better to walk away from the problem and let my subconscious stew on it. More than once, I have found that this respite has allowed a new approach or new solution pop into my mind when I come back to the issue.
Bill Gorman (January 11, 2017 2:02 PM)
Working late into the night in the isolation of sparsely populated laboratories, coupled with lack of sleep and fatigue, is a formula for a safety disaster. My first thought, while reading this article, was that safety should be the first reason for limiting work hours, so the researcher can return home in the same condition as he or she arrived at the lab.
drwebb (January 11, 2017 11:36 PM)
Industrial process chemistry operators work 12 hour shifts safely. So long hours aren't necessarily a formula for a safety disaster.
Stephen Cook (January 17, 2017 12:25 PM)
As a researcher in industry I think that I am well-placed to respond. Industrial process operators are (or should be)working with well-known, highly-developed processes. Researchers, by definition, typically will not be. Further, despite thorough Risk Assessment, they are venturing into at least the partially unknown. It's more correctly the lack of sleep, leading to slow or mistaken response to the unexpected or unforeseen that is the recipe for potential disaster. Lack of supervision, support or rapid succor for lone workers does indeed add to the problem,
anonymous (January 11, 2017 2:02 PM)
The truth is that the head of the group is setting the tone in the large majority of labs where 12 hours days+nights+weekend is the norm. As a student your career and let's be honest, the perspective of a green card are directly linked with what your adviser thinks about you. So the grad students are staying in the labs, sleeping on couches and sending e-mails at midnight to show their dedication. Let's not fool ourselves: the tons of papers with hundreds of repetitive reactions do not help anyone. As one sales rep. put it: the last bastions of modern slavery are organic chemistry labs in universities.
Thomas H Pritchett (January 12, 2017 1:14 PM)
"the last bastions of modern slavery are organic chemistry labs in universities." More precisely, graduate research is not slavery but indentured servitude. There is a difference.
Frank Moffatt (January 11, 2017 2:06 PM)
And how do your compare to your peers? Are you under peer or supervisor pressure to conform to a workaholic norm?
Cellulose (January 11, 2017 2:20 PM)
First, I will admit that I am not a synthetic chemist, I am a real chemist, bad play on words wholly deliberate!

Working longer is rarely either a replacement or a substitute for working smarter.While long procedures that do not have definable 'stop' points along the way may justify long hours, deadlines rarely do. Instead, they point to poor planning by us. Planning a procedure in a lab notebook, electronic or pen and paper, coupled with the creation and use of checklists can go a long way to eliminating mistakes arising from being overtired. Finally, and I know this is not always feasible, the adage 'uour failure to plan, is not my emergency' is often a desirable, but not always possible strategy. Those in a position to define timelines for others, should keep this in mind as they allocate tasks.
Andrew Ekstrom (January 11, 2017 2:40 PM)
If you look into Human Factors research, you find that the human mind, whether its a world renowned MD or the fry cook at (fast food restaurant), only has a finite ability concentrate. After some point in time, your mind is gone, the amount of mistakes you will make increases and that makes working in the lab, well, kind of dumb. If you work 12 hours, then have to redo 4 of those 12 hours of work, what was the point of staying late? Humans need sleep and to do other things. The taxpayer/investor doesn't need you wasting your time and their money making mistakes. GO HOME, WATCH TV AND SLEEP!!!!!!!!!!!!! You'll be more productive for it. Doing 40 hours of work in 70, doesn't make you hard worker. It makes you hardly working!
Emil M Friedman (January 11, 2017 2:40 PM)
This is from

There was this physicist who was in the habit of getting home quite late. One time, he came home at 2:30 a.m. with a torn shirt, lipstick on his collar, hair messed up, and generally looking like a wreck. His wife caught him coming in the door and demanded to know why he came home so late.

He replied, "Well, after I left work today, a few friends and I went out to the bar for a few drinks. We met up with some rather good-looking young women and started to drink to excess. Things just kept happening, as you can well see. I sobered up enough to note how late it was, so I rushed home."

She screamed, "You liar! You were in the lab again, weren't you?"
Dave Smith (January 11, 2017 2:50 PM)
It's a nice entertaining blog. However, I would note that working through the night can have serious Health and Safety concerns - major incidents have occurred this way. Working alone out of normal hours on synthetic chemistry should be completely outlawed (and is in UK chemistry departments). However even if other lab members are around out of hours, do any of them have appropriate first aid training? Is security directly on-hand to coordinate the emergency services should the worst happen? An employer has the responsibility to provide and encourage a safe working environment and senior lab members should also be encouraging it.

I would then go further to add that lab cultures where long hours are the norm can be very non-inclusive. Productivity should be the key, not the number of hours worked. We need a culture where scientists can have a work-life balance and where families and obligations outside the lab, are respected. If Joe Biden as Vice President can write to all his staff to tell them he expects them to take time off for family events, then academia should also be able to embrace the idea that there can and should be a thriving life outside the lab. Perhaps moving away from a culture where long hours are somehow celebrated or respected might be the first step in achieving this.
James Lewis (January 11, 2017 5:14 PM)
Great topic. I always noticed that for every hour I spent in the lab after midnight I paid with two hours the next day. Payment came either through getting a late start the next morning, being inefficient because of sleepiness or just through giving myself permission to waste time because I had been a hero the night before. It is insidious to keep score on your research by counting hours in the lab. The result is that you start doing your web browsing, newspaper reading etc. in the lab instead of at home. Those are hours in the lab, so they must count, right? See yourself doing that or going on around you? You are in a downward spiral that erodes your critical thinking. Erosion of critical thinking undermines research. Not to mention that you need to develop your outside the lab support network to get you through those depressing times when research is tanking. My best critical thinking concluded that researchers needed to keep a buffer of outside time as a reserve to devote to the times when you needed to put in extra effort for projects that were going well. If you don't have slack time to sacrifice when things get busy for good reasons, you may not be able to keep the forward momentum.
Patti LiWang (January 11, 2017 7:04 PM)
Long hours are important and necessary, because many experiments just don't work the first (or the second time). There is a correlation between working hard and getting results. However, I have found that self-knowledge can help alleviate some problems. When are you the most alert? If you are a night person, then don't drag yourself to work at 8:30am when you know that you will just sit and stare at your desk for an hour before you really do anything. Allow yourself to sleep in, and then work until late evening. (Of course, these things are easier said than done, and require an accommodating family.) If you are a morning person, come in ready to work, nice and early; and allow yourself to go home at 5pm for dinner and exercise, particularly if you can see that you got a good days' work done.
Steven Warren (January 12, 2017 8:02 PM)
I fully agree about night people. I was useless in lab before about 11 am. However, I only did the particularly hazardous reactions during "normal" (for everyone else) hours, and no reactions, only analytical procedures really late. So, in my estimation, safety was not compromised. If one is worried about safety, what about the reactions that are set up and run unattended in the hood overnight?
Alexander Wei (January 18, 2017 11:26 PM)
Well said, Prof. LiWang!
Jim Palmer (January 12, 2017 6:04 AM)
Whatever happened to safety? Working long hours, especially if sleep-deprived, carries potential risks not only to oneself and coworkers, but also to facilities. Chemistry is one of those fields where there are inherent hazards. Pilots are required to take mandated breaks from flying. Yet graduate students are expected to conduct potentially hazardous experiments when they may be fatigued.
Solution? Planning properly, never working alone, and never working tired. There is always another day. Don't risk not having that next day ever again.
Pat B (January 12, 2017 8:03 AM)
Irrepressible urge to work late? As a grad student, I never experienced that. Just irrepressible urges to go to bed. I was useless in the lab late at night. Staying up just ensured that I would be sleepy all week, a recipe for disaster. I was successful and got my PhD in 4 yrs, and staying up late was DEFINITELY not a part of that. People who have to work more than eight hours a day all the time are lacking something.
P.S. McCarthy (January 12, 2017 11:58 AM)
Reading the comments, I see that some of you folks work in a great place. No critical dead lines induced by the sales staff promises to clients, no engineer changes last minute to a project due in 24 hours, and no instrument/equipment failure on an on schedule project. Long hours are part of the job in SOME industries and in SOME companies (especially start-ups and low budget places). As a former CSP, there is a fine line to where you say to the business "I recommend that the crew gets rest" and they loose $500K, or they keep working to finish. Another reason I did not keep up my CSP! Work smart and work safely is paramount, but it is called work for a reason. For those that have the opportunity to have their employer say 8 hours and go home, keep that job!!! for the rest of us in a demanding position with fire drills weekly, look for that "brass ring" of the 8 hour day job, but until then, work smart and work safe as much as your current job will allow.
C. E. Heltzel (January 16, 2017 8:26 PM)
I was a graduate student with a family so I approached each day with the goal of getting as much accomplished as possible in eight or nine hours, then went home. I completed my PhD in organic chemistry in four years and believe that my inspiration for planning and carrying out work was, based to a large degree, on my desire to complete my degree and get a job to support my family. But long hours into the night were mostly unproductive or even destructive for me, so I rarely worked late. When tired, I was more likely to make mistakes, sometimes costly in terms of losing material I worked so hard to isolate.
There was some desire to impress my advisor, but I was pushed more by finding answers and making new discoveries. Then, as a young professor, I worked very long hours because I felt that teaching was a vocation or calling, not a job. I wanted to learn how to be the best teacher possible. I worked late often, and when I did go home at a reasonable hour, after my children were asleep, I would get out my computer and continue working.
Steve C (January 19, 2017 12:06 PM)
My adviser in grad school once chastised me for leaving the lab at 2.30am saying "I wish you had tried one more time to get that vacuum chamber pumping down" (each crystal remount and subsequent pumping down so you could check performance took 2h minimum). The result? I never worked late again. But I paid for it later by getting a mediocre reference from her.

I am a manager now, and I give credit hours for any extra time worked. I have also told employees to go home if they are in the office for too long, or when I see excessive credit hours on their time sheet.
Robert E Buntrock (January 26, 2017 5:06 PM)
I rarely worked late, as an undergrad (research for pay, NIH grant), as a grad student, and only rarely in industry. The latter typically forbade it without checking in with someone. When i did work late in my 2nd industrial lab job, it was sanctioned overtime to gain enough comp time to give time off to move my family since no vacation for the 1st year. Lab safety knew of it and was present and I spent my time catching up on the literature (scanned 50+ journals for new ideas).

One time,as a married undergrad, I had a reaction that worked best when run for 20 hours. I set it up in the morning, went home for dinner, set an alarm for 3 in the morning (alerting my wife of course), went in, turned off the reaction, and was able to go in late. As a grad student, I was running a reaction in a "bomb" heated in an oil bath. It had to go until about 10:00 PM so I went back in after supper and read journals until it was time to turn it off. We were all jumpy since a couple of months previously a student in another lab had a desiccator of a reactant (which should never have been isolated) detonate with bad injuries and we stopped the bleeding until the EMTs came. About 9:30, a crash near the hood casued me to levitate off my chair. It turned out a peg on a wooden drying rack gave way when holding a 2 liter vacuum filtration flask. Still shaking, I turned off the bath,swept up the mess, and went home.

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