Hello everyone. It’s ever-ready-for-adventure Micella here, bringing you the latest in my quest for the elusive gold-stitched Ph.D. I’ve spent a little time doing research across the pond (Europe) and let me tell you, it’s a different world over there. Peering in from the outside, the research lab I visited for about a month provided a completely different research experience than what I was used to in the United States. Maybe it was the free coffee, open offices, and overloads of collaboration and assistance. Or maybe it was the access to equipment with minimal bickering, art in the hallways, and the fact that the graduate students and professors have lives and take holidays. Whatever it was, for better or worse, I’m back in the United States now, diligently trying to make sense of the data I collected while I escaped, if ever so briefly. Vive la différence …

Lab Culture

Many things are fundamentally different about the way research was conducted in the lab I visited, but the absence of heightened individuality-- my project, my results, my equipment, my program, my time, my, me, mine--struck me more than anything else. I've grown used to the cowboy individualism of American research life, so it was refreshing to see collaboration and teamwork on a variety of levels.

For instance, within the division of the department I visited, there was always someone you could talk to about your progress. Even older students assisted younger students with their projects. These “coaches” were partly responsible for helping those new to science develop important research skills. Even undergraduate students can immerse themselves completely in the lab under the guidance of an older student, with minimal class distractions. When the project is completed, it’s basically the equivalent of a Master’s thesis in the U.S. Now, that’s what I call mentoring!

In addition, the likelihood is high that people will stay in the same university when moving, say, from undergraduate to graduate school, which can provide a project with more continuity than you typically find in the U.S. In the States, we usually disparage such behavior; we call it "inbreeding." But if you’re happy where you are and the work is getting done, what’s the rush to leave?

Here's another source of continuity: When postdocs enter the department, there is a chance that they could be hired as faculty in the same department.

But--based on my experiences--Europe isn't ahead of the U.S. in every way; the faculties there are about as diverse as most departments in the U.S, which is to say, not diverse at all. I’m not sure if I saw a female professor during my whole visit, although there were a number of women--I'd say 30-40%--who were undergraduates, graduate students, or postdocs. Even international faculty--faculty who aren't natives of the country I visited--were hard to find.

Admittedly, generalizations are dangerous. Every country--and every lab within it--is different. Still, it’s interesting to note the similarities and differences between what I experienced overseas and what I'm used to.

Student Life

In the European lab where I worked, the building--yes, the whole building, including the sofas--shut down at 11 p.m., so no one was pulling all-nighters in the lab. Amazing! Eighty percent of the lab leaves by 6 or 6:30 p.m. Obviously, they have other things to do, and they value their time and hobbies … such as music. Two of the people I worked with played in more than one band, so they understood how to maximize their waking hours. Others had sporting events to participate in. Still others had dinner parties and outings and just general fun with people outside the nucleus of the lab.

This contrasts starkly with the way my lab “family” (be it ever so dysfunctional) runs, here in the U.S. In the labs I’ve worked in, (observed, discussed, envied, and pitied), we tend to stick to our own research groups. We don't get out much, into the rest of the university or the community, often seeking out likeminded individuals for companionship. The lab becomes family (for better or for worse), and we get sucked into the research vortex, breathing only when necessary. My own mode of operation contradicts this pattern; I’ve never been able to function well with a limited set of social contacts. I need a variety of people to interact with, otherwise I feel like I’m getting one sided and bored out of my mind. But of course, increasing social contacts/enjoyment requires time which begs the question:

Do fewer hours in the lab mean that the European scientists I encountered are less productive than we Americans? Not necessarily… It may mean that you’re more productive when you’re in lab because you have something to look forward to when you leave. Keep in mind that television shows such as Desperate Housewives, The Apprentice, and Family Guy don’t count as something to look forward to, or shouldn't. Do shorter hours and enriched life give you a little more perspective on your life so that when an experiment goes wrong, you’re not beating yourself up for the next 2 weeks because you have something else to think about? Or does it allow you to feel more like a human being and less like a drone?

And because the rest of the lab, the country even, revels in their free time, you might not suffer from lab guilt when you haven’t been there over the weekend and until 8 p.m. every night. And finally, does the possibility that everyone has a life mean that you will relinquish all fears that your advisor will berate you for not working hard enough?

Although I don’t have concrete answers to these questions, the evidence that I’ve seen so far might indicate that having a life--when others have a life as well--makes you a better human being. The jury is out on whether it makes you a better researcher, but it just might make you more productive. Who knows … maybe I’m a little European on the inside. Either way, it’s been an interesting peek into another way of life … now back to reality …

Comments, questions, rebuttals: micella_phoenix_dewhyse@hotmail.com

Former science graduate student and postdoc Micella Phoenix DeWhyse wrote a column for Science Careers from 2002 through 2008. Micella Phoenix DeWhyse is still a pseudonym. Discussions on the forum, Facebook, Twitter, or e-mails to the editor at snweditor@aaas.org or to micella.phoenix.dewhyse@gmail.com are welcome, as she is considering turning her columns into a book.