Elizabeth Blackburn speaks at a Nobel Prize Inspiration Initiative event

How hard do you need to work?

Hard work has been part of every laureate’s journey towards the Nobel Prize. Françoise Barré-Sinoussi spent time in the lab on the morning of her wedding. After Michael Brown’s first daughter was born, he went straight back to see Joseph Goldstein to discuss the next day’s experiments.

Early-career scientists often ask laureates about work-life balance at Nobel Prize Inspiration Initiative events. Their answers can be enlightening.

1. Spend time with your family and friends

Many laureates stress the value of maintaining personal relationships. Many medicine laureates, for example, started their career as medical doctors, running research projects alongside their clinical work. Brian Kobilka, awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, would moonlight in an emergency room as well as working in the lab. However, despite a heavy workload, he also made time for his family. As fellow Nobel Laureate Barry Marshall explains in this video there are times when family provide essential support, so personal relationships are important to nurture.

2. Sleep well at night

Sleep, exercise and eating well can all conflict with working long hours. It is therefore tempting to prioritise work over activities which promote health and wellbeing. However, this is a trap which Oliver Smithies advises against. Not only is sleep needed to stay healthy, but your brain needs sleep to function at full capacity so you can generate ideas and solve problems.

3. Prioritise different aspects of your life

Family, work and sleep are all important to a scientist’s success, but they don’t all have to be a constant focus. Sometimes it will be important to prioritise one aspect of your life, rather than trying to maintain everything at a high level. This may mean losing sleep and being tired, but Elizabeth Blackburn believes that for short periods this is fine. Don’t be daunted by the idea you have to do everything perfectly at once – you can have a different focus at different times.

4. Have multiple interests to help deal with failure

One constant in every scientist’s life is failure. Each experiment is an exploration of the unknown, which comes with the risk that it will fail. This could be because the technology wasn’t yet available to address the question, because the theory wasn’t correct, or simply because the experimental protocol wasn’t right. The emotional investment scientists have in their work means it can be hard to deal with constant setbacks.

One way laureates tackle this is by having multiple lines of experimentation. They often include one that is less risky, to increase the chances of a working experiment. In this video not only does Harold Varmus advise working on two experiments at once, he also advises having interests outside the lab to keep motivation levels up during times of difficulty.

5. Don’t work too hard

Ultimately, working too hard won’t be beneficial. Not only do you risk burning yourself out, but you are also restricted in your thinking. Taking time away from work can allow you to approach problems in a new way. Going for a walk, for example, gives you the chance to take a step back and see things differently. Laureates often point out that working long hours doesn’t always lead to efficiency, and in this video Paul Nurse reminds us that if you work too hard you will keep going in the same direction.


These videos were filmed at Nobel Prize Inspiration Initiative events delivered in partnership with AstraZeneca.


First published in November 2019

To cite this section
MLA style: How hard do you need to work?. NobelPrize.org. Nobel Prize Outreach AB 2023. Mon. 11 Dec 2023. <https://www.nobelprize.org/hard-work/>

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