The ups and downs of earphones in the lab – it’s about being focused and social

Every now and then, this blog is the perfect place to get my thoughts out. It helps me not to dwell on particular thoughts and kind of frees them up (and me). Right now, it’s time for me to share my view on music, audiobooks and earphones in the lab, and I am curious about your opinions.

I found only one other blog on the topic (The silence of the labs, by Stella Hill). The blog already had some valuable thoughts I strongly agree with: About the good old times of having just an old-fashioned radio in the lab, and on the communication and collaboration needed for tuning it – on or off, Rock or Classic? We had one of those in my Ph.D lab in Germany, and mainly two radio stations were running – dependent on whether a young graduate student was in first and switched it on, or whether a senior lab technician did. There was sometimes a bit of grumpiness involved, but a very helpful rule was that whenever somebody wanted it off, that had priority. And of course, general politeness required you to ask anybody present for approval when turning the radio on. There were times when you had to concentrate, or just couldn’t cope with listening to some particular music style.

So using earphones would solve that, right?

Yes, but for the cost of safety, social interactions, and lab productivity! Okay, you have objections to the last? Accepted – I do agree that music can motivate, and helps especially to persist with some rather boring and time-consuming tasks! But those are usually somewhere secluded, like in a microscope room or a sterile bench, without a lot of need to move around. And that – to me – is the key. I spent a lot of times with pretty simple, repetitive and loooooong-lasting tasks at the microscope (counting blue sectors on plants or collecting meiotic cells) and was glad to have music or even audiobooks to keep me company and keep me engaged.

So earphones are totally fine in the lab?

Uhhh – let’s get back to safety and social interactions:  I would NEVER EVER consider to wear my earphones at the lab bench, with other researchers close, or me moving between benches and rooms. Why? Because whatever you listen to distracts, isolates, and makes you prone for lab accidents. I probably don’t cover all possibilities for lab accidents, but let’s just mention the slightly weird noise a centrifuge makes seconds before it jumps of the bench (or you luckily could stop it from doing so), or the sound of an unexpected reaction of chemicals when mixing solutions (followed by shattering glass or burning you), or somebody else bumping into you because you didn’t hear, or somebody needing help and you not noticing… and the little things like the warning beep of a malfunctioning freezer. And here we come back to social interactions and lab productivity…

Why should you not even consider (or being allowed) to wear your earphones during usual lab work?

You wouldn’t care about the warning beep of the malfunctioning freezer? Well, then I feel sorry for your lab mates and PI. Everyone in the lab needs to take responsibility, deal with those annoying things to keep the lab running. Imagine all the samples in the freezer that might get lost! And even without anything bad happening, having earphones on deprives you of tons of valuable moments connecting with your fellow lab mates and getting quick advice that otherwise would cost you a couple weeks to figure out on your own. Not giving advice to others would undoubtedly safe time, but I do not want to miss those moments of delight that save the other person time and give renewed motivation. I wholeheartedly encourage all those little conversations on “What are you working on right now?”, “What are you doing there?”, “Can I use the PCR machine afterwards?”, “This *** PCR is just not working”, “Hey, do you have problems growing plants as well?”…

Is there more to it than the earphone issue?

You got me! Yes. Definitely. I experienced all the advantages of those little conversations (as well as daily joint lunch conversations in the cafeteria) and am truly sad that they are becoming less and less. Sometimes due to earphones, but far more times because younger generations feel more connected with their social media on the phone, or because we think it easier to google something instead of directly communicating about it with lab mates. This way one person might resolve an issue, but others would not know about it (you can’t communicate everything in lab meetings), losing time and effort on it as well.

In a nutshell: Un-plug and let your lab mates enjoy the pleasure of your actual presence, but keep your earphones close for those countless hours of simple work in a safe secluded corner.

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