Is it okay to cry in the lab?

So I almost did it again this week; so much stuff was not working, or breaking, my rats were getting sick for no good reason and on top of that the lab got into some serious IACUC trouble (not my fault, but it does involve the protocol that I work on). All this together literally made me cry. So I took a couple breaths and realized that this is also part of doing science, and that it is just what I do and not what I am.
But this is not the first time this has happened. I cried when I was writing my first paper (because my PI wanted it finished before I was allowed to go to a conference and my co-PI had a lot of other things to do before he had time to look at my manuscript), I cried when I applied for a fellowship and didn’t get it, and I sometimes cry when I work very hard and things don’t go as I want to. In all these cases I usually cry for a bit but then walk outside, drink some coffee, eat some chocolate, and carry on (I have the feeling that crying for a short while to then be done with it works way better for me than to keep ruminating about it).
However, there is also this other type of crying, when I am so angry or frustrated about something and there is no other way to say it but crying (and I don’t mean the cute crying when one beautiful tear runs down your cheek, but the ugly kind of crying with red spots on your face). By far the worst occasion that this happened was at the end of my PhD. My thesis project was turning out quite well and we were thinking of submitting it to a High Impact Factor Journal. However, for this it needed some extra-sexy technique that our lab didn’t have. So we turned to our upstairs neighbors who gladly accepted the invitation. Some time and a lot of frustration about who was going to do the sucky part of the experiments (like injecting animals on the weekend (that turned out to be me)) later, the experiments showed what we hoped they would and I started writing the manuscript after I had asked my PI and co-PI whether indeed I would be the first author. They assured me that that would be the case. However, during a meeting with our upstairs neighbors, the upstairs PI said that his grad student should be shared first author with me. Still, I was pretty sure that my PI would say that that wouldn’t happen, but instead he agreed. He later told me he mostly agreed because he wanted to continue to work with the upstairs neighbors and didn’t want to upset them (I would imagine DrugMonkey would have something to say here). Anyway, I was pretty upset since I felt that I had done most of the work and since my PI has said that he would back me up when I asked him, and that all came out in that meeting accompanied by a flood of tears. (what I omitted from this story to make it less recognizable were the various personal relationships between people in the different departments).
My PI later told me that he felt that I should have walked away before I started crying and that I should have said I wanted to talk about it later. I’m not sure if I would have ever been able to say how I felt without crying. And even though I surely hoped that I didn’t have to cry about it, I felt that I did get my point across. I still believe that there was just no other way. 
The irony of the whole situation was that the paper did get accepted in Pretty High Impact Factor Journal, and that journal did not allow more than one shared authorship. And since my PI and upstairs PI were co-last author, that made me the first author.
What do you think about crying in the lab (or at work in general)? And please, don’t think that all I do is cry all day; I laugh, scream, and dance in the lab too!


Filed under authorship, life in the lab, neuroscience, publishing papers

18 responses to “Is it okay to cry in the lab?

  1. I've cried at work too. I cried in grad school (in front of my PI) when I failed my qual, and also at my current position on a day I had a fight with the boss (if you're curious, here's the link ). I don't like doing it, but sometimes there's so much BS that all we can do is cry. Sometimes that's the best medicine. I guess it also depends on the lab and the boss and how the interaction is.

  2. One time early in graduate school I was super upset (and alone) in the lab. Nothing had been working all week, and another PI had recently told me everything I was doing was wrong. So naturally I started crying. And naturally because the osmometer was right there, I took the osmolarity of my tears.
    308, just like my acsf. Then I started laughing, because I was such a dork. 🙂

  3. I think the stigma against crying is sexist-in-practice and wrong, but my life is radically better when I do not cry in front of my boss.
    Crying in front of co-workers has not been tragically problematic for me(perhaps because I was never upset with the people who saw me cry), so I don't think that's in the same category.
    But apparently, the only thing I can communicate by crying is “you have utterly failed me as a leader/mentor/boss/advisor/human being, and I kind of hate you”. Even if the boss deserves it, that's not been a productive thing for the relationship (although it probably doesn't come up until things are totally dysfunctional anyway, so who knows?)

  4. Crying in your experiments is not recommended. Tears have lots of salt and lysozyme.

  5. Hahahahahaha measuring the osmolarity of your tears is probably the best cure for crying in the lab. I'm going to try that next time (and I'll report the osmolarity).

  6. Crying at work is unprofessional regardless of the gender of the person crying, just like flying into a rage and throwing things around the office is unprofessional regardless of the gender of the person doing the throwing.

    The only time I ever witnessed something similar was back in the day when a fellow (male) PhD student melted down. I don't see why this is being framed through the lense of misogyny.

  7. I totally agree that it is unprofessional to cry at work, and I try not to do it, or at least not where other people can see it. I do think women have a harder time not crying when they have to stand up for themselves, which is why it quickly turns into a sexist-or-not debate.
    So in the end, I'm not proud of all that drama, but I am proud that I defended myself and got what I still think I deserved.

  8. Women cry more at work . Women produce more prolactin and have smaller tear ducts, so they are more likely to produce tears, and those tears are more likely to be noticeable. If you don't think hormones can influence this, you just have never been pregnant.

    So all else being equal, viewing crying as “unprofessional” leads to judging women as less professional than men.

    That said, all else is probably not equally. We probably actually judge men far more harshly for crying. This doesn't disprove sexism, it just proves gender policing is prevalent. If crying is perceived as “weak” and “womanly” then women will be socially punished for it less, but crying will *remind* people they are women, and that itself could cause them to apply some biases.

    The simple truth is, we allow men and women different forms of expression. Women “standing up for themselves” in ways that men can get away with can itself be risky, perhaps riskier than crying. Any logical self interested women would rather take the “weak woman crying penalty” then the “insanely aggressive selfish bitch penalty”. If you don't know how to stand up for yourself without the latter being applied (much more likely for women than men, btw), you are in a tight spot.

    Walking out of the situation is itself an interesting unprofessional approach. I do not know whether the “selfish jerk” or “unstable emotion” possible perceptions for this choice of action would be heavier for men than for women. I suspect men get more leeway when it comes to walking away from a situation (because women are expected to be more conciliatory and because no sensible society makes “walking away” a totally unacceptable last resort- it is, after all, preferable to yelling/throwing things, and certainly better than hitting. If people think a man walks away rather than punches someone in the nose, they will probably be less mad at him for walking away than if they think he walked away to simply to show disrespect).

  9. I`ve cried in the lab a couple times this past year (phd student) and twice now, in front of my PI… I wish I hadn`t…but its so easy to get emotionally involved in your project, and months of things going poorly is bound to result in tears sooner or later.

  10. Anonymous

    I have never cried in front of my co-workers, although there were a few times when I started crying at
    work from science-related frustration and hid in the bathroom or someplace private. My PI (who has been in academia for over 40 years and is quite successful) has often told me how she had a rough time as a grad student and postdoc and came home crying most days and had to be consoled by her husband….I think most scientists have been there at some point. I'm surprised that your PI reacted the way he did, obviously you were upset and hadn't intended to start crying. It's easy to be overwhelmed when you are that emotional about something (and rightfully so)! Congrats on getting your first author paper accepted in 'pretty high impact factor journal'.

  11. Anonymous

    I cry pretty easily. It's not something I have a huge amount of control over. I can fight it but it takes concentration I would otherwise use communicating. I managed to make it through grad school with only a few non-private or friends-only incidents (one about authorship, but I was yelling angrily as well, which strangely goes over better with some). Because of my PIs personality (not sympathetic and we were often at odds) I can't even count the number of “conversations” we had that entailed us just staring directly at each other for long periods of time, him looking annoyed and confrontational and me struggling to hold a frozen expression with gritted teeth and an ache in my throat.

    I've had no such problems at my postdoc so far (in spite of sundry scientific travails and failures.) I like to think I'm getting better at handling everything, that grad school was trial by fire and I have developed some sort of scar against failure and assholes, but it's probably just not having to deal with my former PI as an underling.

  12. Melba Jacobs

    It’s true that some people do get overwhelm with grad school work, and it just ok to cry it out. It would help with thesis to let some of the emotion flow out of you to relieve stress and relax the mind and body. Anyway, what happened after that?

  13. I cry all the time in the lab. For both joy and despair and many things in between. Honestly, I hope I become legendary for this.

  14. Anonymous

    I cried in front of my adviser. I gave this presentation that I screwed up and he said there are mistakes on every slide that I presented in front of everyone in the group. I was on the verge of crying in the group meeting. Later he called me to his room and I broke down in front of him. He gave me a tissue.

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