How to Achieve Better Work/Life Balance for PhD Students

What is the importance of work/life balance for PhD students?

This question answers itself. Or at least it should.

We get it. You see everyone around you, from advisors to colleagues, working all day every day. You feel pressured to do the same.

But nobody can do that forever. Proper work/life balance is essential to surviving not only graduate school but everything that comes after.

(By the way, if your advisor doesn’t accept the value of good work/life balance, find a new advisor. Full stop.)

This article is a rumination on the importance of work/life balance for PhD students. We’ll talk about why PhD students struggle with it, why they need it, and what they can do to attain it.

1. What Is Work/Life Balance for PhD Students?

This question is trickier than it might seem. Cheesy as it might sound, for many grad students and PhDs, work is life.

We certainly don’t mean this in the sense that academics ‘have no life,’ so to speak. We just mean that PhDs have a tendency to throw themselves into their studies and abolish all barriers between working and non-working times of day.

Here’s a (comically exaggerated) day in the life of a PhD student:

  • Wake up to your alt-rock alarm tone.
  • Jot down all the crazy thoughts about your dissertation that struck you lying in bed the night before.
  • Shower (or not).
  • Eat breakfast (or not).
  • Go to school.
  • Teach your class(es) and do your research.
  • Write.
  • Work in the lab/library.
  • Write.
  • Remember that you forgot to eat lunch.
  • Eat lunch.
  • Choke down some stale coffee.
  • Grade papers.
  • Write some more.
  • Go home.
  • Briefly acknowledge the existence of friends and family.
  • Eat dinner (or not).
  • Reply to a bunch of emails.
  • Write a little more.
  • Realize it’s only Monday.
  • Collapse on the couch and watch Netflix in a haze of over-caffeination and sleep deprivation.
  • Fall asleep.
  • Wake up; brush teeth; fall asleep again.

Why do we do it?

Because, on some level, we like our work. Seriously!

We devote so much of our waking hours to dissertation research and writing because we genuinely enjoy it. Work is our life—or at least a substantial portion of our life.

Who needs work/life balance?

2. Why PhD Students Need Work/Life Balance

Everyone needs work/life balance. For mental health. For physical health. For the sake of your friends and family. For the sake of your future career.

As we stress over and over again at Beyond the Professoriate, academia is not special. There is nothing unique or valuable about the life of a PhD student that can’t be found from other forms of education or in other lines of work.

In the same sense, academics are not special. You’re not special. Don’t worry, we mean this in a good way.

Sure, you’re smart, a great student, and a hard worker. But you’re not a superhero. You need work/life balance, just like everyone else. Your love of research and determination to succeed will only take you so far.

Trust us, we know that wild mercury passion for work that propels people through college and into a PhD program.

You work and study like crazy, get straight-As, pile up the awards and honors, and churn out publications.

You start to feel like you can do it forever. That you can climb that academic Everest, complete your PhD in record time, and be well on your way to a tenure-track job.

Yeah, uh, no.

If you work too hard for too long, eventually something will give. It may be a slow burnout or it may be a sudden snap. But you can’t devote your life to work forever.

Learn to maintain proper work/life balance now, and it will serve you well further on up the PhD road.

3. How PhD Students Can Maintain Work/Life Balance

Different graduate students achieve work/life balance in different ways. A few choice tips include:

  1. Know your peak productivity hours. If you know that you can think best in the morning, do your work then. Free up time later in the evening.
  2. Devise a work method and stick to it. Work a certain number of hours each day, then stop. Complete X-many tasks, then stop.
  3. Set aside one day a week where you don’t do any work. Most people pick Saturday, but it’s up to you.
  4. Keep all your research materials at your office. This will help you literally separate work and life. Go to your office and work. Leave your office and don’t work. Simple as that.
  5. Exercise regularly. Take a walk every day. Do sit-ups or yoga. Do that thing Agent Cooper from Twin Peaks did where he hangs upside down for 20 minutes every morning. Do something! With the COVID-19 quarantine not ending any time soon, you gotta get out of the house. Exercise. Don’t let your muscles die.
  6. Keep in touch with friends and family. As with exercise, this is especially important nowadays. Staying in touch during an era of social distancing takes effort and planning. Make the effort.

And for God’s sake, get a hobby! Play an instrument. Take up painting or sewing. Build model ships out of toothpicks. Whatever works for you.

Just two pieces of advice regarding hobbies for PhD students:

  1. Get a practical hobby, one that doesn’t require too much heavy or expensive gear. Odds are, you’ll be moving several times during your grad school years or shortly thereafter. Try not to weigh yourself down too much.
  2. Get a hobby that is wholly unrelated to your work. If you’re a musicologist, do something non-music-related. If you’re an entomologist, maybe don’t pick up bug collecting.

If it helps, think of your hobby as a kind of work, one that just happens to be unrelated to your PhD. You can feel productive cultivating your hobby and building a new skill set, but in a way that gives you a break from your graduate program, your PhD project, and your dissertation work.

Seriously, get a hobby.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the importance of work/life balance in the life of a PhD student cannot be overstated.

Don’t burn yourself out. Don’t neglect your friends and family. After all, you may need them once this is all over!

Make time for life. It’ll be worth it. And remember the importance of work/life balance when exploring future career opportunities.

We hear a lot about work/life balance in academia and elsewhere. But what about dream/life balance? For more on that, check out this post on leaving academia.

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