Women in Academia: Finding a Work-Life Balance

There are days where I feel like I never stop working. Sometimes, it’s just about the most awesome thing and it gets my brain-juices flowing and I feel productive like nothing else. But sometimes, it’s not that I want to keep working, it’s that my brain just won’t shut off.

Maybe that’s incorrect. I don’t necessarily want my brain to shut off, and heck, if I wanted to, I’ve got a few tricks. I just want my brain to focus on other things with the same intensity it does the latest research question. I just want to be able to talk to my friends and family, jump full-on into cooking mode, or read that new novel I’ve picked up at the library. But with my brain constantly chewing over the latest science paper and its implications for my research, I spend the whole day spinning my wheels. I feel like I never left work, but I have nothing to show for it either.

Trying to get a real work-life balance set up and stable is proving to be much more challenging than I had once thought. I am better now than before, but it’s still a process. I still spend too many days just sitting and staring at the screen/my science journal/my field notebook and not getting anywhere. I am still not always able to put my work aside for long enough for me to get some real rest and relaxation in. But hey, it’s better than before.

First, I set a weekly and if possible, a daily schedule. I spend three days on campus, up to one day working from home (barring emergencies or illness), and at least one day doing field or greenhouse work. By charting out the week, I can schedule regular meetings and I get used to the rhythm of the week. I find that now that I’ve started on my (hopefully) dissertation research (oh god please don’t fail), I no longer have the structure of classes to keep me anchored throughout the week. Creating that structure using seminars, meetings, and my own research deadlines is supremely helpful in that regard.

Second, I try to set a maximum number of hours I can work a week. This part is a lot trickier. For instance, the other day I got very little accomplished. I barely entered any data and I only hit the very top of the backlog of papers I need to skim. But I spent the whole day finding problems in my preparation for going out to collect data and the next day I was able to make a field-work check list and create a new datasheet that will hopefully be easier to use. I don’t know how many hours I actually worked on that project – I can time the checklist and datasheet creation, but that’s it – but I feel like things are going more smoothly now. Still, while I am aware of the need to cap my hours, I am still sorting out the best way to do this.

Third, I am actively working to be more engaged with different groups and activities outside of my graduate program bubble. It’s sort of cheating because anything I do on campus, even if it is with teaching services or outreach seminars, feeds back into my progress as a graduate student. It isn’t directly tied to my research, but it sure as hell makes it easier for me to land funding. But! It is a break for my brain, and being introduced to people from a variety of disciplines and backgrounds, in different stages in their lives and with different end goals is absolutely refreshing. It generates more ideas (yay work!) and allows my mind to engage with other issues. What’s even better is that these graduate-school related activities bleed into my other hobbies – thanks, lady in my seminar who gave me the perfect phrase to cross-stitch on a pillow! Thanks, dude who suggested a new pasta sauce to try out! And hearing these suggestions makes me want to make the time to invest in my hobbies, and by golly, I do it.

Fourth and last because this is getting long-winded, I am trying to change some unhealthy thought patterns. Maybe this deserves its own post since it’s something that I’ve run into a lot, but I’ll at least touch on it here. See, I thrive on some level of stress and I used to think that the more stress the better, since it’d serve as a motivator, but the more I work towards getting more balance in my life, the more I am assured that to do anything well and with enthusiasm, I have to come at it fresh. The best ideas come from who-knows-where (Inception??), but I can’t cultivate them unless I have an open and (somewhat) relaxed mind.

So what do you do? Do you feel that the work-life balance is something you even need to have? What do you do to ensure that you have that balance if you feel that you need it? What are the biggest obstacles you’ve faced in making time for you?

11 replies on “Women in Academia: Finding a Work-Life Balance”

Sometimes, it’s little things.

I have a 30-45min. commute each way on public transportation. Unless I am gearing up for a presentation or conference, I read a novel for fun instead of reading academic papers or scribbling notes on my data. It also creates a clear transition from lab to home.

I don’t work long days on weekends. I’ll keep my weekend lab duties to 1-2hrs. Occasionally, I will refuse to step foot in lab for the whole weekend (that’s my plan this weekend).

I schedule vacations.

I am feeling happiest and most balanced when I made my hours in lab very productive, so that when I go home, I can put my thoughts about my research aside. If I didn’t accomplish much, I usually end up staying much later than planned, and then fret about stuff once I get home.

I write out a daily to do list one week ahead. Usually, on Friday afternoon, I know how I will generally spend my time the following week. This also helps me avoid forgetting things, like streaking out a bacterial strain I need Sunday night so that on Monday, I can dive right in.

I schedule thinking/analyzing/reading days every so often. As much as I try to integrate these activities into my daily schedule, say while experiments are incubating, I find it difficult to get into a zone and really focus unless I have several hours blocked. These days are also really good when I feel stuck, when nothing in lab is working and I need a day away from actual experimentation, and definitely when I have a thesis committee meeting or presentation coming up. In fact, I’m about to pack up some papers, my laptop, and my lab notebook and sit at Starbucks for the rest of the afternoon to do just that.

I schedule fun activities that are inflexible. So, I sign up for a weekly class or join a team, which I’ve paid up front for 2 months, and therefore, I have to be at the dance studio at 6pm on Tuesdays, or the bowling alley at 7 on Wednesdays, etc.

I prioritize self-care: workouts, painting my nails, deep-conditioning my hair, drinking tea and lighting candles, whatever. This is something I learned in therapy, and it greatly reduces my anxiety and makes me feel like a real person. On that same note, I keep my apartment clean and stocked with food. When I let those things go, I feel like my whole life is in disarray, and it only worsens my anxiety.

I have friends who are in my grad program who I can gripe with, and friends who aren’t, who I can avoid the topic of science with.

I ask my friends and family not to ask about my research constantly, as when I’m letting loose on Saturday night, that’s the last thing I want to discuss.

I attend religious services weekly.

All of these things help me to feel like a whole person instead of just a grad student robot, but yeah, it’s definitely a work in progress.

I’ve started to exercise a lot more (mostly running) in the time that I’ve been in grad school, especially since I finished course work and qualifying exams. It gives me a feeling of accomplishment that is sorely lacking in my academic life (now that I’m exclusively working towards an amorphous end goal).

I have to say I think a large part of my acceptable work-life balance is my adviser. He’s made it clear that he sees a life outside of the lab as an important part of being productive when you’re in the lab.

But even having said that, it can be hard to shut down the guilty feelings when I’m not working.

Great post!

My advisor (in his seventies and brilliant) tells me to take a lot of time stewing over ideas and coming back to my writing. No rushing thinking (especially for us philosophers). His advice? “If you get stuck, take a long bikeride!” (we’re both cyclists).

I am horrible at keeping schedules (I’m wonderful at setting them, but sticking to them is a whole other story!), so I admire your will power. I have gotten slightly better at not getting so stressed, after I finally figured out a few things:

1) Procrastination is bad. Yeah I know, it’s not like I didn’t know this before, but I finally realized it’s increasing my stress levels, which aggravate my…well, my EVERYTHING. So lately I’ve been giving myself small blocks of time devoted exclusively to school work (no background noise, no distractions) to get ahead on assignments. I’ve also been trying to not leave things until the last minute. This frees up some space of mind to actually enjoy my real minutes of relaxation, whatever the activity, because I’m not feeling guilty for not doing enough to deserve a break.

2) Thought patterns. I’m with you on this one. I went through prescribed CBT once and it didn’t do much for me, but my as of late self-administered CBT has done wonders. Number one, I’ve been trying to forgive myself for little mistakes (social ones, academic ones) that used to send me on a negativity spiral for whole evenings or even days. I just say “Everyone screws up once in a while!”, try my hardest to believe that, ignore negative thoughts that may contradict that, and move on. I never realized how much this would help, but it does.

3) I try to focus on only one thing at a time. I used to try to think of so many things at once that I became overwhelmed just by thinking about doing them. So if I’m doing schoolwork, it’s one small portion at a time and if I’m having fun, I’m focusing on just having fun and not on the things I “should” be doing.

4) I felt socially-isolated for a while, so I’ve also been reconnecting with friends and trying to keep up with my classmates as friends, outside of school. Talking to people outside of my little grad school circle tends to put things into perspective.

Right after this comment, for example, I quickly shut down my browser (you have to do it quick before you lose your will power, like ripping a band-aid) and went to work on an assignment for a bit over an hour. That was exclusively productive time, and now I don’t feel bad about getting online again.

Baby steps, self. Baby steps.

I am not in academia, but boy howdy do I have trouble with the work/life balance issue. The kind of work I do means that I never really stop working; if I’m awake, I’m writing or researching for a project or emailing an editor or betaing for a friend or something work-related. Which means that when I go to bed I lie there for hours, brain going a million miles a minute, unable to turn it off. And of course I keep taking on more work which adds to the stress and…yeah.

Alas, this comment doesn’t conclude with ‘and then I started…and stopped having this problem!’ I still really struggle with it. I’m trying to force myself to work in the garden more and go out and take pictures, to get myself out of the work zone and into other places.

I have a work schedule, which I am pretty good at adhering to, but I think I need a not-work schedule, specific times and days of the week when I am not allowed to be working, and need to come up with something else to do with my time!

Great post, A-A! Finding some life balance is so difficult in grad school because the work goals are so amorphous- it’s not like there’s a particular set of well-defined landmarks that you can use to prove to yourself that you’re accomplishing enough (like grades or problem sets/papers were in undergrad, for example). It’s basically just a long, sustained effort toward something very vague, so when can you call it a day? You put it so well. And work-life balance is one aspect of what I think is a bigger question, which is: how do you sustain yourself in academia generally? Academic work is such drudgery sometimes, and it’s sooo self-motivated. How do you go about calibrating yourself, you know? That’s part of the job, if you think about it. How do you even learn to recognize the signs you show when something is wrong? That’s been one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned as a grad student. That, and how to stay professional under duress!

This is a great post. I’ve been thinking a lot about this in the last few days and would actually love some advice, if any lovely academic Jezzies have some (sorry to threadjack…).

Basically I’ve taken the last three months out of my PhD to live in a big city and work on a temporary project for a think tank, which is on a different topic than my PhD. I’ve LOVED it. I’ve been challenged and it’s been incredibly hard, but I feel so fulfilled and happy it’s unreal.

I’m going home on Sunday, back to the PhD endgame – I have about four months to finish. Thinking about going back to it just fills me with dread and sadness. I hate it. I hate the project, I’m sick of it, I’m sick of having to dance for some committee and waste time garlanding my (frankly awesome) empirical work with theoretical crap I find boring and insubstantial and frankly a little masturbatory. I hate my tiny, boring town/village. Although I will be so happy to be back with the boy, most of my other friends have already left the area, and those that remain are either also in writing-up hell or, in the case of one couple with whom we usually spend a lot of time, about to have a baby.

So, long story short, have any of you faced into the last stage of a PhD with similar feelings of vague horror? How do you cope? I have a side project to take my mind off things (planning my wedding/honeymoon), but I’m not sure it’ll be enough to balance out my life. Any advice on how to handle this horrible last stage would be SO welcome. Thanks in advance.

I’m rapidly approaching the final year of my PhD, too. Solidarity! Some of the things that have provided me with the most relief from grad misery (and at best, grad ennui) have been: (a) therapy, (b) finding a mentor (not an advisor) that I can relate to at least a little, to prove to myself that people like me can make it, (c) taking a class in something totally outside my field (so, affirming my natural curiosity to myself, and meeting new people), (d) getting a little more involved in activities on campus (like my school’s grad women-in-science organization), (e) teaching undergrads, and (f) yoga. I’ve had to work *hard* to find a sustainable graduate lifestyle, and all of those things have been necessary at one time or another.

To keep myself sane during the last 6 months of my PhD, I trained for and ran a marathon. I used a training schedule and kept to it religiously. I think the very concrete goals of additional miles really helped me concentrate on the not so concrete goals of finishing data.

The first quarter of graduate school, I went to the gym once a week; other than that, I read and was unhappy. It’s so easy to get bogged down and not do anything besides study and work, and I started struggling with that again at the end of last quarter – I finally had enough data to begin writing my thesis but then I had work for other classes on top of it, and I just pretty much just stopped seeing friends, going to the gym, etc.

I’ve mentioned the gym twice, and that’s because I think that’s the main way that I help keep things balanced. It’s awesome to do something that’s just completely and totally about me – I’m not sending lots of e-mails trying to set up meetings, I’m not doing research or writing a paper for a class, I’m doing something enjoyable, that’s good for me, because I want to. It really clears my head and makes me feel good, and I’m more productive on my work when I’m feeling good about myself and my life, so that 45 minutes or hour and a half ends up being a good use of my time because I’m so energized and productive afterward. The best is when I do a workout class with a friend because then I feel like I’ve been social in addition to doing something good for me.

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