Yesterday, I asked graduate students on Tumblr how many hours a week they worked, whether they felt that they were working enough, and if they had any work-life balance. I expect that you all can guess what the answers were, but let’s make it explicit: almost no one felt that they were working enough, and a really disheartening number of people responded to the work-life balance question with “hahaha.”
Maybe some of the answers were exaggerated thanks to the impending deadlines that always seem to loom in the fall semester: grant applications, fellowship applications, TAing assignments, qualifying exams, and regular exams all conspire to make this a particularly stressful time of year. But overall, the Tumblr responses speak to the same trend that I’ve observed previously. I know I’ve talked about the issues of stress and work-life balance before, but they’re just such big, pervasive issues in academia that I feel compelled to talk about them again.
Out of the three questions I asked, the responses to “do you work enough,” really stands out. No one thinks they’re working enough. And yet, somehow, people keep graduating from these programs, going on to careers, and publishing papers. People see themselves as not working enough, and yet they continue to perform well ““ they are clearly working enough.
So from where does this discomfort come? Part of it comes from the nature of graduate school. When an open, flexible schedule is paired with work done on such large time scales that it’s possible to work for hours and not see a tangible result, it’s easy to feel as if nothing is getting done. When there’s nothing getting done, it’s easy to feel like more work is the answer. It’s not ““ reframing what it means to be productive is crucial for maintaining balance. In undergrad, writing a paper (a straightforward task with a tangible result) was a sign of productivity. In grad school, getting a paper published (a task that can take a year or more) is a sign of productivity. Using the same metrics to gauge productivity that have been used in your academic experience so far is just not going to work in graduate school. Being aware of that and making adjustments can be crucially important to feeling like something has been accomplished.
But that’s only part of the problem ““ the other part is the unhealthy, twisted graduate school culture that dictates that if you’re not making yourself miserable over your degree, then you’re not doing it right. It creates the specter of doubt that haunts a grad student’s mind (maybe I am not working enough?), and then prevents them from feeling comfortable talking about this feeling with other graduate students, except, possibly as a series of incredibly twisted jokes (I can’t let anyone know how I really feel, so let’s buy into all the sell-your-soul jokes).
Let’s try to break that cycle. If you’re having a great time in graduate school ““ great! More power to you! Think about what makes graduate school so enjoyable for you and work to make your lab/program/campus a happier, healthier place. If you’re having a tough time in graduate school, that’s understandable and you’re not alone. Talk to your peers, talk to a counselor, talk to your family. Remind yourself that yes, this degree matters, and yes working hard is important, but what matters most and what is most important is your health and your well-being. It’s OK to have busy, stressful periods. It’s not OK to consistently remove the things from your life that make you happiest (friends, hobbies, outside interests) in order to work more. You’re important. Your happiness and health are important. Give yourself permission to move them (and yourself) up your priority ladder.