I recently read a post on the Eco-Evo Evo-Eco blog by Steven Cooke on how a prolific ecologist can achieve work-life balance. Steven offers great advice, some of which I’ll echo below. However, his guidance comes from the perspective of a successful professor managing a very productive lab, not that of a graduate student who’s constantly staving away impostor syndrome while living away from family and friends and questioning their career/life choices (not to say ‘adult’ scientists don’t do this too, but these are hallmarks of graduate studies). The mindsets, time commitments, and confidence levels are very different at those two stages of one’s career. So, I responded to a Twitter post by one of the blog’s moderators, Andrew Hendry, suggesting that it would be interesting to hear the perspective of a graduate student. So, here we are…
Before I start, a little background for those who don’t usually read this blog. I’m a few months from finishing my Ph.D. at Penn State, where I’ve spent the last few years studying behavior and adaptive capacity of coldwater fish. I’m not sure graduate students can be described as ‘prolific’, but my peers frequently use words like insane or intense to describe my productivity, perhaps suggesting unrealistic levels of commitment to my research (okay, maybe not ‘perhaps’). In some respects, they aren’t wrong. As a graduate student, I recognize I am still trying to figure out the best way for me to achieve work-life balance because, as Steven suggests, there’s no secret recipe for success. Everyone has to figure out what works best for them. But, I’ve made a few realizations over the years that have made it easier to balance the scale.
My biggest realization was learning that the reward for working more now was simply more work later. As a graduate student (and anyone in academia) there will literally never be a time when I couldn’t be working on something. It might be something tangible, like a manuscript draft or a presentation deadline. Or, it could be that folder of journal articles on my computer that I “should” be reading (and that never seems to quit growing). But, if I do that work today, then it just clears my schedule to do a different task tomorrow. It would literally. never. end. Learning to accept that my to-do list will never be cleared was a big challenge- so big that to break the cycle I had to start leaving my laptop at the office a few days a week. What I quickly realized was that there was no email, analysis, or manuscript that couldn’t wait until morning. I also realized that with my newfound freedom came the ability to enjoy my home life and hobbies without nearly as much guilt and doubt about how I should be spending my time.
But, this only works when my to-do list is manageable and I stay a little ahead. If I overcommit, slack off, or schedule meetings poorly, then I usually do have to bring my work home with me to keep putting out the fires. A couple weeks of this and it does feel like I’m managing an inferno. I’ve learned to minimize these times by simply saying ‘no.’ No to some seminars, working groups, classes, meetings, and yes, I even say no to happy hours. In a large university it is easy to spread yourself too thin by trying to attend everything. But, the return on investment for many of those events simply isn’t worth it. At first I felt guilty for dropping some things off my schedule, but it quickly wore off.
It also just made sense to set boundaries on evening commitments. I choose to get to the office everyday by 5am. I am a morning person, but I also have a tendency to get distracted by discussions with friends or collaborators in the hall and by my undergraduate advisees. I love these interactions, but they can derail my entire day. However, by the time the hallways start getting busy, I usually have a good four hours of productive, undisturbed work that’s much easier to return to when I do start chatting. Now, do I leave by 1pm feeling proud of a full 8-hour work day? Sometimes. And sometimes I stay until 6pm (I told you I’m working on it…). Regardless, I found a time of day, location, and schedule that works for me. And, I respect that schedule as if it came from my boss. It’s a double-edged sword that no one is forcing me to be anywhere at any time to complete my workday, and I find that if I don’t hold myself to some regular schedule my productivity declines.
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Now, here’s where I really think there is some departure between the work-life balance of a professor and a graduate student. I’m not managing a lab, which comes with its own stressors, expectations, and deadlines that I can’t speak to. But, I am often collecting all of my own data, running analyses, and trying to learn a completely new skill. This takes a lot of time on top of my regular commitments. Sometimes a lot of consecutive time spent away from home on nights and weekends. I basically spent my first two years at Penn State working 80-hours a week in the field in a different country, a different state, or deep in the mountains of Pennsylvania. Work won. But, importantly, not only was I okay with that, but I knew when I started at Penn State I would likely be doing that. Not everyone will be in a position to live away from their family for days to months at a time, and that’s okay. But, whether they admit it or not, almost every advisor will expect you to sacrifice your home life to some degree. It could involve long periods of time spent away from home, or just simply putting a little extra time in when you have a tight deadline. Communicate with your advisor, ideally before accepting a position, what your home life can afford. If they don’t respect that, then you probably don’t want to work with that advisor anyway.
Now, there’s really no way to avoid long periods of time in the field. But, what I realized is that I was somehow treating office work in the same light- that it simply wasn’t possible to finish a task unless I was working very long, uninterrupted, hours on it. It was very productive, but every time I undertook a new project I found I was generally unhappy. The time management skills I discussed above helped, but I was also dissatisfied that when I enforced some resemblance of work-life balance I stopped feeling productive. So, I had a decision to make- either put in more time or get better at using my time. Forcing myself to choose the later has resulted in a huge change in my happiness and productivity. As the saying goes, ‘work smarter, not harder.’
For example, writing. I enjoy writing, but found the time involved was simply not sustainable. After a little self-reflection, I identified the time bottleneck in my process- I was treating Microsoft Word like a stone tablet. I was agonizing over every word that I would get nowhere for days, sometimes weeks. Finally it hit me. Just type. I can get an entire manuscript draft in an hour. It’s absolutely terrible, at times nonsensical. But, after one hour I’m no longer staring at a blank page. And, instead of writing a manuscript, I’m editing a draft. It’s a subtle difference, but editing can happen in much shorter, discrete time intervals than writing, which was important for me given my propensity for distraction. Do I claim this writing style can work for everyone? Absolutely not. But, finding ways to be more productive in the tasks that notoriously take the longest has made me a better graduate student, but also a more productive, respected collaborator.
Another time saver was that I stopped aiming for perfection. A manuscript draft at 90% is going to get perceived by my coauthors the same way as a manuscript draft I feel is 100% final. That last 10% has far more to do with my personal preference on writing style, which I’m in a better position to fix after I’ve divorced myself from the manuscript for a bit. I also got really comfortable with admitting my own stupidity. I’m surrounded by brilliant scientists who are all skilled in very diverse aspects of ecology. I love being a self-learner, but at some point it’s insanely faster to phone a friend than it is for me to continue beating my head against the wall.
I’ve also learned to give up. I’ve spent entire days in the office doing nothing but trolling YouTube, talking to my friends, and occasionally going to the bar at 11am. Sometimes I’m just not feeling what I’m working on, and it’s not worth the mental energy to force it. On a good day I can refocus my energy to another task, but I’ve accepted that sometimes that ‘task’ is to just take a break. Nothing productive is going to get achieved if I’m burnt out. And, productivity that sacrifices happiness isn’t a long-term recipe for success. So, I minimize burn out where possibly by protecting time for sleep, exercise, good food, and good friends, and just give in to it when I see the fuse starting to burn. And importantly, I just don’t care about the competitive arena that feeds into graduate school. I don’t care if someone worked longer hours, published more papers, or got more awards. My advisor hasn’t (yet) complained about my status, and my version of work-life keeps me happy. That’s enough.
Finally, I’d like to echo Steven’s post and talk about what I feel like I’ve sacrificed to achieve everything I have. The short story is not much. But, I think this is only possible if you truly love what you do every day. It sounds cheesy, but I am very fortunate to have figured out very quickly exactly the research questions that I am passionate about, and I love pursuing them (most days) under the guidance of an incredible advisor. I unapologetically take a lot of time off during the holidays, though summer field seasons have left very little room for family vacation. I think the biggest sacrifice I have made is essentially putting my life on hold while getting two graduate degrees. There are definitely times I would love to be settled in a permanent city with a permanent job and be adding to my retirement account. The reality is that I have no idea where I’ll be living in a couple months as I search for a postdoc, nor where I’ll be 1-2 years after that.