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Finding the PhD-life-balance

A personal account

I’ve been studying Psychology for over five years, first as an undergraduate at the University of Edinburgh, then during a master’s in Behavioural Neuroscience at University College Dublin. But it’s only now — in the first year of my PhD — that I’m finding a sustainable work-life-balance.


Throughout my entire academic journey, I’ve been a high-achieving student. I’ve also been able to maintain close relationships, exercise regularly, eat well, and all the rest of it. I seemed to be doing just fine overall — and so it didn’t really occur to me (or the people around me) to question my work habits.


Yet, toward the end of my master’s degree a few months ago, it became obvious that my work mode was taking a toll. I was physically unwell, I felt burnt-out and most alarmingly, I felt like I was performing activities outside of work, rather than enjoying them.


In my research, I actually investigate how engagement in leisure activities may impact cognitive abilities, such as memory, in multiple sclerosis. So it was high time for me to evaluate my own lifestyle.


I’ve spent a good few weeks reflecting on old patterns and practicing new routines. I’m sharing aspects of this process and its outcomes here, in the hopes of normalising conversations around finding balance — especially amongst people who seem to be doing just fine.


Past habits

For most of my undergraduate and master’s degrees, I’ve attempted to give every task, assignment and project 100% of my energy and effort. I prioritised tasks in terms of the time they required, but not in terms of the attention they deserved. I was so used to giving my best, and subsequently achieving high grades — it didn’t occur to me that I might be doing just as well overall by adopting a ‘good enough’ approach. I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to risk achieving a lower grade by ‘trying less’.


It seemed necessary to work on most weekends and to rarely take more than 2–3 consecutive days off. At the same time, I was able to maintain many ‘healthy habits’. I was going on walks and runs, practicing yoga, seeing friends and family, and preparing fresh meals regularly. For a long time, I felt like I was doing well. Then I started to perform well instead. I was still projecting a sense of being on top of things, but it stopped feeling like that.


I no longer had the physical and mental resources to keep up with it all and I felt burnt-out. I realised that I had to change things and that some of my work habits had been unsustainable all along. This was the point where I couldn’t and didn’t want to support them anymore.


My goals and what I’m doing differently now

I now aim for a sustainable work-life balance, which centres my physical and mental health.


In my academic work, this looks like prioritising tasks according to relevance, and adopting a ‘good enough’ approach when tasks just need to get done. This allows me to spend more effort on the things that really matter. It also gives me the space to reflect in between tasks, which I didn’t have when I was trying my best all of the time. Whilst I absolutely notice the benefits of this approach, both personally and in terms of productivity, it hasn’t come easy to me.


I still strive for excellence in my research, and I try to manage that by setting even more realistic timelines and expectations. I’m grateful to have supportive supervisors. To give an example, I’m currently working on a big project and my progress over the next two weeks will be crucial in determining the timeline of future projects. When discussing this during supervision, we agreed that I would just see how far I can come in 10 days — not 14.


For the first time in years, I haven’t worked a single weekend. I should mention here that I have a funded PhD position (I’m an Irish Research Council Government of Ireland Scholar), which certainly plays a role in allowing me to take the weekends off. It can be much harder for PhD researchers juggling a job alongside their research.


On weekends, I enjoy going on long walks, catching up with family and friends, spending time in nature, doing yoga, baking, and so many other things.


It’s not that I haven’t done these activities before, but when I do them now, I don’t feel guilty about it.

I also try to plan fun activities and events in advance and I make an active effort to normalise taking time off in academia (and beyond), by talking and writing about it regularly. This has been a massive help in actually enjoying my time outside of research.


What I’m still practicing

I’ve come a long way, but I still have a bit to go. As the semester is getting busier, I’ve noticed that my default is still to stress and worry about tasks and to tackle things as soon as they come up. I still sometimes feel a sense of panic when a new email pops up and I’m in the middle of another task. I’m still practising letting things go or waiting until they fit my schedule.


I’m also practising being kinder to myself.


Sometimes I think I could have done better or worked harder, and then I feel guilty about not having achieved a perfect balance yet. I’m still learning to embrace the process and to share about it honestly. My goal for the next few months is to give myself the time and space to catch up with my new intentions and to make them my default mode.

 

Why talk about it

I’ve shared about my former work habits and the negative effects they had on me, my goals and intentions for a more sustainable work-life-balance, new routines, as well as aspects I continue to practice and reflect on. A lot of this is limited by my own experience, and likely won’t be new to you. But I chose to talk about them anyway, in the hope that they can provide a source of comfort for those in the process of finding their own work-life balance in academia, and beyond.


I’m particularly thinking of those of us who seem to be doing just fine, whilst not feeling that way. It can be hard to acknowledge a need for change, and sharing about it will hopefully normalise having conversations around accepting and making change.

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