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Work-life Balance Advice I Learned From Being a PhD Student

The main difference between doing a master’s and a PhD is that PhD students have more responsibility for their progress because the degree is based on independent work rather than structured around courses. As a PhD student, I only have to complete 40 study credits worth of courses: my primary task is to conduct research and to write a dissertation. But if I want the best conditions for a postdoc, I should also network and engage in scientific communication, get some teaching and conference experience, and have my research published. Honestly, it is a pretty big undertaking, whether the PhD is full-time or part-time. Here are some tips I have learned along the way – as told by others or as learned from my own mistakes. Whether you are an undergraduate, a graduate or someone considering doing a doctoral degree, I hope you will find these useful.

Set manageable short-term goals

“There is only one way to eat an elephant: a bite at a time.” Every daunting humongous task can be broken down into pieces: work your way through the project bit by bit and eventually you will be done. This is the way to approach a master’s thesis, a PhD thesis, or any personal project. By setting a schedule with small concrete tasks, it is easy to tick off completed steps. Ticking off completed tasks from a visual to-do list is a good reminder that you are, in fact, progressing towards your goal. It also makes sense to make a schedule if you assume something will take longer than you think. This allows for unforeseen complications. So, if you think reading that one paper takes one hour, you can reserve 90 minutes for actually getting it done.

Avoid multitasking

Ever sat down to write a paper only to get distracted by emails, social media, another assignment, or the emptiness of your coffee mug? A multitasking brain is a distracted brain. Try to make research time free of distractions by having everything ready and by aiming to work uninterrupted for at least 30 or 60 minutes before giving in to other temptations. To this end, you can try the Pomodoro technique: 25 minutes of work, 5 minutes of break, repeat. PhD students who work part-time or who have family responsibilities have found it helpful aiming to devote an hour only to writing each day. No emails, meetings or social media is allowed during this hour. With a routine of active writing regularly, it becomes easier to get in the groove and the text will soon start taking shape.

Stick to your work time

Research is not necessarily a 9-to-5 job. In academia, overwork has become normalized and weekend work is a means to “get ahead” in a competitive environment. A 2014 survey by Inside Higher Ed found that faculty members work an average of 61 hours per week. Academics know the “publish or perish” mantra, which essentially means that unless you are constantly researching and publishing, your career will be at risk. A few years ago, Alexander Stubb, then Finland’s Minister of Finance to-be, quipped that “Professors had three reasons for working as professors: June, July, and August.” Anyone who knew an actual academic could instantly point out that academics are lucky if they get one summer month off.

Unfortunately, overwork does not necessarily equate to higher productivity or quality: becoming a sleep-deprived unhappy mess means you’re unable to do the critical thinking and poised argumentation needed for the job. There has been an increased discussion of minimizing overwork in academia, and to that end I would encourage you to stick to a 9-5 (or 8-4, or 12-8, whichever you prefer). And take the weekends off. Personally, I’ll work the Saturday if it means I can meet an important deadline, but I try to not feel guilty by taking it slower on Monday.

Pace yourself

If, like me, you have taken pride in being a good student who completes any homework as soon as possible, you might have to reconsider this habit. Of course, you should not procrastinate, but finishing your homework does not necessarily mean you get to go out and play – because there is no set homework, there is always another paper you could be reading or another analysis to do. If you are running a marathon, you have to give it your all at a slow and steady pace that will get you all the way to the end instead of leaving you gasping for air before you are even halfway. This pace is subjective, so you should decide on it yourself. It is important to just acknowledge that it is impossible to read absolutely everything.

Balance work with free time

After a productive day, it is time to relax. In fact, some of the best ideas for research come not in the middle of research but randomly when you are doing something completely different during your free time – reading a book, talking to friends, strolling outdoors. Anyone working a desk job benefits from something a bit more physical: even if going to the gym is not your thing, then a brisk walk or a yoga at home can help to stretch your joints, relax your strained eye-muscles, and improve your mood. It is also worth to engage in some productive or creative outlet that is very different from your usual work: for example, if you want to feel “productive” during your free time, drawing could be a way to have a concrete sense of accomplishment unrelated to your research.

Finally, you should not forget socializing. Spending time with family and friends is essential. Interacting with other students is good peer support, since they may have a better understanding of your work situation. It can also be fun to join a hobby group to meet people from outside your usual social circle.

Take care of your mental health

Mental health really relates to all the above tips. PhD students and master’s students generally have a higher risk of depression than the general public due to the heavy workload, financial instability, competition and insecurity over career prospects. These same concerns also apply to post-docs and other researchers not yet settled into a stable career. During the pandemic, stress has increased even in senior academics: almost 70% of surveyed academics feel stressed, with many considering a career change. This is due to the anxiety induced by the overall pandemic, frustration with remote learning and additional childcare responsibilities at home. Academics are part of a risk group, which is why mental health is no joke and you should be on the lookout for any red flags.

I have never been diagnosed with depression, but during this summer, I am pretty sure I had burnout. It was a culmination of hard work over a longer period and a manuscript having been rejected by a publisher. I was exhausted, I felt stupid, my research project felt stupid, and even in the middle of a two-week summer break, I wished I could put my professional life on pause just to have a breather. That is why, as an alternative to “publish or perish” I try to remember “value your mental health or perish”. When it is time to rest, you rest, and try not letting the work dwell in the back of your mind.

Know what you get into

This tip is for those who are still wondering whether they should do a PhD. While a doctoral degree does not guarantee a career in academia, doctoral research can in itself be a wonderful thing as you get to study, write and talk about a topic that really interests you. However, doing a doctoral is quite different from doing a master’s degree: it takes longer, you work all the more independently, and it does not qualify for student benefit, which usually means either working on the side or competing for grant money. In terms of workload, the doctoral experience differs depending on your field, your supervisor and whether you are part of a research project.

If you are planning to do a doctoral degree, the best way to find information is to ask a current doctoral student on how they experience the workload and the atmosphere of the unit or team they might be working in. It also helps to choose PhD supervisors who share your ideas about weekly workload or who you think would be understanding in case of challenges in your schedule management. If you are planning to do a degree elsewhere than in your alma mater, again, contacting other doctoral students – who might become your peers – may be a good plan.

Ylva Biri

Helsinki '18

Ylva is a PhD student at the University of Helsinki researching the linguistics of social media discourse. When not studying, procrastinating and overthinking, she enjoys shonen anime and trying out new foods.
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