Opinion

The best years of your life are right now

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Recently there has been a lot of discussion around work-life balance in academia, particularly for early career researchers and students. It wasn’t until very recently that I personally began to be interested in this issue. Last year I wrote about how I never felt the need to reduce or alter my workload. At that point I worked almost constantly, but for whatever reason, was able to maintain external hobbies and interests decently well. This year has been quite a different experience. So what changed?

The closer I get to graduation the more stressed I become about post-PhD opportunities. One of the symptoms of anxiety and depression is feeling out of control, and graduate school is a multi-year exercise in feeling out of control. It’s no surprise that the rate of mental health issues in grad school is orders of magnitude larger than the general populace.

Between research progress, funding luck, advisor quality, graduation time, and job prospects, we really don’t have much control over the outcomes. The only thing we can do to improve the chances of positive outcomes is work. But what happens when you work 40, 50, 60 hours a week to improve these outcomes and it doesn’t work?

Although I don’t know what those outcomes will be for me, I think that my life shouldn’t be controlled by things which are outside my control. Self-care techniques help us remember what is really important, and that we can find happiness and satisfaction that is within our control.

Some techniques that have been helping me deal with the necessary uncertainty of grad school:

  1. Reduce working hours – at first I was very hesitant, but I found it improved my productivity and my stress levels. If I’m feeling productive during off-hours I try to put that energy toward hobbies, friends, or my health instead.
  2. No emails after 7 pm
  3. Volunteering & scicomm – this helps me remember that I’m here because I love knowledge, not for the approval of some external body!
  4. Increase time devoted to hobbies – this helps me to take ownership of my time and talent. I don’t have to always choose work.
  5. Improve health – diet, exercise, sufficient sleep are the best daily reminders that we control our own lives!

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