Like many other students beginning graduate school, I was quickly overwhelmed with responsibilities and had to find time for studying by letting go of many other things I valued.
Letting go of football and the violin was, however, self-defeating: it might have bought me more time in the short term, but spending that extra time on work only made me more stressed and less productive.
Towards the end of my MSc program, I started to lose my motivation and curiosity for science and research, as well as my creativity. Spending so much time and energy in the laboratory, and focusing all my attention on my thesis and courses, made me feel down, lethargic and almost totally uninterested in my field — not to mention short-tempered and oversensitive in my personal interactions.
Over time, I learnt from these experiences. When I started my PhD, I focused on balancing academic success with personal time off, and made personal happiness a priority in my weekly schedule. My mentor and I discussed my work–life balance early in my program, and we arranged our lab responsibilities accordingly.
I set boundaries for myself in new ways: rather than doing lab work all weekend, I’d play football or the violin, or visit loved ones, before ‘allowing’ myself to work for a few hours. This was hard at first: I worried that it would affect my standing with my peers and superiors. But I had learnt from experience that an overloaded schedule can drain you so much that you become unfocused and start making mistakes or forgetting important details.
Since establishing a better work–life balance, I’ve been doing well in graduate school. Outside the lab, I’ve been able to take up a few leadership positions at my university because I’m not as stressed with my work. I serve as our department’s student councilor and am also vice-president academic in the Health Sciences Graduate Students’ Association. My advice is this: a healthy work-life balance isn’t a luxury; it’s a key element of success in graduate programs.
Taking time off from work is crucial for avoiding stress and depression, and their potential consequences.
Graduate students and postdocs, who may equate 'working longer' with 'working better', are particularly prone to working themselves into the ground, says Simon Davy, head of the School of Biological Sciences at the Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand. Davy, who since his days as a PhD student has vowed not to work on Saturdays, says that he sees students slide easily into working seven-day weeks.
To define this concept, we should first define what work-life balance is not.
Work-Life Balance does not mean an equal balance. Trying to schedule an equal number of hours for each of your various work and personal activities is usually unrewarding and unrealistic. Life is and should be more fluid than that.
Your best individual work-life balance will vary over time, often on a daily basis. The right balance for you today will probably be different for you tomorrow. The right balance for you when you are single will be different when you marry, or if you have children; when you start a new career versus when you are nearing retirement.
There is no perfect, one-size fits all, balance you should be striving for. The best work-life balance is different for each of us because we all have different priorities and different lives.
However, at the core of an effective work-life balance definition are two key everyday concepts that are relevant to each of us. They are daily Achievement and Enjoyment.