PhD Work-Life Balance: It’s All About Balance as a PhD!

If you are reading this, then you are probably like most graduate students that are trying to have some semblance of life as they work through a doctoral program.  

But, is it even possible to lead a regular life when you are working on a PhD? 

Can an acceptable work-life balance really be achieved? 

I am here to tell you, YES, it is possible… but it’s going to take a little time and a lot of patience. 

During my first year of graduate school I found myself consumed with work. Between my full-time job and my graduate work, my computer became my best friend and life outside of work was almost non-existent. Now, this scenario may be fine for some, but as a spouse and a parent, I definitely wasn’t being an active participant in the lives of my loved ones. I was also well on my way to experiencing complete burn-out.  (If you like this post, you can read this blog post about making the most of your doctorate).

I knew something had to change. 

Below are some lessons and tips that I learned after many conversations with my advisor and some serious reflection time.  You can also watch this video for additional information on finding balance in your life. 

This post was written by a recent doctoral student, but it is anonymous to keep the discussion frank on behalf of Dave Maslach. This is part of the R3ciprocity project (Check out the YouTube Channel or the writing feedback software). R3ciprocity helps students, faculty, and research folk by providing a real and authentic look into doing research. It provides solutions and hope to researchers around the world. You can watch his video on the topic:

#1: Working Longer Doesn’t Always Mean Working Better 

Many grad students are overworked and feel that they don’t have time to do anything but research and write.  

We know that spending time on academics, such as coursework or lab work, is necessary in order to be successful in graduate school but sitting at a desk, working twelve hours straight, isn’t good for anyone. Being effective doesn’t mean working a lot. 

Putting in these long hours also doesn’t mean that the work getting done in that time is going to be something of quality that can be used later. 

So, instead of focusing on getting in a ton of hours each day, try to see if you can work more efficiently by setting task goals or focusing your attention on a specific task. For example, instead of saying you are going to read for three hours, set an alternative goal to read three relevant articles and document any information that would be relevant to your research.  

This type of goal or task could increase productivity because the amount of time required depends on your focus and attention. If you get through your goal or task for the day and still feel like working, then you can move on to your next goal.  

This tactic just requires a little bit of planning and time for goal setting.  

#2: Make a Schedule and Stick to It 

The next helpful tip was setting a schedule. This actually goes hand-in- hand nicely with goal setting and making a task list.  

As PhD, or graduate students, you have become accustomed to putting a significant amount of time into scheduling classes, planning experiments, and reading up on the latest research. What doesn’t come as easily to you is making time for things like attending a birthday party, going for a cup of coffee with a friend or catching up on your favorite TV series.   

This is why it is so helpful to schedule even the smallest aspects of your day to day. Take all the various aspects of your life and specifically allocate time for them in your daily or weekly schedule. Summarize what needs to be achieved and try to think about how much time each action will take.  

When you wake up each day, review your schedule so that you can mentally prepare and be ready to check things off your list. The intentionality behind these actions will help prevent you from getting too caught up in your work and remind you to make time for the other important parts of your life. 

#3: Set Hours Each Day 

When you are developing your schedule, look at not only the days, but also try to set your hours. I’m sure that you have learned by now, the life of a graduate student doesn’t follow the traditional 9 to 5. (Check out this blog post about what is life really like for a PhD student.) This can make it a little more difficult to fit in all the things that you want to achieve but can also be beneficial when deciding your writing schedule.  

You’ll want to dedicate schoolwork time to be the time of day that you are most productive.  

If you are more of a morning person, use this to your advantage and schedule your academic time for morning hours and shift other responsibilities to later in the day. The opposite also applies; if you work better at night, then allow yourself time to relax or run errands in the morning and devote your evenings to completing assignments and research. Scheduling to your strengths may also improve the quality of your work. 

It’s probably not going to be possible to achieve equal amounts of time for work and life every day but having a well-devised plan will definitely help you get as close to it as possible.  Take the time to sit down and really look at your schedule, prioritize what is important, and do your best to work in both academics and play into your new grad life.  

Graduate life won’t be easy by any means, but it can certainly be easier and more enjoyable if you begin with a well-devised plan. So, when you figure out the schedule that works best for you, stick to it! 

#4Take Breaks 

Work can’t be your everything. 

Finding time for life outside of assignments, the lab and work is a must.  Having a balanced lifestyle will increase your mental well-being and help you excel in the long run. It will help you survive grad school.

Now again, you are understandably feeling a lot of pressure to spend as much time as possible working on things for school.  You may even feel guilty at thought of taking time off to do something other than work.  However, without giving yourself time to switch gears and enjoy other parts of your life, you will surely begin to feel burnt out. 

(For more information on how to avoid burnout during your PhD program, make sure to check out this video: 

If you are anything like me, you almost always have school on the brain, even when you are doing day-to-day tasks, so start small. 

Set a short goal, maybe it’s reading and notating one article, and then get up and take a small break. It could be that you go for a walk around the block, make a quick call to a friend, or work on your garden. Perhaps you have a puzzle you started and never got around to finishing; now is the time.  If you are on campus or conducting research, take a coffee break, read a fun magazine, or take a look at the different landscapes offered around the building. 

It doesn’t really matter what you do but make sure you take time each day to switch off from work. 

Once you can allow yourself these little breaks, work towards taking a weekend or holiday off. See this time away as an investment in yourself and your personal well-being. 

#5: Separate but Equal 

We often think about work-life balance as two separate things and that optimizing one objective means an exclusion/cost of the other.  

Rather than view your life as constant battle of rights and wrongs, or this and that, why not view your life as a list of complex tasks that can build and complement each other? 

There doesn’t have to be a trade-off of actions in order to do something well. Instead of having the different features of work, and then the different features of home as separate entities, pick the best features of each and try to play them up against each other so that you’re constantly improving your situation. 

For example, as you are working, think about the aspects of the work that is enjoyable to you. Also, think about what makes you happy in your general life.  Use those concepts as priorities as you begin to plan your next job or future career. Find something that will allow you to leverage what you are good at and enjoy doing.  

Or, if you need a break- and you aren’t too anxious or stressed out- take your kids or spouse for a walk. You are getting the mental break that you need and spending time with your loved ones. You might want to watch this video about having a family in graduate school:

Bringing these two worlds together in a way that benefit you will help you lead a fuller and happier life.   

#6: Take Care of Yourself 

When you are trying to balance all aspects of your life as a PhD student, you can experience some pretty stressful moments. It’s important to learn how to be in tune with your body so that you can manage your stress before it leads to something serious. 

Whenever I started to feel that something wasn’t right, or that I was getting anxious or annoyed with simple things, I knew I needed to do something about by stress level.  

Prioritizing, and learning how to say no to people and tasks, are also essential in helping you keep balance in your life. You are human- there’s only so many balls you can juggle before things start to fall.  

(If you have a hard time saying no, tune into this video to learn more about setting boundaries:  

Learning How To Say No As A PhD

And while we are talking about being human, throughout this PhD process you need to also make sure that you are taking care of your most basic needs– sleep being one of them.  

Not only is sleep essential for your overall health, but it is also necessary for you to be able to give 100% at work. (Check out this blog post on scheduling and sleeping during your PhD). Also, try to avoid working late hours or engaging in activities that keep you awake at night. Focus and drive are some of the first things to go when you are overtired and go without enough sleep.  

Your energy and productivity also wains when your body isn’t well nourished.  

It is easy to get on a working roll and totally forget to eat (I know I have been guilty of that many times), but when we don’t eat, we end up crashing later in the day. These crashes and lack of energy will definitely cause a hit to your level of productivity. So, make sure that you are taking time to eat a few times throughout the day to sustain your drive. You can also use eating as a break time or to engage in a leisurely conversation with others- getting your mind off of work. 

Lastly, and definitely not my favorite, would be exercise.  

Physical activity keeps your body healthy and can help you feel less stressed, as well as more energized. It’s easy to put exercise near the bottom on your list of priorities (at least it was for me) but it is actually a great way to clear your mind and get yourself ready to work.  

Watch this video on exercise during graduate school.

Prioritize yourself and your physicalmental health; pencil in some “Me Time” on your schedule. Not only are these things important to live a healthier lifestyle but also valuable in achieving a balance between work and life.   

#7: Give Yourself Time 

While achieving balance between work and living life is possible, it can take a while to get it down pat. This is especially so when you think about what you are trying to balance on a daily basis: academics, socializing, athletics, family, hobbies, home responsibilities, and so much more. 

Achieving a successful work-life balance is an ongoing process, so set your schedule and prioritize what’s most important but also be flexible and make time to give yourself a break. 

Allow yourself some graces and time to get these good habits and strategies in place. When you don’t have work and life competing against each other, you can find the balance you need to enjoy life. 

So, to recap: Work-Life balance is not only possible, it’s necessary! 

  • Set a plan and make some goals- this doesn’t mean you have to work long hours 
  • Make sure to take breaks and not feel guilty about taking time for yourself 
  • Try to find areas where work and home life overlap and capitalize on those 
  • Take care of yourself physically and mentally 
  • Remember this process takes time and be patient with yourself 

If you want some additional tips and advice about navigating through your PhD journey, you may find these following blog posts helpful: 

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