One student asked how do we manage good work-life balance. Straight away I delved into how imperative it is, how we all need to keep up a social life, a home life, take regular exercise and/or a hobby, and anything else to have a life outside our careers. I professed to not working weekends, and never succumbing to the pressure to do so in order to be successful.
Not long after the forum finished, I realized that I was, indeed, a hypocrite.
I have always been an advocate of a good work-life balance. I led a (very) active social life during my undergraduate studies, which continued well into my PhD. I also worked part time to help pay the rent, and took up various active hobbies.
Sure, when my studies required more of my time I battened down the hatches and did whatever needed to be done, whether it was studying or thesis-writing, but it was only ever temporary. And even then, I still made sure I had some sort of balance, such as dinner with a friend or a gym session to burn some energy and frustration.
But over the last couple of years, and especially the last 12 months, the balance has been overrun.
There seems to be this stigma, particularly in younger researchers in academia that in order to succeed you must work all day and all night. We have studied for a long time to get to where we are, jobs are extremely hard to find, particularly permanent ones, and often involve moving overseas. There also seems to be a move towards more contract positions and less permanent positions in academia globally, which doesn’t raise high hopes for up-and-coming researchers.
Therefore, in order to earn our positions we need to work our fingers to the bone (because having a PhD is not enough).
At times this actually sounds quite reasonable to an academic. We love what we do! We studied for so long to do what we do! Why wouldn’t we want to do it ALL THE TIME?
Thinking right along these lines, at the beginning of 2013 I set myself the new year’s resolution of excelling my career. I had been in a great post-doc position that, quite rarely, came with a lot of research freedom. However I was well aware that post doc positions are short-lived, and there was no time for complacency. So I decided to do ALL THE THINGS to propel my career forward.
This list was oh so long, including applying for a research grant, joining a young researchers international committee and a local conference committee, spending three months working abroad in Europe and Ecuador, setting up my own blog space and twitter account, going for various awards, setting up an interactive heatwave website, mentoring a summer student, undertaking various domestic collaborative trips and workshops, involvement with the Australian Climate Council, starting up a partnership in the Scientists in Schools program, polishing my communication skills and executing them constantly, as well as trying to keep on top of my research interests, and, publish, publish, publish!
Oh god, I’m exhausted just typing all that.
Now a lot of that is stuff that I wanted to do. But all this in one year? Crazy.
I started 2014 off in utter exhaustion from burning myself out last year. I was much more anxious than enthusiastic about what this year would bring, and how I would cope with a mammoth workload, as, truth be told, it was my publications that suffered the most in 2013 (a cardinal sin in academia, I know!). I got into my job because it excites and fascinates me, and certainly not because it makes me feel anxious. But it wasn’t until the forum that it became clear my work-life balance was completely out of whack.
Even the most enjoyable tasks can get tiring. Besides my job, I also happen to really love running, but just like long, repetitive and strenuous exercise can take its toll on the body, so can working too hard negatively affect the mind .
As it turns out I’ve been extremely fortunate in receiving the research grant, and was also a Tall Poppy award, both of which I am extremely grateful for and excited about. But do you think I’ve been able to breathe a sigh of relief and relax, given that I achieved what I set out to achieve?
It’s only made me want to work even harder, because I’ve been so lucky, and in order to really deserve it, I have to work even harder still.
Yep, definitely crazy.
But what I’m most fearful of is that I’m not alone. Other young (and perhaps even not-so-young) academics feeling the exact same way. Sure, you gotta put in the hard yards to achieve your goals, and you have to be at least a little bit competitive in the academic industry. But in order to be the most successful you can possibly be, you need to give yourself a break.
Although I feel less of a hypocrite for realizing my own poor balance after the forum, I’m disappointed in myself that it took something like that to actually wake me up. I don’t want that to be the same for other young academics. It is just not worth it. Balance is imperative. It is worth so much more than pushing yourself to your limit (can you really put a price on your sanity?).
Take it from me, tired, grumpy academics do not make good research. Nor do they make good friends, partners, sons or daughters. NOTHING, least of all your sanity and personality, is worth pushing yourself to the limit.
Perhaps some people may think it’s easy for me to say this as I have gained a grant, but my job is only guaranteed for another 3 or so years. And in order to stay where I am permanently, someone else will need to move on. I’d then be in the competition with all researchers at my level, both within my workplace and any outsiders too. So in another few years, I’ll be facing the exact same prospects as I did last year, and as so many young researchers do after their PhD and between contracts.
But consistently pushing too far only makes things worse. If I kept pushing, I wouldn’t want to be around in 3 years time.
The key to a work-life balance is different to everyone – I find running relaxing but I know that’s not the same for everyone. You need to find what’s right for you. I’m not going to dictate about how one should balance their life, rather the notion of balance itself is essential. Generally, you do need to do enough work to satisfy your natural academic curiosity, but if you find yourself hating what you do, then you’ve pushed yourself too far. We’re in this job for the love remember?! That limit could be 6 solid hours for one person, maybe 12 for someone else, but everybody does have a limit.
And this should not be pushed.