Establishing balance: Part II

Welcome back, everyone! Thanks for checking out this week’s “Mindful Path to PhD.” Two weeks ago I touched on the topic of work-life balance in my post titled, “Establishing Balance.” As fate would have it, last week this topic was continuously brought up during my daily grind and it compelled me to write a second post. So, I have a big question for you… What’s with the stigma of work-life balance in graduate school? This past week, I attended a graduate student event on campus and heard one of my peers say, “there are some people in our lab who don’t work very hard… They leave so early!” I felt so upset about this judgmental statement and felt further agitated remembering the archaic notion that whoever spends the most number of hours in the lab is the best and most hardest working graduate student. Have you ever heard these statements or found yourself in the same scenario?

Let’s talk about this stigma. In my opinion, the notion that work-life balance is unattainable for graduate students is pretty messed up. Unfortunately, for many graduate students this is the reality. In the academic world, there are few checks-and-balances in place to ensure graduate students are being treated fairly and are studying in a healthy work environment. To further complicate the issue, each student’s scenario is different and largely dependent upon his or her advisor’s personality and what kind of lab dynamic has been fostered by the advisor. Lastly, the ambiguous demands of graduate school make it incredibly hard for students to know how much is enough and when they may benefit more from stopping at the end of a rough day and waiting to try again on a new day.

You might be wondering now, just like I found myself wondering last week, what can we do about this? My suggestion is let’s talk about it more often, and do so in an open and honest manner. The first place these discussions can be happening is peer-to-peer. Let’s encourage one another to develop a work-life balance and that it’s OK to do this. Having the support of fellow students will make it easier to go against the grad school norm. Additionally, I urge students to begin cultivating their own practice of mindfulness meditation. In my experience, mindfulness has helped me begin to quiet that judgmental voice that sometimes seems to act on auto-pilot, and in its place I’ve come to develop peace with simply observing something as it is. If mindfulness sounds like something you are interested in trying, I recommend downloading the freely available meditation app, Insight Timer, to begin your own journey. While you’re there, check out our group “Mindful Scholar” and go to my page¬†Mindful Scholars¬†here on my website for more info! Here’s to finding your zen, my fellow scholars!

Establishing balance

Happy Mid-Autumn day everyone! Fall is officially here, and it has inspired this week’s discussion about creating balance during graduate school. Living in New England (and being from Michigan), I’m used to nature being balanced: 4 seasons, sunshine and rain, wind and humidity. This past week was very unproductive in the lab and left me feeling down and cranky with myself for “slacking off”. The change of the season, along with another birthday passing by, helped me realize that graduate school is a time when we should begin to establish balance in our lives. And yes, I am talking about work-life balance.

As a PhD student, I feel like there is always something I should be doing. I should be checking recent literature in my area, writing (there’s always something that needs to be written), analyzing data, or thinking about what I should do next. However, working all the time is a recipe for burnout and fatigue. Graduate school years typically coincide with the young adult years when people are busy beginning to live their lives. I feel that during graduate school, as we naturally age, we no longer see our PhDs as “school”, but as the beginning of our careers. If grad school is the beginning of our careers, then it is very normal to begin focusing on other areas of our life and create a healthy work-life balance.

Unfortunately, from my perspective it seems that academia (and perhaps our American culture sometimes) emphasizes a work/career-centric lifestyle, often making it difficult to establish a healthy work-life balance without extraneous feelings of guilt. My journey in mindfulness has helped me seek balance in my lifestyle. Does that mean everyday is a 9-5 kinda day, unfortunately no… However, for me it means that I find acceptance in some days being work-focused and some days being “life” focused. Also, it means that I have become appreciative of achieving smaller goals that can be accomplished in a normal workday. Employing a mindful perspective throughout my day enables me to focus my energy when I’m being productive while allowing me to be friendly to myself when things are taking longer than expected to be finished. Please remember, living life is not only about reaching your desired destination, but is also about being present on the journey to get there.