Career Options PhD Life The Industry Mindset

Redefining a healthy work-life balance for your PhD and beyond.

Identifying what a healthy work-life balance is integral to having long-term career happiness. PhDs find themselves with poor working hours which comes at a cost. Certainly, work-life balance should be a key consideration when making career choices.

Throughout this blog we mentioned the idea of a healthy work-life balance a few times. It’s a relatively easy term to understand and digest but it still means different things to different people – or at least the ‘healthy’ part does. As part of the academic journey, we can develop misconceptions around what a healthy work-life balance is, we may end up justifying the long hours for some additional incentive, such as pay, location, the title, or research for research’s sake. Here in this post, we’ll spend more time focusing on work-life balance, how to define it and to get it clear in our minds what we want and need to thrive. Once we know what we want, it’s substantially easier to identify the appropriate career path for after your PhD.

When we think about work-life balance it’s probably best to start with the typical working hours as our reference point – the usual 9am – 5pm schedule. This is the most typical set up for most organisations and careers, however it’s not unheard of to have an 8:30am – 5pm, or a 9am – 5:30pm work schedule. In essence, the general set up for most is an 8hour workday, plus or minus 30minutes to an hour. It’s also super important to stress that this occurs during the day, working an 8hour workday through the night is likely to have a different impact to your work-life balance.

As we outline this schedule, do you think you’re operating similar hours during your PhD? If you are, then that’s great and the transition away from academia (unless you decide to stay put) is likely to be a lot smoother. However, if you’re operating on different hours to this, why might that be? Are you working over-time? Typically, PhD students work way more than 8 hours a day for a range of different reasons. The sheer workload, imposter syndrome and making sure you want to appear capable, the pressure to publish, or as a means to manage your supervisor by soothing their wild demands, are a few of the reasons why it happens. Our lives are finite, and time is the one of the very few resources that are definitive which cannot be recuperated later. Spending 10-12 hours a day or investing surplus time is likely to be required in the short term, for completing a PhD, but it’s likely to come at some cost. This usually comes in the form of less social time, compromised well-being, reduced time with family and friends, and just less time in general to invest into things that matter – like hobbies, self-care, your well-being or other interests.

The purpose of this post then is to challenge your current work-life balance, ask you to reflect on your routines and to ask you if what you’re doing is sustainable and/or contributing to your happiness? It goes without saying, a short-term sacrifice is certainly required to complete a PhD, which is maybe more acceptable because it is short term. However, as we look to finishing the PhD, we need to really ask ourselves if this is sustainable. This is usually one of the driving factors to not do a post-doc or at least remain in academia. Based on this point, two general arguments unfold.  

Firstly, long hours suck, and a work-life balance is super important so rather than staying on in the academic world, it makes sense to transition to another career or role that provides a better, more respectable, work-life balance in order to recuperate (or at least stop sacrificing) all those important things that were missed during the completion of the PhD. No longer working weekends might mean you can take up martial arts or baking. You get the idea.  

The second argument is more around the work-pay ratio. Essentially, if you’re working 10–12-hour days consistently, putting in weekend shifts, or just doing a lot of overtime, it would make more sense to be rewarded or paid for it. If you were to work just as hard but for 10% – 30% more income, wouldn’t you take it? This is a strong selling point depending on your post-PhD salary goals and is sometimes why a lot of academics end up in careers like consulting – partly because it’s long hours but you’re reimbursed generously for it.

Of course, your work-life balance doesn’t occur in isolation and your job or career happiness is a holistic combination of your work-life balance, income, the type of work you’re doing, having an impact (if this is important to you), learning new things, the people you work with, company benefits (such as healthcare/health insurance), and so on. This is often why it’s hard to evaluate what we want and whether leaving academia, or staying, is right for us. To really begin to take ownership of your career and your life in general, it’s integral to begin to unpick and identify what your core values are. In turn this can help you identify and seek careers that align with these set of values. Consequently, this will result in you building a career that is fulfilling and makes you happy. It sounds kind of obvious, but you’d be surprised how many people pursue careers that aren’t fulfilling and don’t make them happy.  From a quick Google search, as high as 85% of people feel miserable and disengaged from work.

It’s important we start embracing that saying of “we work to live and not live to work”, as this mindset is likely to influence and dictate your career decisions – move you towards living it more fully. As academics, the narrative is usually to be a scientist or a researcher, and this gives us fuel to do those extra hours. At this stage, ‘living’ is working. But there’s more things in this world than academia, and it’s important we aim to strike a balance between working, doing things we love, contributing to changing the world we live in, and all the other infinite things you can invest your time in (such as family, hobbies, and interests).

All in all, as we progress through our life and careers it’s important, we seek to balance our working hours with the rest-of-our-life hours. For everyone, this is going to look slightly different, and we’ll justify different working hours based on a collection of different reasons. However, when we get to the end of the PhD we’re provided with an opportunity to make a conscious decision on how we want to sculpt and build our career and subsequently life. How many hours do you feel is acceptable in a typical working day? What would you like to do more of if you had the time?

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