What NOT to do when trying to balance academia and life

From the outside, the life of an academic appears idyllic: leisurely strolls through leafy campuses or vibrant city streets on your way to class, reading classics into the wee hours of the night, chatting with colleagues over cappuccinos, travelling to conferences in exotic locations and summers off to do as you please. For those of you in the trenches, though, you are likely well aware of the various threads that are constantly being tugged as you try to keep the fabric of your work-life balance intact. This is especially tough when you are still a PhD student or starting out your career as a young professor.

Academia can be all-encompassing but it shouldn’t. Certainly, the goal is to become the ultimate specialist in your field, the expert, the one to whom others defer when a certain topic arises. However, research shows that optimal academic performance might actually suffer if you neglect the other spheres of life: physical, mental and emotional wellbeing.

Overworking does not equate to extreme productivity.

A recent survey by ecrLife among early career researchers, for example, found that 60% worked 8-10 hours per day and more than 25% worked 10-12 hours per day. The constant pressure to publish, to identify funding, to teach, to meet departmental obligations; all of these demands expand to fill up your schedule until there are no boundaries between work and home, and this pattern becomes normalised. This is when any sense of work-life balance is thwarted.


How do you avoid these traps?


1. Do not neglect your social life

“All work and no play make Jack a dull boy”

Regardless of your career stage, your academic path is unlikely to be without some bumps along the way, and social support in the form of friends and family is crucial when navigating this rough terrain. Try to ensure some weekend time is devoted to socialising.

This does a lot for changing perspective, it helps to get distance from the expectations and pressures experienced in the world of academia. On top of that, it’s essential to spend time with people who do not work in the academic context.

University campuses are renowned for their buzzing social life and entertainment options, whether it’s live music, sport, theatre, museums or just a lively café. Get out from behind the books and the laptop and notice the world around you. If you have a partner or family, make sure you devote time to them and share a part of their everyday lives.

Engage with colleagues. Nurturing these relationships is good for the soul and good for your career. A number of psychological studies have shown that even the perception of social support can bolster a person’s ability to deal with stress and help build success, too. And for those who are underrepresented in any way and have to fight harder for their visibility – women, PoC, people with disabilities, alliances and fellow supporters are central to balancing out structural inequalities.


2. Do not sacrifice your physical health

A healthy body = a healthy mind

Of course, your work is important. And, how blessed are you to have found a vocation where your passions can find expression. But your heart needs more than words and ideas; it needs aerobic activity. More and more scientific studies are showing the intricate relationship between physical exercise, immunity and mental wellbeing. Determining how much exercise you need each day is up to you, and your doctor, but if you’re smart enough to get a PhD, you’re smart enough to know how important physical health is.

Make sure that you allocate time to exercise and that this time is sacred. If a colleague or student absolutely must have a meeting, do not allow these obligations to subvert your commitment to wellness.

Sleep, too, is essential. While you may be tempted to carve out a couple of extra hours for work by sleeping less, sleep deprivation can have serious effects on your physical health and your mental performance.


3. Do not ignore your mental health

Stop burning the candle at both ends

Speaking of mental health, whether you are a graduate student or an academic, keep an eye open for warning signs of burnout. Be extremely wary of turning to substances, like alcohol, tobacco or performance-enhancing drugs, to either help you focus or help you relax. It can be a slippery slope. Academic burnout is a recognised phenomenon, and there are strategies and resources to minimise and overcome the effects.

Give yourself a break: distraction is actually good for you. Innovation and new ideas, a keystone for research and advancing the field no matter where your interests lie, often arise in novel situations. Sitting in front of the computer for 14 hours a day does not allow for these moments of inspiration to take place.


If you need help, reach out

Most university campuses have a range of resources that can help you be alert to and balance these many demands on your time, space and attention.

  •     If you can’t seem to focus on your writing, join a writers’ workshop. Need help prioritising? Book a professional coaching session.
  •     Seek out a jogging/walking/cycling/hiking group on campus. If you don’t want to exercise with colleagues or students, reach into the local community in which your university is located.
  •     Try the health centre if you need a mental wellness check or someone to talk to. Support groups, helplines or just a friendly shoulder to rest on can make the world of difference.

Keep in mind it is quite likely that you are not alone. It may well do you, and your colleagues, students and peers, a service to bring this constant struggle to everyone’s attention. Changing the atmosphere and expectations in the work environment needs to be a group effort.

Of course, achieving a healthy work-life balance often depends on the skills of prioritisation and time management. If you’re too busy to do the research (you’re not), try taking a few simple steps:

  •     Learn to say no
  •     Know your limitations
  •     Draw boundaries
  •     Be in the moment

Remember the bigger picture: compromising your mental, emotional and physical health is never worth it. And keeping it all in balance is actually good for you and your career.


Unsplash 2021 / image: Yayan Sopian