Maintaining Work-life balance during Ph.D. – Parichita Saha

Everyone would like to maintain a proper work-life balance to keep alive the much-required spark in their life. But when it comes to Ph.D. students, it often becomes a distant dream. Is it possible to strike a balance and maintain a healthy lifestyle for Ph.D. aspirants?

The answer to this depends on a number of factors – the field you are in, your project supervisor, and most importantly how you intend to lead your life. I have come across numerous individuals who feel that their work is life. For them, working 24*7 is synonymous with breathing. Then, there are the ones who can give their best only when they get breaks in between. For these people pursuing a hobby regularly helps them concentrate well at work. Having said that, we all have that one friend who stays in the lab every waking hour because (s)he cannot afford a break. What’s the end of this conundrum?

We need to understand the requirements to get a Ph.D. is different in different research areas. While some can work from home, many (mostly working in the natural sciences) have lab-based work. A PhD. program is where you do not have a set syllabus. You do not have a set of rules laid out for you that you can follow to achieve success. You have to rely heavily on the experiments and failures of students and scientists all over the world to dive into your work. This is not an easy task. You frame the unanswered question and try to solve it all on your own along with your supervisor’s guidance. To delve into the unknown needs loads of courage and a lot of patience. You have a question in hand which no one has solved before you and you have to tackle it based on your intelligence, hard work, and perseverance. Even the weekends become working days in most of the cases.

In such a scenario, initial failure is inevitable. When you constantly fail in getting good results from the experiments that you have designed over days (sometimes months) it is understandable if you start getting cranky, impatient, and short-tempered over time. Mental health is undoubtedly affected by our lifestyle changes. Students become sleep deprived because they spend every waking hour trying to obtain the desired results. Some students lose hope in such a condition and go into isolation. They stop having regular meals. They stop meeting friends. All tell-tale signs of mental breakdown. Then there is the need to finish the Ph.D. work within a stipulated time (5 years in our country). In case you fail to do so, you have to continue your work without fellowship beyond 5 years. Also, this is a time when you see your friends in other professions earning more than you and making constant improvements in life while you are still a student. Life becomes difficult. In such cases, you must divert attention to other areas regularly to have a regular life; because we all need to remember that work is only one part of our life. In such a seemingly difficult work environment that is full of uncertainties, is it possible to maintain a healthy social life?

We all must remember that we are in the field of research because we LOVE doing it and to do it properly, we need to stay in love with it. Love, as we all know, cannot evolve if we are unhappy. Our love for our work is what keeps us going. Everybody needs to figure out what routine fits them best. While some of us might want to work from early morning & others might prefer working late at night too.You should figure out what works best for you. This is an advantage of academia, isn’t it? We can choose our schedule and make it work and we should always make the most of it. Once we can identify our most productive time of the day, designing experiments and performing them in that slot becomes easy.

In my opinion it is good to take one day off in a week to unwind. To have it all, having a properly chalked out plan is important. Having a schedule ready for the upcoming week (or month) helps in focusing, which in turn, helps in effective time management giving you some time off in the week for yourself. Also, it is important to pamper yourself once in a while. Got a good result? Treat yourself to ice cream, celebrate your small victories because these are gonna sail you through this. Perhaps your experiment didn’t work? Maybe, you should go for that movie everyone has been talking about to relieve yourself of the stress. Got a good scolding from your PI? Why don’t you take a long nap today to refresh your mind? Identify your hobby, take some time out to pursue it. On the verge of crying this week? Maybe, you should visit that counselor and unburden your heart.

Parichita (2nd from left) along with her friends

We should remember to ask for help from our project instructors. They might be strict about your work ethics and work culture but they are our immediate family, away from home and they do want the best for us. Good mental health is a pre-requisite for achieving success in any field. When you are at the verge of labeling yourself as the most stupid Ph.D. student you have ever met, a word of appreciation from your peers or people unknown for that wonderful sketch of yours; or for that difficult note that you hit during the song or for that elegant dance move will do wonders for your confidence. We are a combination of different abilities that we have and we should remember to not mold ourselves into a single box. We should also not judge ourselves on a single ability. When we accept our strengths and flaws, it gets easier to get into a healthy lifestyle.

A little act of kindness will go a long way. You are encouraged to google “Random acts of kindness” after reading this piece. This will likely change a lot of equations in your life

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