Many early career scientists, graduate students and postdocs associate longer hours at work with productivity. Oftentimes, the number of publications and grants become a way to measure success in academia. In hopes of standing out from their peers, many scientists dedicate their efforts and time mostly on research, grants, and publications. It’s no surprise scientists struggle to find a work-life balance.
This is probably your ordinary Saturday routine as an early scientist: you run to the laboratory to split cells, take care of your animals for your experiments, and check your samples from your experiments. The more you work, the more experiments you get to finish. Your personal time will have to wait.
Obviously, longer hours at work contributes to research productivity, but scientists who work more hours are more likely to report stress and dissatisfaction with their workload (Jacobs and Winslow, 2004). Therefore, even if your priority is to achieve success in academic life, it is still necessary to care for your personal life.
How to Find Your Work-Life Balance
Maintaining the right balance between time for work and personal life is always a challenge. The solution for this problem is to create a set of realistic expectations at your workplace that matches your need for personal time. Below are some ways to help you find that balance:
Prioritize Your Tasks
Arrange tasks on your list based on their deadline. Put the tasks you need to finish immediately at the top. This list will give you an idea about your daily workload and your spare time for your personal life.
It’s possible your priorities might have to suddenly change. This would mean a strictly ordered list won’t be flexible enough for these changes.
Another list approach is to write a task down, and to the left, set a priority level between 1-3 (1 being the highest priority).
Manage Your Schedule Wisely
Try not to put too many activities in your agenda. It’s important that you set a time boundary for yourself. For example, you plan to be out of the lab by 5:30 pm. Now you have to be realistic about your approaches. Given the available time you have, how much do you really think you can accomplish? Keep in mind, it’s very easy to overestimate how much you can do, and forget all the interruptions and situations that come up during the day. So stay conservative about this. Things to remember are to prioritize lunch and post lab cleanup so that you can be out at the time you set.
Be More Selective
One thing to remember is that any time you agree to do something for other people, you are more likely to sacrifice your personal time to do it. This might happen a lot to you, particularly when you have too many projects with tight deadlines.
To be more selective during this busy time, you need to learn how to say ‘no’. For example, when someone asks your help, think about how this request can get you closer to your goal (for example learning a new skill). If this request causes a significant delay for you to finish your projects, then politely say ‘no’. When there is less amount of work on your schedule, use your free time at work to help others.
Identify What You Need
Self-care is essential for your physical and mental health. It includes getting enough rest, sleep or exercise, and eating healthy food when you need to eat. So, try to schedule your research experiments around your sleep time, lunch break, or exercise schedule. When you need to take a short vacation, check your institution’s policies for paid and unpaid leave. If you feel too stressed and overwhelmed, allocate time to talk to your mentor or seek a professional counselor.
Identify What You Enjoy
Sometimes when you get too busy, you have no spare time to do fun activities. Even so, it is very important to find time for an activity that helps you ‘complete’ yourself.
To do this, try to remember an activity you enjoy doing the most when you were younger. For example, some people choose to do some sports (such as swimming, basketball, or yoga) to keep their mind off their laboratory and refresh themselves.
If the lab has really overwhelmed you, it’s best to find simple activities that delight. For instance, a gentle hike.
Find Your Support System
When you put in long hours, you tend to miss family events or lose contact with your family members or friends. Furthermore, you might be “taking work home” mentally, which can make it harder to focus on meaningful conversation with family and friends. This can make you feel isolated and lonely without immediately realizing it. If possible, find time to reconnect with your family members or friends you haven’t contacted for a while.
Turn Off Work Mode
When you enter your personal time at home, try your best to not to think about your work anymore. This is probably easier to say than done. However, if you really have to use your personal time to do some work, set up in advance how long it should take and try not to go over this allocated time.
Juggling Family Life and Career
Parenthood is a special kind of challenge for scientists. The ability to take some time off for parents to care for sick kids or even after the birth of a baby depends on the institution, the funding agency, and the mentor—usually it is limited or none.
For example, nearly 44% of 66 institutions (polled by National Postdoctoral Association) in the U.S. provide no paid time off for externally funded postdoc mothers after giving birth (Ledford, 2017). For those with paid time off, the maternity leave often is too short, so some new mothers have no time to recover and bond with their newborn.
Below are some ideas to maintain work-life balance for early scientists with a baby or little children:
- Find out about the policy for a maternal/paternal leave and any personal leave to care for your sick child in your institution. Also, check if there are any limitations and any rooms for negotiation.
- Consult with your mentor to find a solution together about balancing research expectations with your family life.
- Prioritize your tasks, try to finish tasks as soon as you can, and politely say ‘no’ to tasks that you can’t do.
- Let your mentor or lab manager know when you have to pick up your baby or little child from the daycare due to illness.
- Manage your experiments efficiently, so you don’t have to sacrifice your family time.
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