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Work/Life Balance in Grad School: Been there, tried to do that

Young students are often taught the importance of balancing academic achievements and other aspects of life such as socializing, hobbies, and athletics. Achieving such balance becomes increasingly difficult as one progresses into college and eventually to graduate school. While spending time on coursework and lab work in graduate school is necessary for achieving success during a Ph.D.; so is finding time for activities outside the lab. The immense amount of creativity needed to excel in science is often only possible within the framework of a balanced lifestyle.

In the early stages of grad school, such a balance seems to be an impossible pipe dream. However, as scientists, we quickly learn that the key to a balanced life is a hierarchical prioritization of experimental and scientific tasks. Here are some tips from my time, as a Ph.D. student, struggling to find the elusive work/life balance:

  1. Usually, the menial tasks in science end up taking the most amount of time. For instance, many biological labs are centered around cell culture and in vitro techniques. Many of these techniques are relatively simple on paper, however, in practice can require optimization. Such optimization does not just add months to a Ph.D. but also plays havoc on the delicate work/life balance of a grad student. Training efficiently and watching video-articles describing such techniques would maximize one’s productivity in lab leaving more time for hobbies, activities and a well-rounded lifestyle.
  2. Working long hours should not be confused with efficiency and productivity. By training and working smarter, more time becomes available for big picture tasks such as: analyzing data, keeping up with the literature, and thinking about the direction of your research. These are legitimate and necessary aspects of science and must be treated as such.
  3. A common inefficiency in the lab is choosing the incorrect assay to answer your question of interest. There are thousands of techniques in the literature, many of which appear identical at first glance; but each may be nuanced to fit a specific application. Before choosing a technique and investing time and effort to develop and perform it, try comparing video-articles of related techniques. Additionally, you can read (and view) individual techniques and combine aspects of each into your own custom method. Such well-thought-out experimental selection and design can advance a project faster and leave graduate students with the time and energy to pursue their non-academic goals.
  4. Achieving equal amounts of academic achievement, personal growth, and recreation is possible but requires a well-designed and efficient plan. So, make a daily/weekly/monthly plan for yourself and schedule in both works and play into your grad school life. Graduate life won’t be easy by any means, but it can certainly be easier and more enjoyable if you begin with a well-devised plan.
  5. Take a break. Occasionally, give yourself some distance from the lab and your academic life. Try to keep at least one day of the week free to pursue your hobbies, interests, other passions and spend time with your friends and family. This will allow you to recharge yourself and be a more balanced academic and person.
  6. On a lighter note: As a supplemental means to manage the stress of graduate school, you may want to take the time to watch the JoVE video-article from Klatt et al, which focuses on managing the pressure of chronically high-stress work environments.

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