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Achieving a healthy work–life balance as a graduate student

27 October 2020

After-work hobbies, days off, and an occasional vacation are important strategies for maintaining mental health.

This article is the third in a series of essays written by Black physicists and co-published with Physics World as part of #BlackInPhysics Week, an event dedicated to celebrating Black physicists and their contributions to the scientific community and to revealing a more complete picture of what a physicist looks like.

As a graduate student in physics, I’ve learned that the work–life balance during your graduate career can look different from how it did in your undergraduate life. Graduate school in physics is hard, and it’s extremely important to make sure that you’re giving yourself time to enjoy things outside of school to recharge yourself.

Amber Lenon.
Photo courtesy of Amber Lenon

During the first few years this might be a little difficult with all the classes and, depending on your program, research and service work. I definitely struggled to balance everything. But finding a balance is critical because the stress of doing work all the time can start to have negative effects on you. Sometimes they’re tangible and sometimes they’re not.

Since stress affects people in different ways, it’s important to recognize what happens to you. For me, during my first few years of graduate school, I mostly felt like I was going through the motions. I was extremely busy with classes and qualifying exams, and the workload started to take its toll on me. I started to sleep extremely poorly. I would get eight hours of sleep and feel like I got four.

Luckily, my fellowship at West Virginia University required service work, and I found a volunteer opportunity coaching soccer, which I really enjoy. Growing up I had watched my brothers play soccer and had eventually started playing too. I played throughout high school and into college until suffering an injury. Through the network I created by coaching, I also began playing soccer again, something I hadn’t done in years.

Even if classes and research seem to take up all of your time, sometimes you have to make time. During my first few years of graduate school, I made a point of taking one day off a week when I didn’t do anything except what I wanted to, be it video games, hanging out with my family, or reading. I also started asking my friends for help on homework if I was stuck. When I struggled through problems alone, I would start to doubt myself and feel like I didn’t belong in the field. I found that I could better understand the material if I laid out the steps for the problems with my friends, which reduced my stress.

It’s astounding to look back at my work–life balance during my undergraduate career, when for a period of time I wasn’t sleeping or eating well. Since then I’ve learned how my body reacts under too much stress and when I need to better balance my work and life. I realized what brought me peace and allowed me to re-center myself, and that occurred because I started to understand who I was as a person. Now I know that I’m balancing my work and life well when on my days off I’m not worrying about what I have to do during the week.

If I have to work on weekends (for conferences, research, and the like), then I take an equivalent amount of time off during the week. This is a valuable bit of advice I learned from one of my mentors. Although this is easier to do once you’ve finished classes and have a little bit more flexibility with your schedule, it’s always an important strategy for preventing burnout. It also makes me more productive, not less. When I start to burn out, sometimes it feels like I am giving 100%, but it’s only about 50% of what I can do when I’m not burned out.

Playing soccer.
The author (seated, third from left) started coaching and playing soccer during her studies at West Virginia University. Credit: Photo courtesy of Amber Lenon

Today my schedule is built around what works for me. I treat graduate school more like a 9-to-5 job, where I work only during specific hours. I make time to work out every day, because it allows me to focus on myself. My family is extremely important to me, and we are very close, so I try to talk with them almost every day, and once a week we play Dungeons and Dragons together remotely. We grew up playing that together in person, so it’s great to continue the tradition. After working, I try to spend part of my time every night reading, and I’ve recently found a lot of joy in cooking. Pursuing the things that bring you joy outside of work will help you maintain your mental health. Sometimes, though, even with a good work–life balance, you may find that you’re struggling to stay motivated. At that point, it might be a good idea to take a break and step back from research, classes, and work things, kind of like a vacation. You can discuss this with your adviser and find out how it will affect your progress in your program.

This happened to me about a year ago. I went through something traumatic, and at the time I thought I was handling it fine. But after conversations with my mentors, I realized I needed to take a total break. Afterward it was like a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders, and I felt at peace and motivated to start up research again. The trauma that I went through didn’t just disappear; it was something I dealt with even after my break, and it was the reason I ended up transferring from West Virginia to Syracuse University. I struggled a lot with making the decision to transfer, but I realized it was ultimately the best decision for me. Sometimes things just don’t work out in one area, and that’s okay.

Recognizing when I needed to take a break came hand in hand with evaluating my mental health. There are certain signs for me—getting nauseous while eating or not being able to determine what my emotions are—that mean I am in dire need of a break. If I can recognize the signs before I get to the point where I need a long break of a month or more, I can combat them by taking off just a few days to a week. Taking a break might make you feel like you’re going to fall behind and not be able to catch up, but I promise that won’t happen. You’ll feel revitalized and be more motivated to keep going.

Amber Lenon, a graduate student at Syracuse University, is studying gravitational waves from eccentric binaries.

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