Maintaining Work-Life Balance During a PhD

maintaining a work-life balance while doing a post-graduate degree

After the painstaking process of drafting your research proposal, finding the best university to suit your research needs and enduring the anxiety of the application process, you’re finally a doctoral student staring down the barrel of a multi-year academic marathon.  

Many new PhD students make the mistake of treating it as more of a sprint when they embark on their PhD journey, which can last up to four years for full-time students or seven years for part-time students and become overwhelmed, which highlights the importance of keeping a healthy pace, not jumping the gun, and maintaining a healthy work-life balance.

This article will highlight the necessity of ensuring you’re not burning the candle at both ends, provide actionable tips to avoid burnout and offer support suggestions if you feel you can’t cope with the pressures of your academic life. It is important to remember that there is no one-size-fits-all answer on how you should approach your daily, weekly, or even annual schedule. You may find that in the beginning, it is a process of trial and error as you figure out the most effective and productive routine to make the process less of a chore and more of a gratifying pursuit.

maintaining a work-life balance

The Importance of Maintaining Work-Life Balance During a PhD

Many PhD students struggle to find the balance between academic success and overall well-being, as PhD programs offer degrees of flexibility which are scarcely seen in other walks of academic life.

Unlike taught degrees, with PhDs, there are no lectures, seminars, exams, or essays to plan academic life around; this relative freedom can often lead to blurred lines between work and life and students feeling as though they’re not progressing at the pace they should be as there is still mountains of work to be done by the time you submit your thesis. 

Though it is hard to strike an optimal balance between life’s demands, it isn’t impossible to achieve and maintain a healthy work-life balance by setting boundaries, finding effective ways to manage stress and prioritising.

How to Maintain a Work-Life Balance During a PhD

How to Set Work-Life Boundaries 

Even if your PhD is your number one priority, it is crucial to set boundaries between your academic and your personal life. Your weekly schedule should always make time for friends and family, engaging in hobbies and taking regular breaks. To set clear boundaries and ensure your time as a PhD student is rewarding, set aside time to focus on your well-being between your study and writing sessions.

Discover Why Prioritisation Is Key 

Maintaining a work-life balance during a PhD is more than time management; it is also about managing energy and nurturing the mind as your knowledge advances. You can’t pour from an empty intellectual cup; even if grabbing a coffee with your friends, heading to the gym, or practising mindfulness meditation doesn’t get more words on a page or help you to make a breakthrough with your research, it can be beneficial in the long run. When creating a prioritised schedule, allocate specific blocks of time to your academic tasks and personal activities.

Set Aside Time for Stress Management 

During your time as a PhD student, it is crucial to remind yourself that self-care isn’t a luxury; it is a necessity which keeps you orientated towards laying a foundation of good mental and physical health. Whichever stress management technique works for you and provides you with the most respite, always make time for it within your weekly routine. Whether it is venting to your friends, going for a walk, or taking the time to listen to your body and mind before responding with kindness during mindfulness meditation, ensure you have enough stress-eliminating activities in your diary. Never skip on the self-care fundamentals by ensuring you get enough sleep and exercise, and that you follow a diet which gives you the mental energy to tackle your academic workload.

Change Your Perception of Productivity

If you solely measure productivity in terms of work output, you may want to rethink how you perceive productivity, as it is so much more than a measure of hours at the helm; it is about navigating your tasks and schedule with maximum efficiency. A great way to ensure optimal efficiency is by using techniques, such as the Pomodoro Technique, which recommends following 25-minute stints of work with a five-minute break. You might also want to try setting realistic goals and coming up with rewarding ways to celebrate reaching them. This will boost your morale and anchor a sense of achievement. 

Know the Signs of Burnout and How to Counteract Them 

The most common signs of burnout include feelings of reduced accomplishment, cynicism, irritability, exhaustion, detachment, feeling overwhelmed or fuelled with self-doubt and being more prone to procrastination. In minor cases of burnout, providing enough time for replenishing leisure activities is usually enough to counter the warning signs. In more severe cases of burnout, which leaves you feeling you can’t cope with the stress, communicate this with your PhD supervisor or seek mental health support. 

How and When to Seek Help

In 2021, Nature Journal announced anxiety and depression are ‘the norm’ for UK PhD students. In the same year, a band of UK universities, including the University of Sussex, revealed that 42% of PhD students surveyed self-reported mental health issues. Rather than accepting poor mental health as par for the course, it is crucial for students to seek support. Whether that be from a UK counselling service or one of the numerous helplines and organisations dedicated to supporting students.

If you need help cultivating a lifestyle which facilitates academic success without compromising your health or happiness, reach out to your university’s support services, such as wellness programmes or student counselling. Additionally, the charity Student Minds and The National Union of Students (NUS) offer guidance and advice, which is tailor-made for postgraduate students. The British Psychological Society also provides avenues for support for students looking to maintain their mental health during their doctoral studies.

Final Thoughts

By valuing self-care, knowing your limits when it comes to staying productive without overexerting yourself and ensuring there is enough time for rest, relaxation, socialising, and other enjoyable pursuits which leave you energised and academically inspired, it is entirely possible to negate the PhD process with your well-being intact. Always remember that researching and writing your PhD is a journey, it is not just about the destination, as much as your eye wants to remain on the doctoral title prize.

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