When imagining the life of a PhD student, you might think of a lonely figure performing experiments late at night, fuelled by microwave meals and coffee. This was at least the impression I received while I was applying for PhD positions, and sadly it was the reality for many of my peers. I knew this kind of lifestyle would make me unhappy and I could not manage 3+ years of working like that. So, how can it be avoided?
There is now momentum driving a change in research culture within the UK. The Royal Society and the Wellcome Trust have both launched initiatives to change the environment in which researchers are expected to work (https://royalsociety.org/topics-policy/projects/research-culture/ and https://wellcome.ac.uk/what-we-do/our-work/research-culture). Improving the culture of research will have benefits for scientists and science alike, they argue, as our field will become more inclusive, honest and creative. These organizations want us to have a work–life balance and to move away from the damaging results-at-any-cost attitude. Though their focus is on researchers at all stages of their careers, a shift in culture is especially important for those of us at the start of an academic career. PhD students across the globe have much higher levels of reported mental health problems than in the general population, including high levels of anxiety (https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-03489-1). While the reasons for this are likely numerous, overworking and the expectation to work long hours definitely contribute to the stress levels felt by PhD students.
Top-down initiatives from academic societies and funders will take a long time to change attitudes in departments and research groups. Is there anything that we can do as individual students to ensure a good work–life balance for ourselves?
Firstly, I should acknowledge that a large factor in me having a good work–life balance was due to having a supervisor who supported that very thing. The principle investigator often drives the working culture in their laboratory. If you are applying for a PhD, asking other members of the lab about working hours and expectations is an important way to find out what life in that lab could be like. Another good tell is if the group employs people with young children. Parents are only likely to be able to work in that environment if the boss understands their need to go home at reasonable hours.
Regardless of whether you are choosing a lab for your PhD or if you are already settled in one, the atmosphere of the lab is only one factor in your happiness at work. There are plenty of personal measures you can take to ensure a good work–life balance. We all need to stop feeling guilty when we are not working. Taking a break is essential. Research is hard work; it is tiring to maintain the high level of concentration required to plan and execute experiments well. You need time to decompress and relax. I found physical exercise to be a really great way to recover from my mental efforts. The benefits of exercise both for your physical and mental health are well known. It is a real bonus if it is a team sport and you get to talk to other people about things other than your work, but any amount of exercise is good for you (https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/exercise/). Just because you are not training for a marathon does not mean that walk is worthless!
Sport and exercise are not the only reasons to get out of the lab and enjoy your free time. Your own interests and hobbies are important too, as is seeing friends and family. Unwinding by bingeing Netflix shows is a perfectly valid and beneficial use of an evening. That is not to say that I never worked an evening or weekend; due to the nature of the experiments performed by life scientists, time points for harvesting samples often do not fit in the standard 9-to-5/Monday-to-Friday working week. PhD students must help each other and avoid engaging in ‘competitive working’. Do not make your colleagues feel like they should be in late just because your experiments dictate the need for you to be there. Regular evenings and weekends at the bench can be very lonely and draining, contributing to self-doubt, anxiety and exhaustion. I would recommend planning your experiments to fit with the normal working week where possible. And if you do have to stay late, reward yourself with an early finish one Friday.
In addition to the benefits to your personal well-being, your research needs you to have a break too. When you are well rested, you think more clearly. When you take time off performing laboratory tasks, you gain an opportunity to put your results in perspective and think about your research question more broadly. Conversely, when you burn the midnight oil performing experiment after experiment, you have no time to pause and think about whether you have included all the right controls, whether an additional time point would be really useful or if a different approach would give clearer results.
This idea of time off to benefit your research applies not just to working unsociable hours, but to extended breaks as well. One of the most beneficial 2 weeks of my PhD was a holiday I took straight after a conference. During this time, I answered no emails and read no papers. Instead, I was active every day in the sunshine and visited some very beautiful places. When you include the conference time as well, it meant I had been out of the lab for over 3 weeks. I came back totally refreshed and remotivated to do my research. I had clear ideas about what I needed to do, and I had the energy to put the ideas into practice. Other students around me have also found great benefit in relatively long holidays – a weekend break might not be sufficient to totally unwind. So, take a real holiday, not defined by the destination, but by being with those you can relax with, be it a partner, friends, family or even alone, and allow yourself to forget about your lab work.
While rest and relaxation benefit you and your research, your diet will too. There are obvious health implications associated with what you eat – but I am more passionate about the benefits of eating meals together with your colleagues during the day. Eating with other people has documented positive impacts on your sense of well-being and satisfaction (www.ox.ac.uk/news/2017-03-16-social-eating-connects-communities). Lunch with your peers will give you a break during the middle of the day and deepen the bonds with your colleagues. It is so much nicer to work in a place where you like the others around you, and these connections will mean that your colleagues are more likely to help you out both now and in the future. Meanwhile, a desk lunch is lonely and not really a break from work at all. Nutritionists would say that breakfast is the most important meal of the day – for me, it is lunch.
Work smarter, not harder – a well-worn phrase you might have heard before. There are lots of ways that you can be more productive during normal working hours. Your university might run some training courses that focus on productivity, and there are lots of tips online. Take the time to learn at what point during the day you work the best – these hours might be different now to when you were completing your undergraduate degree. Then, prioritize your tasks. Perform those that require the greatest concentration levels, or are due urgently, during these ‘golden hours’. For me, I could focus extremely well between 8 am and 10 am, and performed a large proportion of my experimental work during this time. I would make lots of errors in the afternoon, so I avoided starting new lab work here (and usually went home at 4 pm). When it came to my thesis, I prioritized writing during the golden hours and left other tasks for later.
Learning to prioritize will complement other tools, like limiting your access to social media while at work (I blocked the websites during my normal working hours) and effective planning of your experiments to suit these hours. This last point will be especially helpful after you have been working in the lab for a while, and understand how long a given protocol takes you. Gantt charts are a common tool used for the kind of project management PhD students need to do, and any form of this, be it a diary, a PowerPoint file or a spreadsheet, can help.
It is important to remember that a PhD is not a sprint– it is more like the Tour de France. Rest days, cruising in the peloton, tyre changes, food intake and a strategy are all necessary to succeed, not simply make it to the end. Research culture will change over the next decade, and by removing the pressures to always be working, I think scientists and the science we produce will both see great benefits.
Elizabeth Elder has recently completed her PhD in Virology at the University of Cambridge, Department of Medicine. She is now a researcher at The Public Health Agency of Sweden. Email: email@example.com