Research Lives and 'Regular' Lives
Before I started my research degree, I was very much the type of student who took my work home with me. Of course, working two jobs and taking several classes a week made this kind of a necessity. But when I started my research degree, I was told to not be surprised if it required the same amount of energy (and even more self-discipline) as having a full-time job. I quickly realised that this was 100 percent true and that, if I wasn’t careful, it could also take over my entire life.
Research degrees are unique because, quite often, they don’t come with a set schedule for students. For the most part, we make our own hours, we decide when we write, read, etc. Of course, this has its advantages, as it allows flexibility for those who work, have children and/or live far away from their university. As a person who works best on a firmly scheduled timetable, however, I at first found that the flexibility worked to my disadvantage. I didn’t know how much time I was expected to put toward my research each day, so I just kind of . . . always worked. I began making my life about my research instead of making my research a part of my life.
Photo by Austin Chan on Unsplash
It wasn’t until I had a massive anxiety attack that I realised I needed to take better care of how I was scheduling my time. The three weeks before this happened, I’d been working in the library from 9-7 every day except Sundays. I rarely took any breaks, wasn’t eating proper meals and was absolutely consumed with my research and writing. I had convinced myself that the longer I worked and the more days I put in, the better my work would be. Unsurprisingly, I was completely wrong.
The anxiety attack was a wake-up call. So I listened to it. I came up with a schedule that allowed me to separate my research life from my ‘regular’ life while also ensuring I was completing my work at an acceptable level. I should stress that this was not easy. I was so used to constantly working that at first I felt like I was just being lazy. But the changes I made vastly improved both my mental health and my academic work. I no longer allow myself to work on my research (academic reading, writing, emails, etc.) after 5PM on weekdays or at all on the weekends unless it is absolutely necessary. I separate my workloads so that I can work on different areas of research without getting overwhelmed by any one of them. This largely consists of making ‘To-Do’ lists a regular part of my day – seeing what I’ve accomplished each day makes it easier for me to leave my work behind guilt-free and helps me keep track of what I might not be working on enough. (If you’re interested in how to get the most out of To-Do lists, my fellow blogger Steph wrote a post over just that!)
While I understand that working from home is sometimes the only option available or is actually what some people prefer, I make it a habit to not work on my research at home. I’m able to do this mostly because I live close to campus and now have an allocated study space. But even before I had a study space, I found working at home to be a major hindrance when it came to separating myself from my work. I like my home to be a stress-free zone, where I binge TV shows and relax. For some reason (probably my lack of will-power), my mind and body are actively against any form of research-related work at home.
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash
Because I need this separation, I like to think of myself as having two different lives that sometimes intermingle but never overwhelm one another. When I’m in my office or at the library or archives, I am 100 percent invested in my research life: I don’t bring non-research related books with me to read and I try to limit my social media wanderings to lunchtime. But when I’m at home, with friends or on holiday, I try my best to, in a sense, forget about my work and be (again) 100 percent in the moment. Obviously I can’t completely turn off the research part of my life, but I can turn the volume down a bit. When I’m in my ‘regular life’ mode, my non-research related books are all I read, I catch up on shows that I follow, I go out with friends. All things that probably seem very normal to everyone, but that can easily get lost in the mix when you start a research degree. The best way for me to not forget about these things is to separate them a bit from my work atmosphere.
There is no one way to find balance between your research life and your ‘regular’ life, so what works best for me might not work for someone else. But it is important that all researchers know it’s OK, healthy even, to need there to be a clear separation. Take a research-free holiday! Don’t look at your emails over the weekend! Do what brings the best out of you, so that, when you’re ready, you can bring your best to your research and your work.
For more insight and advice on how to deal with PGR anxiety or work/research balance, take a look at Adriana’s post on Struggling with Stress or Steph’s post on The Worst Day of her PhD — because you’re definitely not alone! There are also several outlets at the university that you can reach out to for help or more information.