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#71: How to get a private life and a PhD

Do you struggle to maintain a private life while studying for a PhD degree? Is your PhD expanding indefinitely at the expense of everything else? We know how it feels to be overworked and out of balance. In this post we show you 6 ways to regain a personal life. 

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Many PhD candidates experience the exciting work they are doing spilling over and eating away at their private life! Are you among them? Working too many hours, taking work home, working on weekends and during holidays? These are common phenomenons. Some feel they can never rest because mentally they are always thinking about their research, and can’t switch-off their brain even during leisure time. Being stuck in your home-office during the Covid-19 crisis, or having fewer options to see others or take holidays might have exacerbated the problem in recent months. 

This blog post deals with the issue of not having a private life while studying for a PhD degree and working in science. I’ll also share my personal experience with working excessively, and how I managed to get my life back. 

If you feel you are overworked and exhausted, get our free worksheet ‘6-steps to regain your personal life’so you can start making improvements immediately. 

Feeling overworked and lacking a private life

Let me illustrate my point with a few quotes from PhD candidates who recently joined my new programme, the PhD Success Lab’. There, participants work intensely on the issues that lead them to a happier and healthier lifestyle, and a successful PhD completion and scientific career. If you want to hear more, sign up to our upcoming webinar “The 4 secrets to a successful PhD”.

Amanda (4th year PhD candidate)

“I work on too many projects at the same time and I am incredibly tired no matter how much I rest. I don’t manage to balance the amount of work I have with a healthy lifestyle. I work on my PhD all the time and as a result of this, I have had no balance between personal life (which is virtually none), and PhD life. Besides, lately I am physically and mentally exhausted.”

Hannah (3rd year PhD candidate)

“My entire work-life-balance is basically non-existent – I’d consider it a work-work-balance. I feel I need to make changes to my work-style to become more efficient in managing all my different tasks and to eventually get back some of my private life. My PhD progress was ‘gained’ on the expenses of my private life for the past three years and I do not want to keep this.”

Sven (3rd year PhD candidate)

“I can’t detach from my PhD also in my spare time and weekends. I can’t relax when I am not working on the important stuff for my PhD – I always think – I can’t relax until this is done.” 

Li (2nd year PhD student)

“Academia has no fixed times. Hence, you bring work home for Saturdays and Sundays. If I do not work on weekends, I feel I am a fraud. Because of this vicious circle, some weekdays I do not work well either and hence I also feel guilty.”

Do you recognise the patterns here? Are these situations you also find yourself in? Get our free worksheet ‘6-steps to regain your personal life’ to start working out how to improve your work-life balance! 

What’s the problem

High workload

The workload of PhD students or researchers often is simply too high. That means even with superhuman-powers, one could not complete it all in the work hours available. It’s not possible to accomplish everything work-related and have a more fulfilling lifestyle. The most common response to a high workload is to expand the working hours, and thus to cut down on the fun stuff outside work. We’re all brought up to think that work must be done before we ‘deserve’ to play! 

Feeling guilty

I’ve come across this time and time again when discussing with PhD candidates. Some feel constantly guilty when not working, taking time off, or sticking to normal working hours. They don’t dare take a weekend entirely off, or go on holidays. And if they do, they feel it was ‘wrong’ and that they should’ve been working. The underlying issue here is an inherent belief or work-ethic that makes you think that you can only get a PhD degree by working around the clock, and that you have to sacrifice everything else. 

Can’t detach

This happens when your brain is so used to focusing on your research that there’s no room for anything else anymore. You can’t stop thinking (and often worrying) about aspects of your work, PhD project, latest paper, next meeting with your supervisor, etc. Your thoughts constantly circle around the same issues, and have become so entrenched that you can’t break the cycle, even when you are outside work, at home, and actually want to enjoy yourself. 

Most PhD candidates really wish to have more of a private life, and they would like to make changes. But they feel trapped in the PhD rat race and don’t know how to get out. If you want to hear more about how to establish efficient work-patterns and enjoy a good life, sign up to our webinar ‘The 4 secrets to a successful PhD’. 

Why do PhD candidates have trouble maintaining a private life?

Research is exciting

Your work is thrilling! It’s fun and rewarding! It is the exact opposite of a menial job running from 7am-4pm where you can’t wait until the day is over. You love to do the exciting tasks in your PhD project, and you can’t wait until you have analysed your data and you can see the first results. Besides that, you are engaged in exciting collaborations with like-minded scientists – why should you stop at 4pm?

Academic work is never ending

You could continue 24/7 with your research. There’s never an end. By the time you have found the solution to one problem, a number of others have manifested themselves. While you move one project to the finish line, you are already preparing multiple others. When you have submitted one research paper, you’re already working on the next. There are no closing hours either. It’s not like the entire work group leaves the institute at a certain time since there’s always one who starts earlier than you and another one who stays later – implying feelings of ‘I should do the same . . .’

You can always improve

Surely you are an ambitious scientist who always strives for the best possible result. You know that doing a PhD is not easy, so you are fastidious about the level of quality you want to achieve. Delivering a perfect result takes time – and many extra hours. Maybe your striving for excellence has turned into perfectionism? Perfectionists apply the same high standards to each and every task – even those where high quality is not required and a ‘quick-and-dirty’ job would do the trick. See our blog post #69 about perfectionism

Pressure

Science is highly competitive, and pressure is all around in an academic environment. Apart from that, PhD candidates often have excessively high expectations for themselves regarding the workload they are able to take on. Thus, they put themselves under pressure regarding the hours they should work. There is a common belief among PhD candidates that you have to work long hours to be successful. 

Apart from this self-imposed pressure, there’s also peer-pressure, and pressure from some supervisors and bosses who might have built their own career on hard work and personal sacrifice. And there’s the occasional supervisor who does make it very clear that work during weekends is part of the job (Boyle 2015)

My personal experience

My personal brush with overworking came when I worked as a lecturer for the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. After working hard for my PhD and during my postdoc at Roskilde University in Denmark, and having held research positions at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, my career was on an upward trend, and I had gained some international recognition as a promising researcher in my field. To hear more about my experiences during my PhD years, listen to my story “Why I teach PhD candidates how to succeed” . In short: I loved my work at the university, the exciting international collaborations I participated in, and my students. All the efforts I had made over the years finally seemed to pay off. 

I enjoyed every bit of life as an academic. I said yes to every offer to speak at a conference or new project to join. And I always made sure to deliver good quality. I painstakingly prepared every presentation I gave, I rigorously edited every paper I wrote, and extensively prepared every seminar I taught. I worked every day from dawn to dusk, and my holidays were the conferences I attended. Everything was fun and exciting, until the day I realised that I could not keep up that workload any longer, and that my life outside work was basically non-existent. 

From that point on, I decided to make a few significant changes in my life. I stopped working on the weekends entirely, and instead planned long hiking trips to the Scottish highlands or along the coast. Walking for hours along a Glen was a great way to calm my mind, and to stop myself from thinking about work. This is something I continue doing to this day. I also treated myself to shopping sprees on Sunday mornings (bliss) instead of editing papers, and I joined the university sports club for weekly Yoga classes. Soon I looked forward to my spare-time activities so much that I longed for the workday or workweek to end. I had realised that there was something else that was more fun! I would speed up my work so it was done by the time I wanted to leave, and I became super selective about any new project or initiative I took on. 

How to regain a personal life

Below I outline a few steps you can take to achieve a better work-life balance. If you want all the details, get our free worksheet ‘6 steps to regain your personal life’. 

  1. Keep a time log so you know how many hours you spend working.
  2. Decide how many hours you want to work per week and how you distribute these hours over the workdays. 
  3. Establish non-negotiable ground rules. These should include your weekly working hours, keeping weekends work free, and that you take holidays. 
  4. Find activities you truly enjoy so you have something to look forward to outside work. Plan for 1-2 during the week and for the weekend.
  5. Find out what helps you to detach right after work. A short deliberate time-span to unwind is all you need. 
  6. Re-think your work habits. Are you as efficient as you can be during working hours? Are you focused on your goals? If necessary, improve the way you work. 

Sign up for our free webinar ‘The 4 secrets to a successful PhD’, in which I will also share more information about my new programme, the PhD Success Lab where you receive detailed mentoring to help you to get both a good life and a PhD degree! 

Conclusion

Overworking and losing your personal life is an incremental process that creeps up behind you. If you already feel that you are unhappy with your work-life balance, that you have an issue with working too much, or you can’t think about anything but work anymore, take action now! 

You can have both! Getting a PhD degree and having a private life is possible. The old notion of ‘you’ve got to give up everything if you want a scientific career’ is not true. It’s actually the opposite: If you have sufficient spare-time and holidays so you are well-rested when you arrive for work, you’ll be more focused, and you’ll do better work. The happier you are, the better your PhD will be! 

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