Combating workaholism during your PhD

With the multiple pressures that PhD students face, workaholic behaviour isn’t uncommon in academia. Jenny shares three ways of cultivating work-life balance.

While I was doing my PhD, I wouldn’t have described myself as a workaholic. Now as an early career researcher, many friends, including fellow PhDs, would probably disagree. I don’t blame them since I seem to exhibit the signs: long hours at work, little rest, not having great work-life balance.

While I’d consider myself a hard worker, rather than a workaholic, I recognise that I do display workaholic behaviour, as we all can do at some point in our lives. Other examples of workaholic behaviour by fellow PhDs are: overscheduling work tasks such that they work till they drop (i.e. fall sick, get migraines), compulsively checking if their article has been accepted by a journal during personal time, sleeping overnight in the lab because they feel they don’t have enough time to finish their experiment, restricting their rest time to the bare minimum when they actually need more etc.

Speaking from personal experience and from that of my international PhD friends, the reasons underlying workaholic behaviour can be manifold. They don’t just have to do with one’s career ambitions, but also with personal life events, internal insecurities, cultural background, social and familial conditioning, and even the geopolitical environment one grew up in. Combine these factors with the fact that academia can normalise workaholism and we get a vicious cycle wherein working nonstop might seem to let us gain some control over many uncertainties when compulsive overwork reveals our struggle with handling uncertainty.

Yet working hard to shape the life you want and contribute meaningfully to society—something PhD students know well since our research projects tend to be something we feel invested in—is admirable and fulfilling. Combating workaholism, then, is about learning how to better balance our work with other life aspects, such that we consistently show up as our best selves for work and play.

Some ways I’ve tried to cultivate this balance include:

#1: Going with the flow of the academic year

Each work industry has its unique timeline and academia is no different. Adjusting to the peaks and troughs of the academic calendar, from the mad hecticness of term time to the isolating quietness of a near-empty campus during term breaks, and managing your workload alongside, can be a steep learning curve. During term time, many PhDs find themselves worrying: how can I do research when everything else (teaching, meetings, marking, admin) occupies my time and energy? This easily leads to overwork.

Perhaps it’s about learning to adapt to the ‘seasons’ of the academic calendar—recognising that there’s a time for research, a time for teaching, a time for attending conferences and expanding your network, a time for your own projects, and a time for rest and recovery. This mindset offers us perspective on the nature of academic work and allows us to mentally ‘forgive’ ourselves when we feel like we’re not doing all we should.

#2: Saying ‘No’

Or what I call ‘the art of cancelling appointments’. This might sound obvious, but as someone who finds it difficult to say ‘no’ to opportunities that come your way—especially as a PhD student eager to learn anything and everything—it’s easy to overcommit.

Many of us know that saying ‘no’ helps us prioritise our time and energy for our most important tasks. We just aren’t there yet. Alternatively, I’ve found cancelling commitments confidently and respectfully to be a useful skill to learn, as it rebalances our overuse of ‘yes’ and helps us gauge our limits.

#3: Recognising ‘Calendar Time’

Workaholism can involve the person viewing all his/her time as dedicated to work. This viewpoint isn’t uncommon for the PhD student, whose top priority for 3-4 years is to complete a complex research project, often under institutional and financial pressures. So he/she works and works until he/she inevitably burns out or breaks down.

To regain balance and perspective, try viewing time pragmatically, breaking it down to its composite units: years, months, weeks, days, hours. A calendar planner like Google Calendar is a great visual tool. Not only does it lay out time in a structured format, but used with calendar blocking, it also reminds us how many hours to allocate to work, play, and rest, thus managing the workaholic’s urge towards overwork.

Cultivating work-life balance as PhDs is, ultimately, an ongoing practice. Don’t be too hard on yourself along the way. Hopefully, these strategies can offer you some ideas to help you recalibrate your work with the other aspects of your life towards a greater harmony.


Are you a workaholic in your PhD? How does it make you feel? What are some ways that you can share about dealing with workaholism as a PhD researcher? Tweet us at @ResearchEx, email us at, or leave a comment below.


Jenny Mak is an Early Career researcher in English and Comparative Literature, having just completed her PhD at Warwick. Her research looked at the embodied experiences of globalisation in contemporary literature. She also writes creatively (short stories, poetry, theatre, film) and has a background in journalism, publishing, and sports training.  You can find her on Twitter.


Cover image: woman on the tightrope / leio / CC0 1.0

Image 1: waterfall in the forest / igniteditCC0 1.0

Image 2: word ‘no’ / jontysonCC0 1.0

Image 3: weekly planner / plushdesignstudioCC0 1.0

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