As with anything, the key to a healthy PhD is an effective work-life balance. It is important to take pauses and breaks during your PhD to avoid burnout and so that you can enjoy what you do rather than viewing it as a liability. Manpreet Kaur discusses how she sprinkles breaks in her weeks and months.
First published on June 23rd, 2021.
I have seen a lot of things on social media about research culture and what does and does not count as good and healthy work-life balance. I definitely imagined myself as one of those PhD students who would completely immerse themselves in their projects. However, I’m slowly realising there is quite a steep learning curve, especially considering that I switched from polymer chemistry to electrochemistry.
Therefore, perhaps my love for my project is looking less like the ‘love at first sight’ of Snow White and more like the slowly developing one of Belle. As I slowly get to grips with the project, I find I enjoy it all the more. But six months into my PhD, I have learnt that there is no set formula to acing the work-life balance. It is all about doing what works for you. So I’ll list some of my strategies here on how to add pauses in your PhD.
My two big research role models will be the PhD student I worked with during my masters and my current PhD supervisor. Both are very much focussed on doing science because it is fun and exciting to find out new things and both are driven by that enthusiasm rather than by targets of spending 10 hours in the lab every day. I think it is so helpful to find such mentors/role models early on who can help you understand where you are and how you’re doing.
I keep a notebook to write all my tasks I need to do. For every day, I’ll plan in the morning what I want to achieve that day (realistically) and work towards that rather than aiming to come in at 10 and not leaving before 6pm etc. Whether it be experiments I need to run, plan or literature searches, I have all those listed as tasks and try to work to finish them. Sometimes, other things come up during the day that I add to the list after completing them just so I can experience the satisfaction of ticking off another task, but also it means that if I fail to do everything on my list, I know why. That way, I don’t beat myself up about it as I keep track of it all.
Is research 9 to 5?
This is interesting. I wanted to keep it 9 to 5. In the evenings I like reading or painting vignettes or watching comedy on the iPlayer. But I think research is not 9 to 5. Sometimes the book I pick up in the evenings is called ‘Electrode potentials’ and I read it because it is fun. Sometimes, there are papers I read on weekends because I want to. Sometimes, I finish my day at 4pm, wrap up, go home and make a nice curry. I plan my tasks but not my time. I like to keep it a bit spontaneous and make sure I do things not out of a sense of necessity but because I want to and then it means I enjoy it. So, be driven by mood rather than a feeling of ‘I have to’. The best time to take a break is when you think you need to.
Taking time off
My first week of holidays I took off was around Easter, immediately after the Easter shutdown. My siblings had end of term holidays so I had a good two weeks with them to enjoy. We were working on a book chapter in the group at the time, and while the brain said to take time off after the book chapter was sent off (at the end of May), the heart wanted time off in April. I spoke to my supervisor and she had no problem with me taking time off, so off I went home for a fortnight in the middle of a task leaving it all there, signing out of Teams and Outlook and painting and watching Shaun the Sheep episodes with my siblings. It felt radical, but it was pure joy. When I came back, it was a refreshing start and it meant that I once again I felt like I had the energy to read about the material we were writing on. So, there is no ‘right’ time to take time off, in my honest opinion, or you shouldn’t feel the need to wait for a ‘chapter’ or task to end before you take a break. Sometimes, moving away from something and then returning to it can mean we are more productive.
These are some of my strategies. Overall, do what makes you happy and hopefully your research project makes it somewhere on your happy list and then it’s all good. Side note, I’m reading My Kind of Happy by Cathy Bramley. Picked up this book from the supermarket and am absolutely loving it. It is also about a happy list so maybe treat yourself if you want to explore this more?
How do you like to plan breaks in your research? What works best for you? Tweet us at @ResearchEx, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave a comment below.
Manpreet Kaur is a first year PhD student in the Department of Chemistry. She has been at Warwick since 2016, and did her BSc and MRes here. Her research project focuses on the design of photoelectrocatalytic systems for the synthesis of nitrogen containing compounds. You can follow her on Twitter here and further details about her project and background can be found here.