Columns PhD Cafe

Work-life balance during a PhD: Reframing the narrative

Karishma Kaushik

In this PhD café article, Karishma S Kaushik, IndiaBioscience, reflects on her unique journey as a non-traditional’ PhD candidate who juggled personal and professional commitments, including motherhood. Karishma explores the dynamic nature of work-life balance, and discusses the challenges of applying one-size-fits-all solutions for achieving balance across different phases of personal and professional growth.

The authors’ iPhone photos from when a PhD student (2010-2015), showing the bridging of professional (96-well plates, agar plates, reagents) and personal pursuits (vacations, zoo and park visits, baking, birthday parties).
The authors’ iPhone photos from when a PhD student (2010-2015), showing the bridging of professional (96-well plates, agar plates, reagents) and personal pursuits (vacations, zoo and park visits, baking, birthday parties). 

We would like to invite you for a talk at the EMBO Lecture Course on Functional Nucleic Acids at the Regional Centre for Biotechnology, Faridabad,” said the email from the organisers in August 2022.

Confused, I replied, I do not work on functional nucleic acids!”

It is expected to be a talk on Work-life balance in academic science,’” said the email in response.

Having never been asked to talk on this subject before, I gathered myself and chuckled, I am not sure I am doing a good job with that either.” As I reflected on the invitation, I realised, Maybe I do have something to talk about?”

I started my PhD at 29, after 5.5 years of a medical degree and a 3‑year residency in Clinical Microbiology. In addition to being a medical doctor and an older PhD candidate, I was also married, having moved to the United States with my partner. Being a non-traditional’ PhD candidate meant that my PhD was characterised by large commitments on both professional and personal fronts. In the second year of the PhD, I chose to become a mother, and as I often say in a lighter vein, that there is no better situation to ensure work-life balance than becoming a parent during your PhD.

My days started with dropping my son off to daycare, and reaching the laboratory at 9 am. I structured my day to ensure that time was well-utilised. I learnt to run experiments in parallel (fortunately, bacteria do not need too much cajoling to grow!), ordered reagents while waiting for time-points, and had quick lunches. At 4:30 pm, I wrapped up my work day in the lab, and headed home to relieve the afternoon nanny. The evenings were spent with my son; towards the end of my PhD, I used late evenings to analyse data and write my thesis. I graduated in five years with five research publications.

Interestingly, while I built an efficient system to incorporate work and personal choices during my PhD, I struggled with ensuring this balance as an independent investigator. This was likely due to the fact that a well-defined goal (complete the PhD) was now replaced by a range of professional responsibilities and aspirations.

Building and maintaining a work-life structure is a dynamic entity that varies across people and phases in life. Therefore, while actionable steps towards work-life balance are thought-provoking, they notably, fail to account for individual situations. Along these lines, a Twitter discussion on Is research 9 to 5?’, presents an interesting example, with responses that range from It’s a job!’ to It’s a way of life’. 

A compilation of two vastly different responses to the Twitter discussion ‘Is research 9 to 5?’
Two vastly different responses to the Twitter discussion Is research 9 to 5?’

An exercise in finding underlying principles behind work-life balance

Recognising the insufficiencies and challenges of templates’ for work-life balance, I decided to deliver my talk as an exercise with the audience, a large majority of who were PhD researchers. Using a series of four exercises, we approached the subject as Could we find the underlying principles behind work-life balance?’, with prompts, audience responses and take-home messages.

The four sets of exercises and examples of responses were as follows:

Exercise 1: What does work-life balance on a daily or weekly basis (short-term) look like for you?

Examples of audience responses:

  • engaged in formal work during the bulk of the day time
  • clear start and end times to work (no digital availability at other times)
  • single communication channel (email, for example)
  • daily practices related to healthy living, weekends with family

Take-home message: Our work-life balance is unique to us. 

Exercise 2: How is your work-life structure different from say, 5 weeks ago, 5 months ago, 5 years ago?

Examples of audience responses: 

  • I need to work more on finding that balance (from 5 years ago)
  • the structure changes with work travel, conferences, online meetings, deadlines (from 5 weeks ago)
  • varies children’s’ sick days, family visiting, home repairs (from 5 days ago)

Take-home message: Work-life balance is ever changing and dynamic.

Examples of the dynamic nature of work-life balance, using #WorkLifeBalance on Twitter
Examples of the dynamic nature of work-life balance, using #WorkLifeBalance on Twitter 

Exercise 3: How would you think about success’ at work and how would you think about personal success’?

Examples of audience responses (‘success’ at work): 

  • success at work is being excited about the science, about the Qs and As
  • building a happy and productive team
  • contributing to the wider science ecosystem in India 

Examples of audience responses (personal success’):

  • enjoying my role as a friend / partner 
  • getting regular exercise 
  • eating healthy meals 
  • reading non-science materials 
  • spending substantial time spent with family and social groups

Take-home message: Building our own metrics for professional and personal success’ can help enforce work-life balance 

Exercise 4: How does your work-life balance change in the face of peer pressure/​expectations?

Examples of audience responses: 

  • I spent longer hours at work, but not productive hours 
  • I neglect sleep, exercise and social interactions 
  • I started to believe that I needed to fit into the culture of overwork’
An example of advocating for systemic change related to work-life balance. With permission from @AcademicChatter on Twitter
An example of advocating for systemic change related to work-life balance. With permission from @AcademicChatter on Twitter

Take-home message: Believing in our choice of a way of work and life is a continuous process. On an individual level, this may require making thoughtful choices of jobs, organisations, and work portfolios. On a larger level, this can mean advocating for systemic change.

Reframing work-life balance with underlying principles 

A reflexive framework for achieving work-life balance
A reflexive framework towards work-life balance

Taken together, the set of interactive exercises brought forth a framework that highlighted work-life balance as being a unique and dynamic entity, and presented a reflexive structure that could be leveraged towards building, maintaining and revisiting work-life balance across phases and stages of professional and personal growth.