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The work-life balance

Be active intellectually and physically, and enjoy yourself too

Balance is what often seems to be missing in the lives of graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and even professors, but successful academics often remain active in a variety of ways that help them to be energetic in the long term. In the short term, maintaining the work-life balance can start with activities as simple as going for a walk with a friend at lunchtime or stretching in the mornings.


Work and study often seem to be the only parts of a graduate student’s life. This is a difficulty also experienced, perhaps to a lesser extent, by postdoctoral fellows. Nevertheless, many successful students and emerging scholars are able to balance the demands of their personal and social lives against high expectations for research output, anxiety about the job market, and lifestyles seemingly modeled by their supervisors. People who don’t yet have academic jobs might not realize that their supervisors usually maintain their personal and social lives too, and that these other lives are indirectly or directly helpful to professional development and their careers inside or outside the academy.

Work is a part of life but should not overwhelm other parts, such as:

  • relaxation (e.g., watching a movie, meditating in a park, or seeing a massage therapist);

  • socializing (e.g., joining a club, meeting in a café, volunteering, or video chatting);

  • exercise (e.g., cycling, yoga, jogging, tennis, or intramural or recreational sports); and

  • exploring Montreal, especially if you’re new to the city. Ride the metro to a new neighbourhood and look for appealing restaurants, cafés, parks, historical sites, etc.

There are a wide variety of extracurricular groups and activities available for McGill students- including those focused on athletics, student government, community outreach and volunteering, religious and cultural groups, and much more. See the Resources page for some examples, and ask students and faculty in your program or department if there are any department-specific groups or activities that you can get involved in.

Setting aside a few minutes on Sunday or Monday morning to make a detailed plan for the week can help ensure that you fulfill your work obligations while setting aside time for exercise, family commitments, exploration, relaxation and a social life.

What is your ideal balance?

Good supervisors want their supervisees to be busy but not overworked. They see the value of a sense of humour, even though the work is serious and demanding. Ask yourself whether the ratio of work to other aspects of your life (insofar as they are separable) is sustainable over the long term. If it is not, then perhaps you would benefit from more balance or from estimating how long an unbalanced lifestyle can last.


Reflecting informally on how the student-supervisor relationship can enable students to leave room in their schedules for sports and other activities, Chris Dagert wrote in a post on McGill’s Grad Life blog:

Your supervisor is not just a regular professor. Sure, they do some lecturing and act all professory, but you get to sit down and meet with them and get to know them as people.  Ignoring a professor?  Possible. Ignoring your supervisor, with whom you have a relationship?  Not so much. When they mention a paper that might be helpful, it’s time to do some reading! … So is this what a supervisor is?  A person to assign work, with you a mere gopher to complete tasks? Luckily, that’s not the case.  A good relationship with your supervisor is the way out of this dilemma. If the respect runs both ways, then you can make time for whatever you need. A doctor’s appointment during the day? No big. A commitment keeping you out of the lab next Friday? No problem. Put in a few hours when you have the chance, and it’ll all work out. This give and take has allowed me to compete as a varsity athlete for the last two years on the McGill Ultimate team. … Busy? Sure, but free time? I have enough.

Do you feel that you have enough free time to engage in non-academic activities, such as sports or other extracurricular activities? If not, consider bringing this up in a discussion with your supervisor with the goal of agreeing on a schedule where you make the expected research progress and also have time for other activities.

And who can imagine happiness that doesn’t involve a little laughter? Vasanth Ramamurthy, another Grad Life blogger, showed how some academics let fun into their lives:

The Ig Nobel Prizes [sic] have … been around for over 20 years, and recognize genuine achievements. In 2012, one of the awards was given to a paper published in the Journal of Serendipitous and Unexpected Results (again, this is not a typo), for which a researcher (Craig Bennett of the University of California, Santa Barbara) used fMRi to examine the brain of a dead salmon as it was being shown pictures of humans to see whether it could detect emotions.

The whole salmon-in-an-MRI-scanner started as a joke. Before scanning a person, the equipment is checked and the background level is accounted for by using [an] object as a control. Because any object can be used for this purpose, Bennett and colleagues, for the fun of it, decided to use random objects, which is how they ended up with a dead salmon in the MRI machine. ... If fMRI data is not carefully interpreted, brain researchers can potentially find brain activity anywhere, even in a dead fish.

One of our own McGill professors, Peter Brass, also won an Ig Nobel Prize in the past, for his work [on] injuries due to falling coconuts. Although it sounds like a laughing matter, such injuries are quite real in places like Papua New Guinea, where Prof. Brass was stationed as an MD and where people nap under palm trees. When asked about receiving an Ig Nobel Prize, he said: “Life is hard. It’s good to have a laugh now and then.” (Read his entire post.)

Supervisors recognize the benefit of laughter as much as anyone, and they sometimes involve graduate students in social activities that can be fun while also widening networks (e.g., simply by introducing students to visiting scholars over a cup of coffee or lunch).

A balanced lifestyle is important for productivity, happiness and health

Some individuals may feel that putting all one’s time and energy into work and study leads to the highest level of productivity. However, a balanced lifestyle is beneficial for productivity as well as overall physical and mental health.


Maintaining a balanced lifestyle during graduate school, as well as later in the career path, can be difficult but has many benefits. Balance between academic and personal activities has been shown to be a factor in successful completion of a graduate degree (Brus, 2006; Stimpson & Filer, 2011), job satisfaction, as well as physical and mental health (Duxbury & Higgins, 2012).

According to the Canadian Mental Health Association (2016), signs of a lack of balance include:

  • feeling a loss of control over your life;

  • guilt about neglecting certain roles;

  • difficulty concentrating on a task; and

  • constantly feeling tired.

Unbalanced lifestyles and feeling overwhelmed are common, with over 70% of participants in the 2012 National Study on Balancing Work and Caregiving in Canada reporting role overload either in general or at work. Individuals with high role overload, compared to those with low overload:

  • experience less satisfaction and commitment to their jobs (Duxbury & Higgins, 2012);

  • report that the lack of balance negatively impacts their work productivity (Duxbury & Higgins, 2012);

  • are 2.9 times more likely to report their health as fair or poor (Public Health Agency of Canada, 2004); and

  • are 2.6 times more likely to have seeked out mental health care (Public Health Agency of Canada, 2004).

Also, individuals reporting high work to family interference are 2.4 times more likely to report their health as fair or poor and 1.7 times more likely to have seeked out mental health care than those reporting low interference (Public Health Agency of Canada, 2004).

In a study investigating full-time doctoral students who held graduate assistantship positions, Martinez, Ordu, Della Sala, and MacFarlane (2013) found common strategies that students used to work towards a balanced lifestyle.

  • Purposeful time management: creating schedules, prioritizing tasks and roles, deciding when to decline an opportunity

  • Maintaining mental and physical health: making time for exercise, stress management, taking personal time

  • Seeking financial and emotional support: counselling services, institutional financial resources, support from family, friends and peers



Brus, C. P. (2006). Seeking balance in graduate school: A realistic expectation or a dangerous dilemma? New Directions for Student Services, 115, 31–45.

Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA). (2016). Work-life balance: Make it your business. Retrieved from http://www.cmha.ca/mental_health/work-life-balance-make-it-your-business/#.Vt0J-8e5cfs

Duxbury L., & Higgins, C. (2012, October 25). Revisiting work-life issues in Canada: The 2012 national study on balancing work and caregiving in Canada. Carleton Newsroom. Retrieved from http://newsroom.carleton.ca/wp-content/files/2012-National-Work-Long-Summary.pdf

Martinez, E., Ordu, C., Della Sala, M. R., & MacFarlane, A.(2013). Striving to obtain a school-work-life balance: The full-time doctoral student. International Journal of Doctoral Studies, 8, 39-59.

Public Health Agency of Canada. (2004). Report three: Exploring the link between work-life conflict and demands on Canada’s health care system. Ottawa, ON: Health Canada, Public Health Agency. Retrieved from http://publications.gc.ca/collections/Collection/H72-21-192-2004E.pdf

Stimpson, R. L., & Filer, K. L. (2011). Female graduate students’ work-life balance and the student affairs professional. In P. A. Pasque, & S. E. Nicholson (Eds.), Empowering women in higher education and student affairs: Theory, research, narratives, and practice from feminist perspectives (pp. 69-84). Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Further Reading

Jazvac-Martek, M., Chen, S., & McAlpine, L. (2011). Tracking doctoral student experience over time: Cultivating agency in diverse spaces. In L. McAlpine & C. Amundsen (Eds.), Doctoral education: Research-based strategies for doctoral students, supervisors and administrators (pp. 17-36). Amsterdam: Springer.

Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial 4.0 International LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial 4.0 International License.
Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies, McGill University.

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