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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.

At McGill, students engage in a wide variety of extra-curricular activities thanks in part to the invigorating intellectual climate here, but many of these activities are less intellectual than social or physical. See the "McGill resources" section of this page for more.

The work-life balance of international grad students and postdocs

A large proportion of graduate students and the majority of postdoctoral fellows at McGill are from other countries. If you are one of them, you're likely to be dealing with the stress of getting set up in a new city and a new country, as well as establishing your supervisor-supervisee relationship. Here is some specific practical advice:

  1. Be sure to spend time getting to know your new city. Ride the metro to a new neighbourhood and explore Montreal, looking for appealing restaurants, cafés, parks, historical sites, etc.
  2. On Monday morning, make a detailed plan for the week so that you can schedule and set aside time for exercise, family committments, exploration, and a social life.

What balance would you prefer as a supervisor or supervisee?

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.

Sometimes, however, the demands of graduate school become almost legendary, and family and friends might express concern over a hard-working student. Valerie Vinette remarked on this in one of her posts on the Grad Life blog:

The most important thing, for me at least, is to convey to my loved ones that what I am doing makes me happy and is highly motivating for me, and that yes, I am getting paid, so I am able to make a living for myself.

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.

The doctoral journey is an emotional as well as a scholarly experience in which doctoral work is situated in a broader life and imagined future.

Here, a supervisor in the UK talks about how doctoral work and study are influenced by many other factors:

So I work with students in terms of where they are in life, in themselves, in their personal quest for knowledge and their personal circumstances – how their academic experiences impact on other relationships and on their studies. I don’t think they can just get through the [doctorate]. There are so many new things on the way. So I think I’m very useful in that I recognize what blocks them and what stops them and I bring their attention to it, and then they can work themselves, or with me if they want.

  • As a supervisor, would you feel confident doing this?
  • To what extent do you feel aware of aspects of students' lives beyond doctoral work?
  • Is it something you feel is part of the supervisory role?

To follow up on this quotation, consider the following pages of this website: Supervisory styles; Student-supervisor relationships; and Problems and solutions.

Supervisors and supervisees can also listen to people talking on Oxford’s Apprise website about their experiences of doctoral work.

Stages and skills related to achieving a work-life balance

A network of helpful friends and colleagues can supplement the supervisory relationship, but supervisees should also become intentional about the process of work and study. Throughout this process, supervisees can develop new ways of thinking about what defines their lives. People can benefit from seeing their lives as changing, even if they are committed to focused, years-long projects.

There is a wide range of self-help books on navigating the journey of research supervision, whether you are a professor, student, or postdoctoral fellow:

  • The research student's guide to success – Pat Cryer (2006). Maidenhead: McGraw Hill/Open University Press.
  • How to get a PhD: A handbook for students and their supervisors – Phillips, E., & Pugh, D. S. (2005). Maidenhead: Open University Press.
  • How to write a thesis – Rowena Murray (2006). Maidenhead: Open University Press.
  • The Routledge doctoral student's companion: Getting to grips with research in education and the social sciences – Pat Thomson and Melanie Walker (Eds) (2010). London: Routledge.
  • The Routledge doctoral supervisor's companion: Supporting effective research in education and the social sciences – Pat Thomson and Melanie Walker (Eds) (2010). Abingdon; New York: Routledge.

Stages in the journey include:

Building relationships

While supervisors and relationships with them are critical, it is often the relationships with others that will assist students through their journeys, for example: fellow students, lab staff, contract researchers and librarians, not to mention family and friends.

Learning to be proactive

Many students express the desire to be intentional and take ownership of their doctoral journey, and there is considerable research to suggest that the successful student is the one who takes charge and works strategically. Nevertheless, there are some who are very competent intellectually, but not yet intentional and strategic. These students often need to be encouraged to operate in this manner.

Developing new skills and identities

Other research points to the skills and learning students acquire, and the development they undergo, for example, coming to think like a researcher, developing analytical skills and developing specific research skills. Also important in the experience are developing perseverance, maintaining motivation and determination. In sum the doctoral experience is more than the accumulation of skills - it is a process of identity formation as a scholar in the discipline.

Communicating one's research

Communicating includes oral and written communication as well as networking skills at conferences and seminars. Students may commence their research education with little in the way of skills and experience in communicating research in ways that are appropriate within the discipline. Supervisors may underestimate what is required to develop these. Experienced researchers particularly have often been immersed in their discipline for so long that conventions and discourse specific to the discipline can look to them like common sense and generic good writing/ speaking skills rather than discipline-specific practices.

Imagining a future beyond the doctorate

For students who have been working full-time for three or four years on one topic, the thought of moving on can be quite challenging!

The text of this page was based on:

Physically and mentally fit

On some occasions, graduate students should look to their friends and family for personal and social support. On others, they should remember that McGill has a variety of services that exist not to help them directly with their scholarship but to help them in their other lives:

Acknowledgements: Original content adapted from Margaret Kiley, CEDAM, ANU. Updated by Lynn McAlpine, Oxford Learning Institute, May 2011. Adapted through an agreement with Oxford and ANU at McGill by Joel Deshaye, May 2013.