Finding the right work-life balance

Finding the right work-life balance

September 10, 2015

September 10, 2015

The long and arduous journey along the traditional academic career path can often be anything but the straight and narrow. 

First there's graduate school. Rigorous coursework. Painstaking research. International competition. FINALLY, the dissertation! Next, a prestigious postdoctoral fellowship (or increasingly two, or even three and the eternal postdoc tract). Endless grant proposals. 

Then, at last, academic nirvana.

For anyone following the academic career tract, landing one's first teaching job at a research university feels a bit like winning the lottery, due to the funneling effect and sheer numbers game of far more PhDs in the workforce than available tenure-track positions.  But alongside this achievement, comes the responsibilities of getting a lab up-and-running, teaching loads and balancing new work-life issues for those who may spent more than a decade in training, often postponing major life decisions such as starting families in order to place career first.  

Recently, School of Life Sciences assistant professor and Biodesign researcher Melissa Wilson Sayres participated in a new podcast called Rock Your Research, which is devoted to exploring: "graduate students working every day to become better and make our small contribution to the world of science. We write about the struggles that we all face to become better researchers, better people, and live a meaningful life. We share our journey and the journey of other researchers and provide actionable steps you can take to achieve the life you want and explore careers that spark your interest."

One item that is never formally taught in the lab is how to successfully run day to day operations, along balancing the new responsibilities of lecture preparation, grant writing and departmental duties. For lab management, Wilson Sayres recommends Kathy Barker's book: "At the Helm" as an extremely helpful resource in her transition from trainee to a professor. 

But Wilson Sayres says that for her, as a new research professor, "the most difficult aspect has been trying to negotiate how involved to be in people's lives" and how best to stay attuned to the needs of graduate students by being one part mentor, coach and counselor.  "Obviously, your physical and mental health come before anything else. If one's physical and mental health are not taken care of, then the science is not going to follow. But at some level, you just need to get things done. The biggest struggle is trying to find that balance. How to be a supportive PI [principal investigator] and a productive PI at the same time." 

Among her suggestions for graduate students are maintaining flexibility to "work when you're most productive. But also being in the lab when other people are in the lab is immensely beneficial, because you have people you can talk to, people you can troubleshoot with, you can brainstorm with, to see that you are not alone....and that other people can learn from you."

She also encourages graduate students to also think outside the lab, and expand their horizons by attending conferences, reading literature outside their specific research focus, and gives advice on how best to network at conferences ----when most scientists are introverts. 

Like any work-life balance issue, time is the most precious commodity.

"Time is so limited now. Every stage you go through: college to grad school, grad school to postdoc, postdoc to seems like you have to do more in the same amount of time. But the most productive tool for me was having a child. I don't have time to slack off anymore. I wouldn't recommend that as a tool to anyone, however." 

Download and listen to the full Rock Your Research podcast 





Written by: Joe Caspermeyer