THE DOCTORAL EXPERIENCE: STUDY-LIFE BALANCE

When you’ve got enough books in your flat to stack them up and make a nice sofa, it becomes a little bit difficult to separate where your academic programme ends, and your “life”—whatever that means—begins. In many ways, by the point we reach our doctoral programmes, we’ve grown to equate the two as a matter of course, but such a status quo is a perfect recipe for fatigue, burnout, and general negative feeling. Why not avoid as much of that as we can? Here are a few things to consider when sizing up your sense of study-life balance.

 

Consider Location

For some scholars, being in the middle of action is energizing; the library being just a short jaunt from where you rest your head is the best of all conveniences, a veritable paradise for the life of the mind. For others however, it’s just the opposite: never leaving the office, never having any contrast in experience, and setting oneself up for burn-out, and fast.

The solution? Find your happy place. And here, I’m referencing ‘place’ in the literal, tangible sense.

Credit: Disney's "Finding Nemo"

Of course, not everyone has the option to choose where they settle in relation to their university, but even if the option of living where you’re most suited, in the environment that feeds your drive isn’t available, don’t lose heart! Once you’ve identified what kind of energy most inspires you, you can take many simple, yet effective steps toward spending the best of your time where you feel most engaged.

Do you like the thrum of campus? Find ways to be in the middle of it: cafes, student lounges—carve out your spots. And as for the money involved in spending time in a coffee shop: if you chose to drop a few quid on a latte, use the expense as motivation. You’ve made a financial investment in the time you’re spending there; try to match it to the investment in productivity you manage during that time.

Do libraries set you at ease, or perhaps you need an office away from home to keep the two spaces in their proper, separate places? If your university doesn’t provided dedicated office space? See if you can reserve a study carrel, or else, if there’s first-come seating available to grab. You may have to adopt an early-bird lifestyle, but there’s something to be said about space that’s consistently your own—and sometimes you can find a seat with a good few of the sunrise to make your forget about the early hour.

Prefer the home office, perhaps the one on your couch with a blanket draped over your shoulders? When your cuppa’s gone and you’ve got to get up to brew another, make a point to stretch, look away for the page/screen for a good long while, and consider using the Pomodoro Technique or another timer-based reminder to get up and give yourself a break. Likewise, plan to get out of the house as often as you feel suits you—aim for town or campus at least once a week beyond whatever you’re regularly scheduled to be there—and try to have interaction of some sort with another human being at least once a day.

After all, these hours are a part of your life. And in the study-life balance, the aim is to make them as enjoyable and fulfilling as possible whilst still being productive toward your academic goals.

 

Don’t Let Your Hobbies Slide

Alongside academia, though, is what people think of as the life-as-antithesis-to-study. The life that has little to nothing to do with one’s doctorate. The life that many of us have trouble finding under all the Post-It notes and rough drafts.

It’s not surprising, of course: research is what we signed up for. Plus, it’s fairly common knowledge that we, as human beings, like to put labels on things. It keeps things within the realm of the known and controllable: we know what to expect of it. When we introduce ourselves at conferences or networking events, for instance, we say things like: “Hi, I’m Katelynn, I’m a doctoral researcher at St Andrews, I study interdisciplinary theology, literature, neuropsychology, and cultural theory.” But that’s still fairly wordy—condense it, and we get something closer to: “I’m Katelynn, and I am a researcher.”

And while that’s an entirely appropriate identification for many circumstances we find ourselves in? It’s a dangerous thing when we start to internalise that label.

So, repeat after me: You are more than your research.

Say it again, for good measure: You. Are. More. Than. Your. Research.

Credit: Disney's "Wreck-It Ralph"

 

I am by no means decrying passion for one’s research, but I am cautioning against the possibility to tying up one’s identity and sense of worth with the vicissitudes of academic life: a field that is itself characterised in many ways by criticism of one sort or another.

To that end: one way to avoid identifying your self too completely with your work is to remind yourself that you are more than just the research you complete by intentionally cultivating your interests beyond academe. Do you love to read novels? Too many academics haven’t picked up a book for pleasure since they began their programme; set aside time to read something just for its own sake and make that time a priority on par with the deadline for your next chapter. Have a knack for knitting? Trade off x-number of pages on your thesis for so-many lines of stitching. Fancy a bit of football? Join, or start, a pick up league for kicks (no pun intended)—at St Andrews, the School of Divinity has recently launched its own casual league of sorts for the theologically-inclined (which has been dubbed with the portmanteau of “thootball”). Remember the things you love to do beyond research, and make them as much a part of your routine as charging your mobile, brushing your teeth, and grabbing a coffee.

 

Keep Your Social Group Far-Flung

Sometimes it gets difficult to see beyond the top of this book, or that laptop screen, but the fact is that we all need to unwind once in a while. The connections and friendships you build within your own programme are obviously very important—shared life experience is critical, after all!—but your relationships, new and well-seasoned, outside of your academic cohort can also be crucial to keeping you grounded (i.e., sane) throughout the doctoral process.

There are two types of groups of people to consider for connections worth sustaining. First, there are the fellow scholars beyond your precise concentration. People in your broader field whose work you are unfamiliar with, save tangentially, can be great connections that are close enough to your situation to commiserate, but also far enough to introduce newness and excitement into conversation. Similarly, at one more degree of separation, are the researchers in completely different fields: again, some commiseration and shared experience sets the stage, but you’ll be able to see the bigger picture of what academe is wrestling with in its vastness, and expand your own sphere of knowledge and both personal and professional connection. Not mention—seeing as we’re speaking to a study-life balance—that talking roadblocks in your thesis through with you peers who have a different perspective can sometimes give you just the new angle you need!

Second, there are the people you’ve met in previous programmes, in previous institutions, and at previous points in your life. Friends that social media has kept in your circle from all over the country, and even all over the world. Friends who perhaps you grew up with, or went through your first degree (or second) alongside, who are now doing any number of things. If you’ve kept some of these ties, make time to foster the ones you find fulfilling. Their adventures will invigorate you and remind you that there are things within the grand breadth of life aside from research. Keeping that near to mind will not only steady your school-life balance, but it will make you approach to your own research more relevant and grounded in the here and now—which, more often than not, makes it better research.

 

In summary: take the time to know yourself, trust the insights you find into your own needs and preferences, and act accordingly. All things in moderation, after all, and cultivating a sustainable, well-tailored balance can help improve all those “things” across the various contexts of your life.

 

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