Maintaining that Ph.D. Work/Life Balance: Why it Matters

Let’s face it, grad school can be consuming. You start getting good results and the next thing you know, you’re pulling all-nighters in lab, sleeping on the grotesque sofa in the basement next to the liquid nitrogen fill station, and waking up everyday at 5:30 AM with the fear that the heating elements in your furnace broke or the thermodynamics behind your entire thesis work are suddenly null and void. You get so engrossed in your research that you forget anything else exists. Those cats you acquired over the past several years to “keep you company?” Oh no! Or that yoga interest group you “joined” and on which you blew hundreds of dollars at Lululemon? Hmm. Yes, things may be going well, but that can always change. You start basing your self-worth on your results, taking pride in your ever-increasing percent yield, the impressive size of your crystals, and the magnificent peak shapes in your Rietveld refinements that only a skilled crystallographer (or OCD Ph.D. student) could produce. And then, after months of sleep-deprivation, TLC-ing, x-ray and neutron refinements, and NMRs, you hit a roadblock. And the frustration really hurts.

But it doesn’t have to be like this.

I used to be a perfectionist. And then I became an experimentalist. I realized early-on in my graduate school career that the only way I could be happy was if I maintained a variety of outlets outside of lab. Some call it “work/life” balance. I call it “preserving my sanity.” It’s definitely necessary for getting through graduate school. Having a social circle (or a life) makes your highs incredible (because you have people to celebrate them with) and your lows not as awful (because you have other things going for you that lessen the pain). Not sure how to get started? Well, you’ve come to the right place! If you’ve chosen to attend graduate school, you likely have the work ethic and motivation to prevail. What I’ve seen more students struggle with is the social aspect. So let’s devise a plan to get that “life” component going too! Just keep on reading.

1. Make friends outside of your department. Sure, misery loves company, but listening to your fellow full-synthesis lab buddy complain about his obstacles can be a bit frustrating. And no one thinks very fondly of the “lab group cliques” that literally do everything together (eat, live, reflux, exercise, titrate, you name it). That can’t be healthy. Find people in other academic areas to befriend. It will help broaden your mind and prevent you from constantly thinking about your work.

My first year graduate school roommate was a female computer science Ph.D with a focus on network security. She has become my best friend. Our areas of study are different enough that when we talk, the conversation isn’t about our research, but lighter matters (think makeup, fashion, food, new K-cup flavors, etc). Tuesday nights have become “wine nights,” where we order-in Chinese food, drink wine, and watch a chick flick. It is detox night. And it is necessary.

But what if you weren’t bestowed with an awesome roommate your first year of graduate school? I’m sure your university sponsors several social events for all graduate students. Go. Maybe bring your lab buddy if you’re hesitant to attend by yourself. But make sure you talk to new people. Exchange numbers, find common interests, and then make plans to hang out at a later point in time.

2. Apply to be a Resident Graduate Student (RGS). Some universities offer an RGS program, where graduate students live amongst undergraduates and organize academic and social events for the college community. This has enhanced my graduate experience in so many ways. I’ve seen that a sense of community is often lacking in graduate student life; being an RGS allows you to gain this sense of community. The study breaks I organize are not only therapeutic for my undergraduates, but also relaxing for me. I’ve developed a biweekly DIY Science Night series, where I lead students in a science-oriented craft that is both didactic and exciting. We’ve already made lava lamps, rock candy, and Silly Putty! A few of my other favorite events are pumpkin-painting (in the fall), cookie-decorating, sundae-making, mural-painting, and my weekly writing circle. When the undergraduates knock on your door wanting to chat, you know you’re doing a good job. And it makes you feel good that they enjoy talking to you! Because I live on campus, I’m also only a five-minute walk from lab. I don’t think it can get better than that.

3. Make time for you. This is pretty self-explanatory. It encompasses everything from exercising to having jam sessions with your friends. Maybe you play an instrument? Carry on! Several departments have their own bands; perhaps you could ask around and join one.

Make an effort to actually attend that yoga group. Perhaps drag a friend along too so you can motivate one another. Watch Netflix, read the newspaper, go for a run. And, yes, you do have time for it.

It’s also important to eat well. I wouldn’t recommend consuming seven servings of chocolate chip cookies in one sitting just because they’re leftover from a symposium (believe me, I watched one of my lab mates do this and he later deeply regretted it). While the free food listserv is indeed a fabulous invention, use it wisely. Just be smart, and remember, moderation is key.

4. Don’t forget about your family. They might not understand what you’re doing in graduate school, but I’m sure they’re proud of you for pursuing that Ph.D. You’re allocated a certain number of vacation weeks annually; go home for the holidays. Your family will always be your support group and you should take advantage of that.

5. Let it go. As if Frozen hasn’t receive enough allusions in the media already, sometimes you actually do need to “let it go” and take a breather. Maybe you accidentally started an alkali fire in your lab? Or one of your quartz tubes exploded in the furnace? Perhaps you used an impure starting material that spoiled your entire 15-step reaction? This is why the intended duration of your program is five years, not one. It’s okay to go for a walk (to Starbucks) if you need to take a break. It’s also fine to blast Ke$ha at 10 PM in lab while working with your lab mates (and then have the scene turn into a full-on dance party) if you feel the need to do so. You learn from each of these mistakes and then start all over again. Just keep on swimming.

So, there you have it! I hope you enjoyed this account and consider the above tips. Graduate school is a learning experience, and you should enjoy the ride. Just take it one day at a time.

Marisa Sanders

Article by Marisa Sanders

Marisa Sanders is a third-year graduate student at Princeton University. She is a member of the Younger Chemists Committee (YCC) in the Communications Subcommittee.