And so today I am here to talk about work-life balance in your PhD. Work-life balance is one of the ‘seven deadly sins’ of academe. The PhD is the worst kind of study for work-life balance. More than any other form of study, the PhD requires hard work without direction and hard work without deadlines. Now let me be clear, in case you haven’t figured it out yet, your PhD is hard work. Yet, I want to tell you today that hard work… is not your PhD. Just as it’s not possible to get your PhD without hard work, it isn’t possible to ‘just’ do lots of hard work and get a PhD. It needs to be the right kind of hard work.
If we read the glossy magazines, we find that clearly this is a question of balance. It must be the case, right? Usually these articles are accompanied by pictures of women doing yoga on the beach, mothers playing happily with their children in a meadow, or some vapid quotes from people who had publicists once upon a time. These articles tell us if we can just balance work and life and our other commitments we will be very happy.
If we balance everything, what we will be is happy and contented people who don’t have their PhD. The PhD is the Australian Institute of Sports for Smart People.
At a conference I spoke at once, the keynote speaker was Brennon Dowrick, a gymnast. You want to see a lack of balance? Try gymnastics. He moved away from home at the age of 12 to live at the AIS and trained twelve hours a day, every day. For sixteen years. He represented Australia at Commonwealth and Olympic levels.
I’d never heard of him. Embarrassment!
Try Casey Stoner who won the moto gp at Phillip Island yesterday with a mostly-broken ankle on his Honda. Now if ever there was a reason to call in sick, it’s a broken ankle. By all accounts, he’s a little intense. Nobody tells him to lighten up.
So what’s the problem? Well, even if – or perhaps especially if – you’re a world-class gymnast or a moto gp rider, balance is still very important for you. There are rules around what you’re doing. If you come first, you’re good. If you come at the back of the pack – well, time to go home. There’s an off-season for it. One of the difficulties with the PhD is that no-one understands exactly what ‘it’ is. Not really, and not least of all yourself.
Your friends think you spend all day sitting in a library reading books about… something. Your parents think you are a professional student and want you to get a real job (at least they do when you take on the PhD when you’re 42). Society thinks you must do something important – but doesn’t understand it and generally ignores you as best they can. Your supervisor thinks you’re wet behind the ears and can’t understand why a simple essay on the relationship between the concepts of absorptive capacity and research design has taken you three weeks to do this terrible a job (hello! I’m tutoring!). You might personally think you’re the organised overlord of all you survey – but the reality is that you really spend most of your time tearing your hair out with Red bull and pizza desperately trying to retrieve version 20120601b of your research data before you corrupted it.
Another thing is that you can never put a line under it and say, “that’s done”. There’s always a bit of tweaking to be done to make it ‘more perfect’ and ‘more correct’. Unlike Brennon and Casey, there is no ‘second place’. We work and work and work on something, crafting it up to be something better every time. All our time could be spent working on the PhD – but would it improve the PhD?
The scope of the PhD is the problem. It can be as big and tough as we make it. We are perfectionists – it is what we do. And what we have to create has to be very, very good. But does everything we do need to be perfect? Or can we recognise that what we do remains an ‘interim struggle’ (Weick, 1995) and aim to work a little smarter, not harder? The end game is what matters here and the PhD is a life-long marathon. Although the short-term race is to the one that works the hardest, that’s only getting us out of the stadium. Now I am saying that the vision of happy-and-contented PhD students is horse-hockey. You do need to have a lack of balance. You will need to burn the midnight oil, and you will need to re-do work. But not all the time – you also need to still be standing when the whistle blows. And that whistle is some time off. I want to give some tips that may help you balance the extreme of the PhD with the need to build healthy habits.
Like all good researchers, I am starting from first principles. Firstly, a good PhD is a done PhD. A perfect PhD that is never done is not a good PhD. This is about your long-term career, whether academic or professional. You are learning to balance your long-term projects with the short-term goals – the academic manages a pipeline of long-term papers against short-term teaching and work commitments. And the same can be said for the professional. It’s a bad habit to learn that if you just throw time at the issue it will go around. It works OK when your time is your own, but it isn’t a solution when you have other commitments (or you are charged out at $400 an hour). These tips are designed to build good habits for your long-term career. Avoid the ‘busy-work’ that stops you from achieving your goals.
So the first tip is to embrace wrongness. Plan to be wrong. It’s good to be wrong. That’s how we learn. This means we don’t mind asking the ‘wrong’ questions in seminars. Heck, ask away. Presenters love an opportunity for a good smack down if you’re really wrong! And you and your colleagues all learn from that. Submit something that’s not fully formed – this means get advice early and often. Frequently we labour away on something to achieve ‘perfection’ only to discover it’s not. Let your ideas evolve through discussion with your advisor – and don’t spend forever re-framing them a dozen times before the supervisor has seen them. Your PhD can’t be second-rate of course – but it will improve the more ‘wrong’ you are. Sometimes ‘good enough’ is ‘good enough’.
My second tip: Work on what matters. Some things you say ‘yes’ to help your PhD. Others fall into the category of ‘a good idea at the time’. Here’s the thing: you already have something to do. So if it’s not a task that will advance the PhD, or your immediate career, have a Bex and a good lie down before you agree. I’m talking here about presentations, book chapters, and extra tutoring. If it helps, set out a goal plan of what you want to do and what you need to do. If the extra work blocks that, it’s a blockage and needs to be ditched! I am wary of telling you to write a plan because that will be another thing for you to procrastinate for the nation with, but a one-page plan may be a great help for you. If you write that one-page plan – review it weekly to see your progress. Focus on that end game; we have a small ‘study buddy’ group of people that we use to try and keep focussed on the task at hand – and discuss what achievements, goals, and blockages we might have each week. As well as cake.
My third tip: Focus when working hard. If I may be so bold, because there’s no active deadline we tend to let matters drift. Facebook, YouTube and Twitter can, ahem, take time away. And here’s the thing? Facebooking looks almost exactly like working. Until it comes time to assess the results. Don’t drift when you are writing. It is so easy to become distracted and lose a day, a week, a month or a year to timesinks that produce little. Like researching memes to put into a 10 minute powerpoint presentation. Ahem. A good solution that I have found is to use the Pomodoro technique: 25 minutes of working on achieving one thing, then take a 5 minute break to walk around, Facebook, coffee or chat. Dave Allan’s GTD (Getting Things Done) approach may also help you maintain your to-do lists and balance your competing projects. Now, we all know there will be deadlines and late nights involved. But don’t count on them all the time – 2am should not be a regular thing in the Zone.
My fourth tip: Know your tools. You are a writer. There are many tools available to help the writer do what they need to do, from organise your research such as EndNote and EverNote to writing tools such as LaTex or Scrivener on the Mac. Also try DevonThink Pro. Use RSS newsfeeds and emails to keep abreast of your topic area. The world has moved on from the days of hard copy journals. When I wrote my Honours thesis I had three lever arch folders of papers that were relevant. Today I have a DevonThink Pro database with over 1000 papers in it. Think about how you organise your notes and annotated bibliography. You are creating a toolset that you will use for your career to deal with information overload. Oh… and this includes making a backup! No USB sticks!
The fifth tip is to watch your health. Sitting down for hours on end in the PhD zone is a sure-fire recipe for depression and a beer belly. Take up an outside interest that exercises your muscles, or you’ll find yourself a very smart unhealthy person. Smart people sweat. It makes you think better and keeps you focussed. If you don’t have exercise you like then it’s probably a bad habit you’ve fallen into. Sign up for a personal trainer, or build it into your day. Ride to work if you can. You’ll feel better for it and you’ll think better for it.
My final tip reflects the whole lot: Forget the Flipping PhD. It is so difficult, because at all times we know we could – and thus should – be working on the PhD. Allow yourself the luxury of downtime without guilt. I have spent so much of my working life taking a laptop away on holiday and then never turning it on (but still feeling guilty) or taking the laptop and answering emails in the carpark of the Big Pineapple. True story. Be there when you are with your loved ones – don’t answer those emails as soon as they come in, answer those emails in the morning and spend time with your loved one tonight.
Now, just a reminder. Balance is horse-hockey. The PhD is hard work, and we mustn’t forget that. But achieving well in the PhD requires that you step back from the brink before you over-balance. Hard work is not your PhD, and the focus should be on building habits for life, not just now.
Less is more. Remember: Red Bull does not give you wings. You are what you eat. And the athlete builds to a pinnacle, trains, and executes.
The above was written for the University of Queensland Business School RHD Association PhD Camp on Stradbroke Island. Warning: no-one attending the camp actually drank all that Mother energy drink. That person was presumably off having his stomach pumped. You may download the Powerpoint itself at SlideShare.