Work-life balance: Building boundaries in academia

Originally published at on August 6, 2016.

Can you separate your work life from your home life? Is it possible to have a work-life balance, especially as a researcher? From my experience, the answer is yes, but it can get difficult. Undoubtedly, you will go home and think about work. There is no way around it. And you will probably think about your family/home life while you’re at bench or in your office. A bad day at work might follow you home, and an argument with your spouse might follow you to the office.

Integrating your work life and home life is important, and a good way to separate the two is to have healthy boundaries. It’s been my experience that if you don’t have boundaries with your co-workers, your employee relationship will turn into a friendship. What’s wrong with that? Nothing at all! Except that with friendship comes conflict, misunderstandings, and possibly hurt feelings. This can cause tension in the workplace, and can hurt your productivity. Eek.

How am I forming healthy boundaries?

1. Email first, text second, and call third.

I love email. I think that it’s a perfect way to communicate, and to have a professional relationship with someone. If it’s work-related, if you need to change a meeting, if you want to work on a manuscript together, I believe in emailing. The benefit of email is that you will always have a paper trail, just in case anything needs to be documented. If it’s more time-sensitive, then texting is fine. In general, you should restrict texting to friends/family, except if you need to urgently communicate something work-related. Finally, calling is only in the case of a die-hard emergency. I would not call my boss/co-worker to chat and gossip, and do not foresee a scenario where calling is okay unless it is a very serious matter.

2. Keep email notifications to a minimum.

I set up manual email notifications for work. That way, I do not get notification of every email that comes in. What if I miss something important? If it was an emergency, someone would have texted or called. If it’s via email, it can probably wait until the next work day. Some people thrive off of having emails sent to their phone, but I find it stressful. At times I will remove all email from my phone, and only email from a desktop/laptop. Why? Because I can attach documents, research a comprehensive answer, or check a refreshed, up-to-date calendar from a laptop more accurately than from my phone.

3. Have office hours.

But Laura, I don’t even have an office. I know, I know. I don’t either. But one day, dear friends. One day. Until then, pretend that you do. Pretend that your door is open, and that anyone can ask you anything during those office hours. If possible, plan to be at your desk, in lab, or readily available in the afternoons on weekdays. That way, you can plan for class/experiments in the mornings, and try to plan to have uninterrupted work. Having a set daily schedule, and a planned weekly/monthly/yearly schedule helps visually show you what time you can dedicate to work alone.

4. Say no more often.

But Shonda Rhimes told me to say yes. I know. But if you say no more often to non-important things, you can say yes more often to important things. It is hard to say no, and you will probably feel some guilt with it. But, you have to do it. I struggle with saying no to other people, but I am starting to learn that I have to say yes to myself more often. If you’re lucky, your advisor and your co-workers will respect your time, respect your wants/desires, and respect your needs. However, academia can get tricky. PIs might care, but they also might need data for a grant ASAP. And if you are the only one who knows how to do a certain method, then you are now in charge of providing that data. Your co-workers might be good people, but they are also over-worked and want to have a full weekend off. They might want to go have time off with their family, and ask you to cover their work since they know you’ll be around.

5. Love what you do, & who you do it with.

The more you believe in your work, the more you’ll care about doing it well. The more you surround yourself with positive people, the happier you will be in the workplace. Out of my experiences in labs, I have to say that people make or break the work place. You could be doing cutting-edge research, but it won’t matter if you’re unhappy with your team. You could have the potential and ambition to finish your PhD in 4 years, but it won’t matter if your advisor isn’t a good mentor. Ultimately, people matter. They can either pick you up and motivate you, or completely derail you. Other people’s motivation or lack thereof can mean that you are able to take a break from work, or that you have to work 24/7.

Why do I care about a healthy work-life balance?

I care about work-life balance because I care about people. And I care about my happiness. I have worked myself to the brim and faced the consequences for it. I’ve been lucky enough to have always had conflict in the workplace as it relates to work-life balance. Why lucky? Because I now know what type of boss I would like to be, how I would treat my employees, and how I would want my future business to function. As students, setting healthy boundaries is important to not getting burnt out. Setting healthy boundaries also allows you to pursue hobbies and interests outside of science. Some PIs/advisors might not want you to pursue interests outside of work, and this can be a problem. If life were perfect, we’d all have time to learn material well, to have a positive and negative control in all of our experiments, and to have reasonable deadlines so that we can take a vacation. Unfortunately, life in academia isn’t always like that. I’m working on setting healthy boundaries, and having a good work-life balance. It’s difficult, but necessary. Let me know how you handle it in the poll below!

Originally published at on August 6, 2016.