Work-life balance strategies for postgraduate students


You are doing a postgraduate degree because you know it is what your career needs. You thought long and hard about whether to enrol; you weighed the pros and cons, calculated the hours required to make it work, and made an informed decision using the information at your disposal… now you are knee-deep immersed in it. You feel pulled apart between what your postgraduate degree requires and life out there; your kids need you, or you are working part-time, or you are planning your wedding, or you are preparing to climb Kilimanjaro… the point is, we are human beings with a variety of interests and needs.

But how do we maintain a work-life balance - a balance between everything buzzing around us? And why is work-life balance important? I don't know if there is a secret formula, a single phrase that will put everything around you in place so that you can dance from one component in your life to the next with light feet and a happy heart. What I do know is that it is possible and important to keep a balance. It takes a conscious effort to assess our current situation and create a concrete plan. As if we don't have enough to do, that plan needs to be revisited multiple times, with tender love and care, and careful reflection, and it may even need some peer review (and as academics, don't we just love peer review).

It is possible to complete your studies successfully, proudly crossing the stage knowing that you made a lot of sacrifices to get there without selling your soul. I will share some of my insights in this blog post. The contents did not come from books or research articles, so rather than being evidence-based, it is experience-based. Let me start with my own story:

When I did my master's, I was in my mid-20s: no husband, no kids, not even a dog. I was working full-time and had a vibrant social life. The master's degree was by coursework, which meant I had to complete assignments and write exams, together with a research report contributing 50% to the degree.

Then, soon after the excitement brought along by a shiny wedding ring, along came my PhD. I registered for my PhD, got my proposal accepted and fell pregnant. I gave birth to a beautiful baby boy and another 19 months later. These were challenging times, juggling being a wife, mom, faculty/academic and PhD student. I submitted my PhD thesis when the second boy was just five months old.

Then a few years later, I enrolled for a second master's (why? I'm asking myself). And it seems like postgraduate studies are a causative factor in my fertility as, yet again, I fell pregnant and had a third boy during this time. Keeping the balance was the only way to survive.

From my story, if you are of the assumption that my juggling revolved around being a mom and getting my postgraduate studies done, you are right. You will have your own story; maybe you are looking after your elderly parents, or your husband's job requires you to travel with him, or you have a demanding job, or you are trying to get a start-up up and running, or… whatever your story, at some point in your life you had/will have to balance life against your postgraduate studies.

As always, let me share some disclaimers: I am no expert in work-life balance, I don't even get it right consistently, and none of the advice I am giving here should be interpreted as health care advice of any sort. It is merely my experience, the advice I'll give myself on creating a balance between my postgraduate studies and life out there.

1 Assess your current situation

1.1 Many excuses, but none of those will serve your goals

Vusi Thembekwayo once said that we all have our excuses but that none of those excuses brings us closer to our goals. I had a whole list of excuses up my sleeve: my husband is a cricket coach and is away from home quite often, English is my second language, I'm living 68km from campus, doing a PhD with small kids, a full workload and no sabbatical… and my list goes on.

And there are many more valid excuses out there than the few I was able to list here, but those excuses do not bring us closer to our goals. So ask yourself, how can I relieve the effect of these excuses? Can I appoint someone to help with the cooking at times when my husband is away, will Grammarly Pro or Trinka improve my language, how can I optimise my time available so that I can get this PhD done?

There will be some things you can improve and others you need to accept. Putting my four and two-year-old boys in boarding school was not an option; although that thought certainly crossed my mind (tongue in cheek), I had to find ways to ensure I still achieved my goals, while being a present parent. Money is one of the things that may hold you back when it comes to finding solutions, but not all solutions involve money. Some solutions need innovation.

The point is, to remediate whatever excuses you can remediate and accept the rest of them, and then to move to the point of "how can I make it work?"

1.2 Complete the wheel of life

The Wheel of Life is a tool that helps one assess the various domains that form part of our lives. Complete the free assessment and get an overview of your satisfaction in each of the domains that form part of your life, such as your career, fun and recreation, health, and relationships, amongst other domains.

1.3 Assess the activities/aspects in your life – do they serve your goals?

Assess your values using this free tool. When what you do is aligned with your values, the resistance gets much less. For example, suppose one of your values focuses on compassion for others, yet every single project that fills your life involves you and you alone, then reducing some of those and bringing some projects that include compassion for others into your life will be worth a try. Read some more on job crafting here – some very interesting solutions. 

2 Allocate resources - aka mind space, time, energy, initiative, and action – as needed

2.1 Plan everything and plan it well

Plan, plan, plan and plan well. Some people feel that planning takes away from their freedom and spontaneity. When you have many moving parts in your life, it does not take away freedom, but it gives you freedom because you are creating a predictable path for some of the moving parts, and you have more time to manoeuvre because you are spending less time on dealing with the consequences of things moving in their own directions.

In the past, maybe life was less complicated, and you had fewer moving parts, aka, no household and only a part-time job; it was easy to get into your car and drive to the nearest nature reserve for a 5km afternoon hike. But now, your life may be fuller, with more to consider and leaving something like this up to chance will most probably mean it won't happen. So plan it, decide what is important for you and add it to your calendar. Yes, it was great fun to allow these things to happen spontaneously, but the new reality is that if you don't schedule it, it may not happen and that robs you of freedom, so to get freedom, schedule your freedom.

2.2 Optimise your time management

When I was busy with my second master's and had three little boys, I didn't have much time for my own needs. One Sunday afternoon, my crowd was somewhere between still asleep and waking up. I needed one more hour to declare myself prepared for the next day's exam. I went to a shopping centre to buy some bread and other basics. I took my studying with me and sat in the parking lot for an hour to achieve my milestone. Now the ideal is not to go through such desperate measures, but at the same time to accept that desperate times call for desperate measures. And it helped; I passed with flying colours, not because of that one hour, but because I accepted that at times I'm going to have to do a few bizarre things to achieve my goals, and I was okay with it.

Checking emails while standing in the grocery store queue is not something I recommend because we also need time to think and process; we should not fill our minds with busyness all the time; however, when desperate times call, embrace it.

2.3 Put systems in place

We repeatedly do many things every day, and I know once I share some suggestions with you, you will be able to identify many other situations where you can bring in small habits that reduce the load and make your life easier.

I always laugh at myself when this happens: I have a habit of wanting to make future Benita's life easier; for example, when I'm working on a document today, and I know next week I need to create this same document for a different purpose, I would turn this document into a template so that next week, I can just open the template and 40% of the work will be done. However, then next week comes, and I would have forgotten that I even created a template – haha. I'd start the document, and 20% into it, I'll remember about the template. Anyway, something I'm working on constantly.

Here is a playlist of YouTube videos I created in my quest to use software and systems better and make my (and your) life easier:

View the Playlist

2.4 Focus on what matters most – quality over quantity

In his book "The 80/20 Principle" Richard Koch states that – 20% of our effort produces 80% of our outcomes. Only 20% of the time we spend on achieving a goal produces actual results. The simple advice would have been to find out what the 20% is that produces the most results and focus on those things. However, I realise that some things we spend our time on, even though they don't produce results directly related to our goal, cannot just be cut out of our lives. However, this book did make me realise the importance of constantly evaluating what I am spending time on and how those activities are moving me closer to my goals. When it comes to the important things, find out what they are, do them early in the day or at a time when you are the freshest and where the chance for procrastination is the lowest.

2.5 Work smart and hard

Working hard is essential, but so is working smart. In recent years, there has been a shift towards working smart, a good thing, but imagine we can combine hard and smart work. It will mean we will get as much as possible done in a limited time so that you have more time to enjoy life.

2.6 Put a support network in place

You carefully looked at your Wheel of Life and assessed your values. An in-depth inventory check of your life activities that keep you busy is essential. What is there in your life that you can delegate? Can someone do the cooking a few evenings per week, buy the groceries, or look after your kids for one afternoon a week? Another way to use a support network is to appoint an accountability partner who knows where you are in your research journey, your short and long-term intentions, and who can keep you accountable.

2.7 Set boundaries

I have a sticky note (one of my many) that says, "if I'm saying yes to this, what am I saying no to?" Know what your mission is in life, and you know because you've done your homework, as suggested earlier in the blog post. Then, stick to your mission by saying no to those things that will not bring you closer to your goals. There is always an exception; there are times when one has to "take one for the team", where you donate time or effort towards a project which may not benefit you directly but which you do from an altruistic perspective.

2.8 Look after your physical health

As they say, a healthy body can house a healthy mind. If your body is healthy, your mind can have its best chance to cope with the pressures of life. Exercise regularly, sleep enough, and eat well.

2.9 Employ healthy coping strategies

A few years ago, I saw a tweet where the tweep reported that she had just heard some awful news and was going to eat salad and do some yoga. I must say, this made a profound impression on me. We often hear that someone would rather turn to a burger and a beer rather than yoga and salad. What a great example of healthy coping strategies!

I asked some of my friends in academia what they do to cope with stress, and they reported various coping strategies, from sleeping to drawing. Through these conversations, I also realised the importance of doing something you love, whether it is spending time with family or friends or hiking, with the ultimate aim of climbing Kilimanjaro.

3 Check in with yourself regularly: Reflect, review and revise

Reflect, review and revise, what I call the 3xRs, have a prominent place in maintaining the balance. As we know by now, our circumstances are dynamic, they change, and you and your needs evolve. It is important to check in with yourself regularly. Where you focused on your career before, maybe it is now time to put your focus on relationships, for example. Schedule a reflection session somewhere in your calendar. I recently had a date with three friends at 11:00 in the morning at a restaurant. I went at 9:30 – ordered toast with avo, sat with my notebook, and stared out the window interspersed with some jotting down my thoughts. I call these sessions "thinking time". My objective was to review my current situation and to determine my focus going forward.

Face it, times will come when all your well-intentioned plans will go out the window, and you need to focus for some time on a single domain until it is stabilised. For example, you consistently worked on your proposal to ensure that there was no last-minute rush. Then a week before the deadline, you realise that the equipment you were going to use is no longer available and demands major changes to your proposed methods. This type of situation may mean that most of your focus will go into sorting this crisis out, and that you will have less time to spend n other domains during that week, which is okay in the short term. Once the week is over, find some time for the 3x Rs and enter the next chapter with renewed hope and energy.

A Live Workshop on Work-Life Balance was presented to the members of the Research Masterminds Success Academy. For more value, join today


Photo by Marta Wave


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