On the idea of “work-life balance”

Dear Graduate Student,

If I could share one word on work-life balance it would be: poppycock (noun) nonsense, rubbish, balderdash…..

Being a graduate student is really hard work. Sure, there are many plus sides, but for the sake of this post let’s focus on how you will eat, sleep, and breathe your research project for the foreseeable future.

The premise behind creating balance between one’s personal life and one’s professional life is a good one. The term was formally created in the 1970’s “to describe the need to protect family life in a career-driven culture.” I do not disagree with the ideology behind work-life balance, but rather object to our choice of terms regarding it.

Some of us may have reservations about the impact of work-life balance on our professional goals, but the benefits of such balance to our personal lives and our health are generally uncontested. Some say graduate school is the time to buckle down, make sacrifices, and power through. (Reality often being that this attitude isn’t going to change if you want a post-doc or professor position at a research university!) However, academic retention and support programs for both faculty and graduate students often reinforce the importance of work-life balance. There are numerous workshops, articles, seminars, self-help guides, and discussion groups on the topic. Unfortunately, many of us are left feeling like an underhanded tug of war is happening. On the one hand we’re under an incredible amount of pressure to perform, produce, and compete, yet on the other hand we’re being told to slow down and tend to our well-being. We all aspire to land in the middle – to achieve the elusive status of “balanced” – and we often add it to our list of skills to prioritize mastering. But that’s just it, it’s elusive isn’t it? Most of us can only identify a handful of people, if any, in academia who seemed to have achieved this magical state. A thousand scowls to anyone who dares question the reality of work-life balance out loud though!

So, do I believe work-life balance is real? I strongly believe that you can have a successful professional career (in this case graduate school) and have a rich, healthy personal life. My real beef with the concept of work-life balance is the terminology we use and the way we have idealized it.

By definition, the term “balance” implies that you can do at least two things equally, at the same time. These two things are of equal weight or importance at all times. Picture a weighing scale like in the scales of justice with professional on one side and personal on the other – in perfect balance.

When I first tried work-life balance in academia it was like another thing I couldn’t get right. If I couldn’t put equal efforts into work and personal every day, I was failing. Supposedly this balance phenomenon was something other successful people were able to do but I couldn’t achieve it. I would criticize how much of my time went where every day, every week, or every month. Work-life balance reminds me of the myth of the perfect 50’s housewife. Many American women aspired to have this perfectly productive, healthy home life where our efforts were always incredibly efficient and effective.  (There’s probably something to be said for an equivalent cookie-cutter image for men at the time too but that’s beside the point.) In reality, this is unattainable and working towards it often cultivates more feelings of unhappiness and failure.

What I have to offer you, dearest fellow graduate student, is a different metaphor. Consider using the metaphor of juggling act instead of a the iconic image of a double-pan balance scale. It’s impossible to do everything equally every day, or probably even every week in academia, so the real concept between striking a happy medium between work and personal life is a juggling act where you try not to drop the same ball too many times in a row. Some days you will neglect self-care. Some days you will reject work in favor of self-care. These days/weeks may not always be equal, but in sum they are healthy. This might seem obvious, but the subtle differentiation between these two analogies can have a really profound effect on our psyche.

I first read about the juggling metaphor in an article written by Radhika Nagpal, a female tenure-track professor at Harvard. For me, this idea was nothing short of transformative. It’s a long article, but worth the read. My favorite excerpt is this:

 We (myself included) admire the obsessively dedicated. At work we hail the person for whom science and teaching is above all else, who forgets to eat and drink while working feverously on getting the right answer, who is always there to have dinner and discussion with eager undergrads. At home we admire the parent who sacrificed everything for the sake of a better life for their children, even at great personal expense. The best scientists. The best parents. Anything less is not giving it your best.

And then I had an even more depressing epiphany. That in such a world I was destined to suck at both. Needless to say it took a lot of time, and a lot of tears, for me to dig myself out of that hole. And when I finally did, it came in the form of another epiphany. That what I can do, is try to be the best whole person that I can be. And that is *not* a compromise.” 

Truthfully, the best whole person that I can be is constantly in flux and I’m still (sometimes radically) out of whack with my efforts. One week I binge on my academic research and another I binge on personal projects. I haven’t got it figured out entirely, but I feel like I’m not dropping the ball in either court too often. Most importantly, I’ve stopped beating myself up about it all. I reflect on the excerpt above whenever I’m feeling like I’m failing at life.

For those of you struggling with balance, I hope you find this juggling metaphor more useful. Consider it a tool for your grad school survival toolbox. Don’t beat yourself up for dropping the ball.  Do try to be the best whole person you can be by adding non-academic things to your life that make you happy. Don’t apologize for making self-care a priority when you need it. Perhaps it’d be wise to stop admiring the obsessively dedicated? Everyone’s strategy for coping with the workload of graduate school will be different, a few common starting places are summarized in this article.

Stay positive.

– R

Can anyone else relate to feeling the added pressure of somehow being good at work-life balance? Have you found something that works? Share your thoughts below!