Doing a PhD can be quite demanding, and at times, it can seem as if it absorbs all your time and energy. How can you achieve a work and life balance during the PhD?
Here we collaborated with Phebe L. Bonilla P. from the University of Sheffield to discuss the value of balancing the PhD with other activities and hobbies to boost your physical and mental health.
Phebe is a PhD student in the Faculty of Engineering working on molecular simulations of CO2 capture. After attending our “Communicating research beyond academia” workshop Phebe was inspired to collaborate with the team and share with us her experience.
Tips for achieving work and life balance during the PhD
When I first started my PhD, the most common advice I heard from other PhD students was to “pace myself”. In the beginning, I did not quite understand it because I was used to turning in assignments and writing deadlines in my calendar. However, in my case, the PhD has been a very different experience from anything I had lived before.
During the first year, you can feel a bit lost and quite overwhelm by the amount of information and studies you want to read. It is like standing on a beach, admiring the vastness of the sea of information in front of you. You have to get across, but you actually do not know how, or which direction to take. Going through all this can be tiring. The number of papers you accumulate in your files seems to grow endlessly.
That is when I understood the “pacing” advice. You need time to process everything you read, but also to reflect on how that new information changes your own project and expectations. Each new piece of data can be a part of the PhD puzzle. You might not know where it will fit at the end, or even if you are going to use it at all, but you try to keep it just in case.
Get peer support
What helped me to emerge from the piles of papers was the fact that I am part of the Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures (GCFSF). As a Grantham Scholar, we have training sessions and workshops that are not usually part of the PhD program of the University. During these sessions, I met many other PhD students working on projects surrounding sustainability topics, but from different disciplines.
It was a great experience because we all were going through the same phase. I was able to discuss ideas and open my mind to very different opinions on the same topic. These interactions allowed me to be more critical regarding what I was reading. They also helped me find other tools to organize and refine my information searches. Additionally, some of these interactions developed into nice friendships which have been very supportive in times of stress and uncertainty. So, my advice would be, to pace yourself and make sure you have time for cultivating supportive and constructive relationships.
Spread the knowledge
I find that the PhD can be isolating. You spend so much time trying to find the data, analyse results or just getting your drafts right, that you forget there is a whole world out there. The thing that helped me to overcome this was finding opportunities to share what I learned.
As part of the GCFSF outreach activities, I volunteered to give a talk about my project at the Forge Valley School to Y11 pupils. I remember it took me days to create the slides. I wanted them to be as interesting and inclusive as possible. You can find here a few tips for achieving this. I was quite nervous when I arrived. However, when I explained my project to the students I realized how specialized is the knowledge I am gaining. It felt great to communicate my ideas in a different and engaging way. And more importantly, it reminded me of why I had decided to do a PhD in the first place.
The following year, I organized a team to participate in the Blue Dot Festival to talk about Air Quality as representatives of the GCFSF, the Urban Flow Observatory and the University of Sheffield. It was an amazing experience that allowed me to interact with other students, travel and have fun. Oh, and of course, raise awareness of important topics in an informal setting to a large audience (the festival has approximately 15 000 visitors per day).
Preparing the activities for our stall and organising the team sometimes felt very time consuming, especially while I was thinking about my piles of papers… but it was totally worth it. Even if I did not talk directly about my project, supporting other students to present their work made me more confident in my own communication skills. As the team leader, I also gained managing experience and gave my mind a break from complex physics. I highly recommend engaging in outreach activities throughout the PhD. Photo by Jeremy Abrahams.
Make time for yourself and your interests to achieve a balance between work and life
Hobbies and exercise
Free time can sometimes feel like a non-existent concept. Especially when your mind is constantly reminding you of all the things you could/should be doing/learning for your PhD. However, it is important to remember that we are still human. We need time to recharge and relax. Otherwise, you risk serious burnout, which at the end of the day, won’t allow you to finish your project.
Exercise is an excellent way to de-stress and stay healthy. In my case, I love swimming, and I used to go to the pool almost every weekday. When I started living with my now-husband, we had to adjust a bit to each other. He prefers running to swimming, whereas running does not appeal to me as much. However, we found a balance between our activities so we could share that time.
With the pandemic in place, and the sports centre closed, we had to interrupt our exercise sessions. I really miss swimming, but I have started other routines at home -thanks to Youtube – which allow me to stretch and keep fit. We also go running to the parks, taking advantage of all the green spaces Sheffield has to offer.
Additionally, I also like to allocate time for my hobbies. I really enjoy reading and painting. So, whenever I am blocked, I take a break. If I cannot keep writing papers or running simulations, I like to grab a good book or paint with my watercolours and let my mind wander to other things. I am currently in a phase of painting birds I find cute.
Engage with university activities and societies
Another excellent way to achieve a work and life balance during the PhD is to engage in the activities organised at your university.
For example, I love dancing and I have practised belly dance for a while now. When I arrived in Sheffield, the Belly Dance society was one of the first groups I signed up for. It was a great place to keep practising and to make friends.
We had the chance to perform at the City Hall during the International Cultural Evening of 2018 and 2019. I must admit I committed a lot of time to the rehearsals, but I really enjoyed it and had a lot of fun. In a way, it made me productive because I felt I needed to hurry reading/writing because I looked forward to the rehearsals in the evenings. We have moved the classes online now to adjust to the safety measures, and I hope we can get back on the stage soon.
Additionally, my husband and I serendipitously found the Lishi Tai chi society. We were studying in the Student’s Union and the society ran a class in the same space. We were both very stressed at the time and wanted to do something new and relaxing. So, it was just what we needed. It is interesting how challenging it can be as it looks very calm and peaceful.
What I also enjoyed a lot from classes was the self-defence exercises and learning to use swords and sticks. I definitely had a lot of fun and I learned some breathing techniques that have helped me manage anxiety when the PhD gets the best of me.
The PhD is quite a journey. It sure involves a lot of hard work and long hours, but it would be incomplete if you missed out on all the things that make it more enjoyable. As someone once told me “a PhD is a marathon, not a sprint”. It is more about resilience and persistence than perfect results. It is about the process and overcoming the challenges you find.
You must make time for yourself. Take care of your body and mind to ensure you can stay on track and motivated. It can seem like finding that work and life balance during the PhD is hard sometimes. Sure, there are moments in which you really need to solely focus on your research. However, the PhD journey encompasses your personal growth as much as your professional development. Don’t forget to live other experiences!