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Finding the work-life balance of a PhD

When constant studying started taking a toll on PhD student Vijay Victor’s physical health, he realised he needed to create a better work-life balance

    Vijay Victor's avatar

    Vijay Victor

    May 20 2019
    phd, work life balance, studying, illness


    When I decided to do my PhD abroad in Hungary I had a clear idea in mind about my research plan. I started publishing papers even before getting into doctoral school, laying the foundations for my research topic. I published papers in well-indexed journals, exceeding the requirements of our doctoral school in the first four semesters of my PhD – after all, they say hard work pays off.

    But sometimes too much hard work can be damaging. Somewhere in this journey, I lost myself in my research.

    Being an introvert it was instinctive to me to make excuses to avoid social events, and my hectic workload helped me avoid socialising without any guilt. The graduate life abroad is confined mostly to one’s own room, despite what all the Instagrammed parties and glamorous nights out would have you think.

    Occasionally I went swimming with a few close friends, which was the only active exercise I did, and I also loved going for a long walk in the countryside.

    But when I had deadlines, I did nothing other than study for days. I think on average I spent 10-12 hours a day studying, reading and writing without even realising it. 

    There were even times when I felt a sneaky happiness on Friday evenings as I was faced with two whole days to work on my papers without disturbances. 

    I only realised that I was overworking myself when my body started to respond. My fitness tracker warned me that my average sleeping time of 5 hours 30 minutes was not good enough. 

    I started getting migraines and they became more frequent. And then I started to have gut problems. This was when I knew I needed to take a break.

    I went home after seeking permission from my supervisor (she was very kind and helpful) and got myself thoroughly checked by a physician. After an endoscopy and some blood tests I was told that I had developed a functional gastrointestinal disorder. Fortunately it was at the beginning stage and there was nothing much to worry about. 

    Some of my friends doing PhDs shared similar stories of health problems. It was bittersweet to know I wasn’t the only one. I had already read about the anxiety and depression issues which graduate students experience, however this was a new revelation to me. To my surprise, in a random Google search at least 10 research studies appeared confirming the relationship between academic stress and gut problems.

    Tips for writing a convincing thesis

    Research life is entirely different to undergraduate life. My research area is in the field of economics, so I only need my laptop and a quiet space to work and so I do not get the chance to meet colleagues on a daily basis. When the deadlines are so close, stocking fridges and spending days in your room is a story which is familiar to many in grad schools. And often, when you work on more than one paper simultaneously, you have no time for a proper break.

    Even after you submit you will have to deal with reviewers comments and corrections. So you have to revise your piece numerous times in order to either get it accepted – which further increases the motivation to write new papers – or it’s rejected, which is upsetting and followed by desperate attempts of trying again. Either way, you are back to square one with a new paper.

    Writing research papers is often a tedious, bleak and time consuming process. Sometimes despite the best efforts, you might only have typed two or three paragraphs by the end of the day. This at times could also create a delusion that you are not putting in enough effort.

    Some scholars seem to be unable to identify the fine line between a normal and an overwhelming work schedule.

    Often we realise too late that it is important to strive for balance first, before aiming for perfection. As my supervisor always says, “there is no finished work in research”. Being a researcher is a lifetime contract and only by making it a part of a healthy lifestyle can one sustain and excel in it.

    Read more: What is a PhD? Advice for PhD students

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