The results of the Instagram poll are in and the majority of you wanted to hear more about either work like balance and surviving a Ph.D. While I have a few more posts up my sleeve on topics like lab techniques and more details about the type of research I do, this post is dedicated to a combination of work-life balance and surviving a Ph.D.
The holidays are right around the corner and I've settled in at my hometown for a Christmas vacation. But my first day home I spent finishing up some changes to a manuscript draft and looking at data (which I have to admit was really exciting). But what happens when you can't shut the lab brain off? What happens when you feel guilty for taking time off? It can be difficult to disconnect completely from lab. It can be even more difficult when you feel passionately about your research, which many Ph.D. students are familiar with. Refusing to take sufficient time off, though, is a perfect recipe for burnout.
So what do we do when guilt sets in over no being "productive enough?" What do we do when we love the work we do and don't want to take a break? We all need moments to regroup and there's no better time to do so than over the holidays. Here are a few thoughts on taking the holidays as a time to reset and making the most out of the time we have away from lab.
Recognize how you feel! Everyone has a different tolerance for busyness and different needs to totally reset their mind to recover from the madness of lab. The workload in lab can be highly variable so we tend to encounter some slow months and then some months where we're running experiments nonstop, juggling classes, and trying to submit a paper or a grant. For me personally, I just left an extremely busy time in lab after submitting two different grants, training new students, running experiments, working on a manuscript, and analyzing all the data that was rolling in. The manuscript was the last thing on my plate and I sent it off for comments this afternoon so I was finally able to take a deep breath and settle into holiday mode. But despite the welcome respite from work, I start to feel a little stir crazy after a few days of blissful nothing. So what to do when the jitters start to set in but still make the most out of the break? I always stuff my purse full of scientific articles that have been piling up on my desk at home in addition to a few books for leisure and a journal to write in. When and if I feel desire to be productive for lab, I catch up on reading articles related to my field of research (which is really difficult to do in a normal lab day). If you're just thankful to get the time to take a few deep breaths, don't be afraid to give yourself permission to take a full on detox from lab work. A few days off won't set you back detrimentally in the long run and it's important to play the long-game when you're out to get your Ph.D. It's important to remember that we are our greatest resource and we need a fresh, sharp mind when tackling things in lab. We need time to rest and recharge and build up motivation in order to be maximally effective in lab. So if you really think about it, by taking time off you're actually being more productive than if you were to continue plowing through work at breakneck speed until you fall into fully fledged burnout.
Find an outlet. I can be really hard to find the time to do anything other than lab related work. There are tons of activities I enjoy doing and always want to do, but rarely have time for unless it's the weekend and I've taken time away from the lab. One thing I like to do when I'm home for the holidays is make desserts so my fiance and I team up in the kitchen to make cinnamon rolls, baklava, cookies, pie, etc. Baking is something I always enjoy doing more when I'm with other people and it's a tasty way to unwind. Maybe you have a creative streak and you can throw yourself into drawing or painting or writing or building something when you find yourself with this foreign thing known as free time. Another thing I like to spend my time doing is getting in some exercise like running, sweating through a yoga flow, or doing some weightlifting. Getting a sweat on is a great way to relieve stress counter the sometimes sedentary lifestyle of lab. Breaks from work are the perfect time to nurture and cultivate the other aspects of our lives. Even though we're primarily scientists, our identities aren't solely attached to the work that we do and attaching ourselves too irreversibly to lab can be a precarious place to live (especially when you encounter failed experiments).
Reflect and make some changes. Is there something you're unhappy about with your lifestyle? Maybe you want to incorporate more variety into your daily life. We're alllllll familiar with the infamous New Year's Resolution. It's cheesy yes, but the holidays (or any other break from work for that matter) are the perfect time to set goals and put a new schedule into effect. One goal I have is to take time in the morning to set my day off at the right pace. When I had more time on my hands I used to consistently spend my mornings journaling and doing some yoga while I sipped my first cup of coffee for the day before heading into lab. But recently my days have been much longer so anything other than lab work that I want to do I have to finish at the end of the day, putting me at getting to sleep around 11 pm to 12 am. Falling asleep later means waking up later, leaving no time for lolligagging in the mornings and starting a vicious cycle. But now is the perfect time to put a new sleeping habits into effect and reframing my mornings so that I can start the day mindfully and with an inspired perspective.
Make a list of what you're grateful for. Gratitude lists are big among the mindfulness community and you'll see listing what you're grateful for as a snippet of advice in any self-help article. But how about we apply this to lab? I know I've had many times when I've struggled to feel grateful about lab and the insanity of getting a Ph.D. can feel overwhelming. But I think we can all agree that there's a reason why we decided to venture down this path. What was it? What good things have happened in lab lately? What are the good things about your current circumstances that you can be grateful for? Amidst the massive workload I'm grateful for all of the opportunities I've had over the last few months to get some experience in applying for grants and putting together a manuscript for publication. I'm grateful for the amazing coworkers I have in lab and in the department and the positive environment our PI creates in the lab. I'm grateful for the opportunity to publish several papers in lab and start my publication record that will pave the way for future career moves. I'm grateful for the training I'm receiving, though it can be difficult at times, because this training is laying the groundwork for my career as an independent researcher running my own lab. I'm grateful for the chance to mentor others in lab and to teach both in lab and in the classroom because science relies heavily on interpersonal relationships and the ability to inspire your research team.
By taking the time to refresh your mindset, you're building momentum for a productive start to the new year. So breathe deeply, make some hot chocolate, and watch a Christmas movie. Happy holidays, friends.