Category Archives: Work/life balance

When all the world is partying…

In those final months and weeks of writing-up, there’s a cloud of guilt every time I do something other than writing… The world can party on St. Patrick’s day, but I’ll be here tapping away at my laptop.

There are two breaks from my laptop and my various draft chapter versions I foresee over the next 8 weeks (besides when I’m sleeping): the Easter weekend when I visit family, and Earth Hour on 23 March when I’ll turn off the lights and the computer. Beyond that, I cannot manage to pull myself away from work: whether that is actually writing, re-reading chapter drafts, thinking about what needs to be written next, panicking when I discover there’s a vital piece of information that I’m missing, or feeling guilty for watching rugby games when I should be writing (thank goodness the Six Nations is over, and not only because both Ireland and France sucked this year and it’s something we’d rather forget…). 

I don’t mean to make the whole PhD process sound like hell, it’s just a bit testing at times. But the light at the end of the tunnel is there! And in some masochistic way, there is a real pleasure to be found in seeing the pages mount up, and the number of corrections reducing… Plus there is a massive community of people out there who are going through the same, or have gone through the same. If they can do it, so can you. I often take heart from seeing comments on twitter from fellow researchers on a weekend when they are also knuckling down to their own to-do list.

Working on Sundays is not forever, just for the moment.

P.S. Happy St. Patrick’s day


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Welcoming 2013

This is not another blog post about New Year’s resolutions and how to stick to them, I promise….

My new year is off to an excellent start. Today is day one of getting back to the grindstone after ten days of madness en famille, but I’m spending it sitting at my desk at home with a blanket wrapped around my shoulders, another blanket over my lap, a cup of piping hot tea beside me and a box of tissues to hand at all times. Unsurprisingly, I am in no mood for making new year’s resolutions. And in even less of a mood to keep them. And just thinking about my history with resolutions, I want to say that I blame reality and the world and society for any resolutions I’ve ever made that I’ve not kept!

Calvin and Hobbes: "Reality continues to ruin my life"

Calvin and Hobbes: “Reality continues to ruin my life”


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Chapter drafts and dust balls

I just don’t know how people do it… Cleanliness as the first casualty of overwork

There are many examples of people who work on their PhDs, have a part-time job, and a family and social life, and I am just baffled about how they do it. I don’t have children and the work I do on the side of my PhD is usually part of a strategy to advance my post-PhD career (publications, teaching, event organisation, module development, research projects etc.). But even at that I struggle with overwork, lack of sleep and grumpiness around my husband (who, incidentally, also works super long hours)!

Recently my husband and I were looking forward to friends coming to visit and stay with us from Switzerland. But we were both so busy with work and so tired in the evenings that we simply didn’t get around to cleaning the apartment. That was until the very evening before these friends were due to arrive. Then with a last-minute deadline gusto we set about doing laundry, vacuuming, dusting, mopping, and cleaning on the one and only evening that we could take off. The whole experience was horrible! It took four hours to get through the work, and we had lots of stupid arguments about vacuuming and dusting and scrubbing the shower!

That sort of angst is not worth it.

As a follow up, we have decided that it is perhaps best for our relationship and for our work-life balance that something gives. And in the end, it is the cleaning that is the first to go. We can’t reduce our workloads at present, we can’t ignore our sleep requirements, so we’re going to ignore the dust balls that go floating through our living room. Or at least, pass the responsibility onto someone else. Practical decision: let’s find a cleaning service.

It kind of grains against my sensibilities that we have proven too busy to take proper care of our home. But, sometimes pragmatism must win out over pride. Drafting chapters, and not sweeping dust balls, is number one on my to do list!

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Extra reading: Vagina and the End of Men

What to read in that rare “downtime”…

As a PhD researcher, I spend a lot of time reading. Whether it is news reports, policy documents, journal articles, academic books, it all adds up to a lot of time following words along a page or screen. While this probably is a main reason for the frighteningly rapid deterioration in my eyesight over the last few years, it can’t be helped. It’s one of the major parts of the job!

But reading is also a leisure activity. Over the years of this PhD journey I have gone through ups and downs with leisure-time reading. Sometimes I pick up a novel and hide away for three days just to finish it (which means three days without head space to think about the PhD). Sometimes I go for months and months without reading anything unrelated to my PhD, but then I begin to feel somewhat out of touch with the social conversations going on around me.

So I’ve found a new middle-ground. I now read nonfiction that is unrelated to my PhD! That way I don’t get so engrossed in the book that I have to physically take holidays to get it finished (30 minutes before bed is sufficient to get through it!), and I also don’t get the feeling that I’m totally disconnected from the world around me.

My latest nonfiction reading was Naomi Wolf’s “Vagina”. You may have noticed from some earlier posts of mine (e.g. on Street Harassment or on Women at the Top?) that I have strong feelings about equality of all sorts, but especially between men and women. It’s a tricky topic.

I had originally thought that Wolf’s book would be a bit of feminist manifesto, but I was wrong! It is in fact an easy-to-read history of the role of the vagina (or the “feminine”) in history, and how this has developed from an attitude of reverence towards it to one of shame or debasement over the centuries. It’s an interesting discussion of Western/modern attitudes to women and to sex in general and how it has become distorted over the years. (As an aside, pornography is probably one of the major examples of disrespecting women and/or the feminine. An article in the BBC magazine even asks the question: should we educate our children about pornography? More young people today are confused about the difference between pornography and reality…)

Wolf draws on plenty of emerging scientific evidence about the nerval connections between the vagina and brain to argue her point that a happy vagina = a happy, creative woman. But, it’s not a feminist call to ditch men. In fact, Wolf  does state that a healthy relationship between a man and a woman is an excellent way to achieve a healthy vagina. Conclusion? (Heterosexual) Women need men.

But don’t stop there.

I’ve now moved onto reading a book by Hanna Rosin called The End of Men and the Rise of Women, and I’ve gotten through about half of this book already. This is a fascinating book to move onto immediately after finishing Wolf’s book. Rosin’s argument focuses on the US and how the economic recession there has affected the balance of women and men in employment. As the traditional manufacturing economy has collapsed in the US, more men than women lost their jobs, and the balance is that more women are now working than men. However, this doesn’t mean that men are competing with women for jobs – no, they are rather sitting around being depressed! Her stories tell of women who have higher education, higher drive to find work, more transferable skills, but men who are still not interested in retraining in what have been seen as traditionally women’s professions. Teaching training and nursing schools still struggle to recruit male students, while these health, education and service industries are where jobs are to be found in the recession!

But that’s not all. Not only are women making more money than men, and more women are employed than men, but the women are also STILL doing the lion’s share of the housework and childcare. What are the men doing? It’s a good question. Several of the cases in Rosin’s book point out that women have decided they are better off taking care of the house and children by themselves. A man is seen by several of these women as “just another mouth to feed”.

So – do women need men, do men need women, should we just stop these sorts of conversations?

I am looking forward to Rosin following up with a new book in about fifteen years that I hope will describe how the women currently in the lower levels of the economy (albeit in greater numbers than men), rise to the top. Will our working lives look different with women in command? That still remains to be seen.

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Sit up straight!

Healthy body, happy mind, productive PhD researcher! Again, it seems mother was right…

How many times did my parents annoy me by telling me to “sit up straight”. Ah the wisdom of our elders. I should have paid more attention. It is a little bit frustrating to have to say: oh it turns out my parents were right about that all along. If only I knew then what I know now (isn’t there a song about that?).

Today is a tough day in the office. I have just taken some painkillers to combat the back pain I’ve been suffering since yesterday. It’s lower back pain on the right hand side, and I know it’s not due to any major injury, because I haven’t fallen or lifted heavy things or anything like that. It might be due to stress. It’s been hectic, to say the least, for the last few weeks. It might be due to fatigue. But the bad posture I have when sitting at my desk is certainly one major factor.

I have been working furiously at my desk, for long stretches of time, over the last few weeks. I managed to ‘get into the zone’ with work and writing and haven’t been careful about taking breaks. You know that feeling when things are just flowing and you’re afraid that if you go for that cup of coffee now, you’ll lose the rhythm? That’s where I was. It’s usually a good feeling, but my body evidently disagrees. Now my back is in pain and it’s distracting me from work and I actually have lost the momentum! Just goes to show – my body can only take so much, and if I don’t want to be prevented from working I have to be more reasonable with myself.

Today I am very consciously sitting with my feet flat on the floor, back straight and attempting to get the 90 degree angle right for typing, and the monitor high. I’ve swapped chairs for one that has a straighter back, hoping that will help force me to keep the position. But I imagine it’s not ‘just like that’ that I will get over this back pain. Hopefully I will be able to get some rest to help recover. And I must avoid heavy lifting (could be challenging since this weekend I’m taking care of my young nephews who love to be carried!).

Hopefully I can develop some positive habits to prevent future pain too. Right now, this back pain is rather distracting. Perhaps I should indeed listen to my parents a bit more…

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Back to the grindstone

Holidays are amazing. I didn’t even open my notebook, didn’t even think about the PhD once, just kicked back and relaxed, enjoyed some sunshine, good food, time with friends, a bit of gentle sport, and I even managed to read some fiction. Yes, that’s right: I read fiction! Can you believe it?!

Today is day one back at the office. I am full of energy after the break away, and somehow feel like, yes, I can do it, I can conquer this thesis business, I can get it done and get it written and all will be well. Taking a holiday is like breaking away and starting afresh. I feel like making new year’s resolutions, even though it’s not new year.

Resolution 1: it’s good to do sport, but I always complain I don’t have time. Resolution number 1 is to cycle to and from the office. Day one back at the office and I accomplished this one! Here’s hoping I can keep it up.

2: When I feel I can’t concentrate, rather than wasting time on the internet, I need to get away from the computer screen. New lack of concentration activity: walking around the office.

3: Get up early! Get to the office before 9am! Have a good morning of work and schedule meetings only in the afternoon. Day one back at the office, and I was here at 8:40am. Not bad, let’s keep it up!

4: Write, write, write…

5: … But don’t stress out. Nothing causes writers’ block more than stress. So what if today is a slow day? So what if I missed that deadline by a week? It’s not the end of the world, and it’s not worth stressing over!

6: Time to cut down on extracurricular activities. Life for the next 4-6 months will be PhD, PhD, PhD.

7: Constantly remind myself that this will all be over soon and that of course it’s worth it.

We’ll see how I get on… Keep your eyes open for future updates.

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Take a break: becoming a balanced researcher

I know it’s a good idea: I’m off on holidays on Thursday morning for ten days. It’s going to be amazing to take time off (I am forbidden to bring my laptop with me), but I’m also slightly panicked at the idea of it. Today, I took a good hard look at my to do list, and translated that into the amount of working days I have in August. This brought on a bit of an anxiety attack – how am I supposed to finish two chapters by the first week of September if I’ve only got 17 working days in August?!


But, actually, it’s not really. Sometimes when it’s all a bit overwhelming, the best thing to do is to take a break and a breather. I’m taking my notebook with me on holidays (shh, don’t tell anyone), just in case I get some amazing ideas on how to move forward, on how to resolve that niggling conceptual issue I’ve been stuck on for a while, or any other moment of inspiration that I’ll want to record. But I won’t feel guilty if the notebook is untouched for the entire 10 days. That’s the whole point of a break, anyway. Relax, let the body destress, catch up on sleep, enjoy the company of family and friends, hang out in some beautiful countryside, and get a bit of perspective.

It doesn’t matter much in the grand scheme of things if I submit my thesis one or two months late, but neglecting my health or the important relationships in my life is a no-no. Sometimes I forget this. Getting caught up in deadlines, huge workloads, setbacks that stretch the time schedule means I can get stuck among a few trees and forget the great big forest around.

For researchers, there’s a lot of pressure to perform, produce and publish and all in super fast turnaround time – long hours, lots of brainwork, too much coffee, not enough exercise, no social life and not enough sleep are the usual ingredients for academics struggling to prove themselves in a highly competitive (and underpaid) sector. For PhD researchers, generally poorly paid (although that depends on the country, funding availability and many other factors), the pressure is on, not only to produce a thesis, but also to develop skills for their post-PhD career. This includes proof of high-quality publications, ability to attract funding, teaching experience, demonstrating initiative, teamwork, project management experience, and much more! And for those PhD students wishing to continue their career in academia, they face high competition for a low number of positions.

It’s not easy, but it’s not worth sacrificing the more important aspects of life. Take some time to assess your own priorities, and read this helpful advice from on becoming a balanced researcher.

Right, must get back to tidying up the loose ends that absolutely cannot wait until I’m back from holidays.

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