Last year I went to a key note speech by Kate Soper. A professor in philosophy at the London Metropolitan University, Kate’s talk called for a slowing down of society in aid of a better future. We should work less hours, allow part-time employment to become the norm (thus creating more jobs) and generally enjoy a reversion back to the ‘good life’. It came as little surprise when someone piped up from the audience, “Would you say that you practice what you preach? Academics work crazy long hours” (I’m paraphrasing but you get the gist).
At the time it made me think, how do we define work anyway? Is work what we get paid to do? Is work something we loathe to do? Is work something we feel like we have to do? If you work away from the office, past your normal hours, is it still work? And where does a PhD fit into this? Is a funded PhD work and a non-funded one just study?
I think the way in which you address and answer these questions whilst doing a PhD has a significant impact, both on your happiness and on your success. As a colleague said last week, when his funding runs out does completion of the PhD become a hobby? Albeit an all-consuming and highly demanding one. As a PhD student and academic it is important to understand how you work best, as Trev pointed out in his post ‘How to complete your PhD on time’. Time-out from work is very important but I like to think of the way I manage my workload as a work-life weave rather than a work-life balance.
The work-life weave isn’t unusual in academia because we all love what we do at least some of the time; we have a vocation if you like. Things might change a bit once you become a full-time academic. This group, no doubt due to institutional pressures and job insecurity, were recently highlighted as one of the most stressed professional groups in a survey. Doing a PhD gives us more freedom to manage our workload than most, so we are also free to pursue other interests and CV boosting activities, as long as it isn’t detrimental to PhD progress.
For other people the work-life weave just won’t work. It might cause extra stress and anxiety or it might not be achievable for the PhD discipline you work in. We all need to switch off every now and then. I do think though, if people stop relating the word ‘work’ to all things arduous, it can lead to a much happier existence. That said, I do like structure in my life, and the following exercise has helped me many a time to prioritise and rationalise my tasks.
Once a week or so split your to-do list into the following categories:
- Things I need to do to complete my PhD
- Things I need to do to keep my supervisor happy
- Things I need to do to for self-improvement/career prospects
For me, this week would look something like:
- Select my ethnographic study sites
- Create a population sampling frame
- Practice conference presentation at grad school seminar
Different tasks will take priority at different times, but all should be factored in to your schedule on a monthly basis. The main exception being once you are nearing completion and all you probably care about is list 1.
Anyway, best get back to ‘real work’.