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How I manage to find work–life balance as a researcher


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How I manage to find work–life balance as a researcher

There are two species of researchers—one who endorse research as a 24 × 7 profession, and the other, who take a good break when their most crucial experiment fails repeatedly. I identify myself with the latter. Many describe work–life balance as a state of equilibrium between the demands of personal life and professional ambitions.

 

The catch is that equilibrium is not static. There is always a fair degree of passive motion around what many call a stable work–life balance. Let me give an example. The day my most awaited experimental results came through, my 20-month-old toddler showed up from day care with fever. My excitement to forge ahead with my experiment—with chemicals and zebrafish embryos—vanished into thin air. It was time to write a childcare leave application.

 

How would you achieve balance in this situation? You can’t run experiments while babysitting or taking care of other urgent domestic situations. My postdoc advisor came up with an ingenious idea to use the situation to our advantage. She e-mailed me a set of research papers and converted my babysitting leave into a reading marathon. I was happy enough to accomplish both the tasks and returned to the lab with some fresh scientific insights.

 

I believe that there is no absolute work–life equilibrium. We can only try to approach as close to it as possible and taste success for moderate periods. For me, work–life balance is not about equalizing work and life but more about how to support one without letting unforeseen situations compromise the other.

 

A “triplet code” for productive work–life balance

As a trained biologist, when reflecting on achieving work–life balance, I think of the term homeostasis—the state a living system like a cell can achieve by being “smart” and regulating internal disturbances for healthy survival. It took many transient disruptions in my personal and professional life before I could figure out how to become a “smart cell.”

Just like how cells work based on a genetic code consisting of nucleotide triplets, I came up with my own triplet code for work–life balance: EQ (emotional quotient), PQ (professional quotient), and DQ (domestic quotient).

 

Strengthen your emotional quotient

Research career is taxing and throws up intense challenges. For example, you may deal with a weak research hypothesis, a request for more data from peer reviewers before your manuscript can be accepted, manuscript rejection, squabbles over authorship, insecurity associated with tenure or fellowship-based positions, and fear of your work getting scooped.

These professional strains adversely affect work–life balance. I have faced some of the above situations and almost drowned in a pool of negative emotions. I realized that emotional stability is important for a balanced life and devised a few strategies that helped me handle grueling situations with ease.

 

  • Derive 70% support from your inner self. Family and friends can’t always have your back. No one wants to hear a sob story all the time.
  • Identify situations or triggers that make you emotionally vulnerable. Observe and critically analyze your reactions and regulate them.
  • Understand that certain scenarios are out of your reach or control. Don’t fret over such situations.
  • Don’t suppress your emotions but ensure that you are not consumed by them. It is okay to cry if that makes you feel better.
  • Get involved in other activities that bring you meaning and joy. Don’t make work your only identity.
  • Socialize with people who build you up. Stay away from people who dissipate negativity.

Be tough with your professional quotient

One of the common reasons of a poor work–life balance is a demanding family life. I lived as a postdoctoral researcher all by myself with two young children aged 7 and 2 years. My postdoc advisor had obvious concerns about my performance. Many women researchers will identify with this situation.

Living with the constant feeling of being overwhelmed by the demands of managing kids and work can lead to poor planning and make one appear messy, disoriented, and unproductive. After being in that shambolic state for a while, I decided to streamline my focus on being a tough professional. The rule I made was “When in the lab, be in the lab, and when at home, be at home.” Research is all about deliverables. Hence, I worked to raise my professional quotient and never compromised it. I followed certain commandments:

 

  • Set deadlines for your experiments, and make sure you achieve most of them.
  • Hiccups and pauses are a part of parenting young children. Predict such situations in advance so that you don’t crash when they happen.
  • Lab meeting presentations are the best platform for getting constructive feedback on your work. Don’t delay or reschedule them even if your supervisor is okay with doing so. The habit of holding up things will slow your research progress.
  • Networking with other researchers or scientists is important for a researcher. Try to use your tea/lunch time for scientific discussions or discussing research ideas.
  • The idea of 24 × 7 research is counter-productive. It may lead to procrastination and work pile-up.
  • It is good to revise professional ambitions. Review your current status and performance and accordingly make your next career move. Avoid rigidity in career decisions.
  • Coming to lab early mornings and working to meet a 7 p.m. childcare deadline made my days productive. You can start your experiments early, have some results by afternoon, and feel a sense of accomplishment by evening. This leaves almost no room for work-related anxiety and stress and increases research output.

Set up your domestic equations

Domestic work is overwhelming—it is not just ordinary chores but other duties and responsibilities that are heavily loaded with gender stereotypes. The first step towards breaking such casts begins with you. For example, I would quickly check my partner whenever he would say, “Women can do it better.” Gradually, we could blur the line that divides chores along traditional gender boundaries. One important piece of advice—don’t attempt to start a tradition-breaking revolution in your domestic sphere. Avoid heated arguments as it wastes energy. Instead, use intelligent explanations for equalizing household duties. The approaches I follow are:

 

  • Delegate responsibilities to family members. Don’t pitch in for work assigned to others.
  • If there is an option, hire and train a domestic help to suit your needs.
  • “Perfection” is impossible in the domestic context. Save this word for the dictionary.
  • Embrace pride in your contribution. Free yourself of any feelings of unwarranted guilt.
  • Don’t perceive children as huge responsibility and feel bogged down by the same. Enjoy your time at home with them to relax and rejuvenate. This helps to maintain a lot of positivity at home.
  • Don’t treat domestic activities as boring stuff. Try and add some fun to mundane tasks. You may try singing together, sharing jokes, or doing a recap of the week with your partner/children while finishing regular domestic chores.

Devise your own rules

Don’t go by any rulebook or lists of top ten tips to achieve work–life balance. While some strategies will work for all researchers, there may be scenarios that are individual-specific. So, you will need to develop your own personalized strategy. You can achieve this by defining what work–life balance means to you. Comparing your situation with those of others and copying their strategies will do more damage than good. So, devise your own rules. You are that “smart cell” who knows what causes disorder and which mechanisms to put in place to ensure that the seesaw of work–life balance remains a fun ride.

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Published on: Nov 23, 2021

Curious to know professionals, researchers and entrepreneurs engaged in creative pursuits, interested in writing about issues that plague higher education and research
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