How to manage work life balance as a postdoc scientist
For many, postdoctoral life coincides with taking on new personal responsibilities that may include starting a family, buying a house, or paying off student loans. A postdoctoral position is typically a stepping stone to a future tenure track faculty position. While it may seem an extension of a PhD graduate regime, the challenge lies in managing the additional professional responsibilities along with the personal ones.
If you are a new postdoc, you may feel the need to prove your worth and build your reputation. As you progress towards being a senior postdoc, you may feel the pressures of funding and career progression looming over you. Further, the limited research funding in most countries, may stretch your postdoc life by several years until you publish adequate number of articles and receive your own grants, before getting the coveted faculty position.
To keep a positive and healthy outlook over the years as a postdoc, it is important to maintain a good work-life balance. Of course, this would have a different meaning for every person. It is therefore important that you first identify what your own expectations are and understand what you are ready to compromise on.
If you are in a soccer team, for instance, and need to attend practice sessions, think about whether are you okay with moving them to late evenings or if needed, quit the team? If you are married to another postdoc with an equally hectic schedule, are you willing to limit the time spent together to dinner time on weekdays, or would you both like to ensure that you do not work on weekends? If you have kids, are you ready to hire a nanny or send your kids to daycare while you are in the lab? Are you ready to work around your kids’ football matches or music classes? Once you understand what your goals and objectives are, what you are ready to compromise on, and what the right work-life balance for you is, you will be in a better position to work towards it.
Being a postdoc means you will be doing a lot of troubleshooting and work can threaten to keep you busy at all times. Therefore, to help you strike the golden balance between work and pleasure time, here is some advice.
1. Select the right lab
Most times, we have our eyes set on the big labs with major funding. These labs can be very intellectually stimulating and may substantially help you with the correct networking options (that are important as a scientist), but they are likely to be very challenging and time demanding. Postdocs in such labs may face cut-throat competition where it may become essential to work around the clock.
Different labs have different work cultures and significantly vary with respect to competition levels, stress levels, and work-loads. Weigh your priorities before committing to any lab. Speak with other postdocs in the lab to understand the work hours and the expectations out of a postdoc. If family life is important for you, make sure you consider this before taking up a position.
Further, if the lab you are considering is in another city, consider how this will impact your life and whether you are ready for the change. Is your partner willing to move with you, or would you move alone and be in a long-distance relationship? Do you like to explore new cities or are you comfortable in familiar surroundings? Asking these questions to yourself is important because in the long term these factors will considerably affect your personal life and should be considered when selecting a lab. This advice is rooted in my personal experience. For my first postdoc, I had the opportunity to move to another city, to a well renowned university after my PhD, but decided against this opportunity as my husband would not have been able to move with me and a long-distance relationship was not something I was ready for.
2. Discuss your expectations with your Project Investigator
Some people like to work early in the morning while some like graveyard shifts. Likewise, some people like to work over the weekends while others do not. Postdocs in your lab may work on schedules that may or may not suit you. If you know you can balance your work-life requirements with the work-load in the lab, but prefer to work differently than the others in the lab, you should discuss your priorities and your schedule with your Project Investigator. In most cases as long as you are productive, your lab head will be accommodative about your preferences and there will be no repercussions.
During my postdoc years, my routine was geared around my daughter’s daycare center timings. I planned all my experiments accordingly and my Project Investigator was aware that I had to leave the lab by 5:30 pm. However, I made sure I was in the lab each day at sharp 8:30 am. So even though my schedule differed a bit from my co-workers’, it helped me balance my priorities without affecting my productivity.
3. Stick to a routine
Try setting up a routine that works for you. Consider your personal needs while setting this up. You can choose work hours that best suit you and your lifestyle. If you are a morning person, start work early and leave the evenings free to spend time with your family or to pursue your hobbies. If you are most productive later in the day, use the morning hours for other activities and schedule your work in the second half of the day. Whatever you decide, stick to the routine as far as possible. This will give structure to your day and will help you be more efficient and you would definitely get time for your personal activities. As a postdoc, you are likely to feel that work is never-ending. But no matter what schedule you choose, avoid taking work home. A clear demarcation of what you do at home and at work will help your mind relax, and help you balance your work and family time.
4. Plan your schedule
Planning your schedule is important to work efficiently. Consider your work hours and your personal needs while creating your work schedule. Consider your own projects as well as other lab responsibilities you may have while planning. Try to fit as much as you can during your work hours. For example, if you are writing a manuscript, write down the methods section during an incubation period rather than waiting until the end of the day and increasing your work hours. Or if you have a long commute to work, consider using that time to start writing that grant due in a month. Use your time efficiently. Sometimes, sticking to routine may be difficult as some experiments may run into long hours or you may have additional deadlines to meet. If you have long experiments to do one week, try to offset the next week with a lighter schedule. If you have family commitments on certain weekday evenings, work on the weekends to make up. Try to find the right balance where you do not work, work, work or play, play, play.
I would like to close with the following thought – to be productive, it is extremely important to be happy and content with what you do. If you enjoy what you do, work-life does not necessarily need to be considered as two separate entities and it may be enough to draw your energy and creativity from work itself. You only need to discover what is important to you, and then you will find the optimal balance to stay energized.