“Should I stay or should I go?”
Pursuing a PhD after graduating often seems like a sensible idea to life sciences students who enjoy laboratory work. A career in academia allows for more exploratory and independent research which offers a very interesting perspective for many “science lovers”. While passion for one’s work is often a great asset in this field, it can be taken advantage of. Total commitment is often taken for granted since scientists’ work is seen as vocational. This perspective on science might be due to a combination of low funds assigned to R&D, excessive working hours, modest salary, and the fact that a high number of scientists chose their career path due to their interest in science.1
Following conversations with PhD students at science fairs or from different laboratories, the main sensation I feel is discouragement. Their experiences are usually marked by high stress, lack of social life, or even health problems. In a survey of 50,000 graduate students in the UK, 86% of the researchers declared high levels of anxiety2, while a survey of 6300 graduates from around the world reported that 36% needed help with anxiety or depression related to their PhD.3
Researchers are highly pressured to obtain results, achieve grants to continue their research, and publish breakthroughs in their field in highly influential and renowned journals. Since academia is highly competitive, working overtime and even on the weekend seems like an assumed reality for many scientists, especially during their PhD. This led me to question the current dynamics of academia and the importance of maintaining a work-life balance. I can tell you now: the main advice I can offer you is summarised in one of the most famous songs of “The Clash” asking whether “should I stay or should I go now”.
It is highly worrying that rates of anxiety and depression are so high and on the rise for PhD students. Many researchers who are passionate about their field end up consumed by their work, spending almost 24 hours thinking about their research and not enjoying life outside the laboratory. Therefore, it is key to establish guidelines, both at individual and organisational levels, to ensure improvements to mental health in academia. Some suggestions are:
- Establish small goals. Carrying out a research proposal can take many years, and PhDs take between three and five years to complete. It is key to understand that the work in academia and during a PhD is a long-distance race. Thus, it is important to establish and complete smaller goals to keep yourself motivated, ensuring you are on track and completing your tasks.
- Make a schedule and ensure you don’t overwork yourself. Many students take on extra teaching commitments to earn extra money, adding more to their workload. So, it is important to make a distinction between your life and your work. Taking time off will improve your mental health and increase your productivity. It is likely you will see coworkers not taking time off and coming in during the weekends, but do not give in to peer pressure. You are doing your job well and you need to rest as well. Hence, make sure you take holidays and use all of your allocated days. Moreover, try to balance your schedule by avoiding working at the weekend or taking an afternoon or day off the following week if you had to come in on a Saturday.
- Practice resilience. Failure has always been part of life and it is often present in research. We have to come to terms with the fact that our experiments are not always going to have our expected outcome, yet we can always learn from these experiences. Additionally, it is critical to change the notion that negative results are not important in research, since they contribute to the field’s knowledge and can save money and time in resources. Being resilient is also key to facing and accepting negative feedback for a presentation or a thesis that you have been working very hard on since these suggestions will help you become a better scientist and will improve the quality of your research.
- Seek help and advice to improve your mental health if you find yourself struggling with stress, depression, or anxiety. It is essential to have a strong support network and to request the help of professionals if necessary. You can reach out to your family, friends or even lab colleagues. If we have learned anything from this very isolating year, it is that many people share our struggles and will be there to lend a helping hand in support.
- Stay active. Laboratory work promotes being sedentary and researchers spend many hours sitting down reading papers, using their computers, and planning experiments. It has been proven that physical activity and exercise are linked to better mental health, reduced stress and improvements in quality of sleep.4 You should do at least 150 minutes of moderate physical activity each week.6 Although this sounds like a lot, it is only 30 minutes for 5 days. So, take a walk at lunch, get off the bus one stop earlier, take the stairs, or do yoga. Moreover, if you are seated down for many hours, try to keep good posture and get up every 1 or 2 hours to stretch and walk a few steps.
Self-care is critical. Find time for yourself, read, knit, roller skate, play video games, paint…the list is endless. Just find a hobby that makes you happy and helps take your mind off work.
Meet your team. It is important to promote teamwork within the department, through laboratory meetings and activities, as well as collaboration with other departments within the institute. This will not only improve the quality of research but also provide a more welcoming and friendly environment since some laboratories can be quite isolating. If you are the only student in your lab, don’t worry; most research institutes have a PhD student network to meet people from other laboratories. Moreover, if your institute is affiliated to a university, you can always join activities offered by them or their Erasmus group.
It is time for the institutions to react. It would be interesting for research institutes to consider extra support for their workers such as counsellors or accessible resources to cope with stress and any other difficulties. Finally, statistics show that struggling with mental health and failing to maintain a work-life balance is a common situation in academia, especially amongst early-career researchers. Therefore, it is worth considering implementing seminars where researchers share their experiences with this issue and their means to tackle it.
Although pursuing a career in academia can be challenging, it should not subject researchers to extreme stress and an unreasonable level of commitment. We must put our mental health first and take necessary actions to avoid these situations, for example, by following the suggested guidelines above. Nevertheless, work-life balance cannot be improved with measures only at an individual level but the dynamics of academia need to change. This will provide a better working environment, an improvement in mental health and consequently an increase in productivity.
Personally, I am still very confident and excited to start my PhD next academic year. However, as an overachiever and somebody prone to overwork, I know I will have to organise myself well to avoid becoming burnt out. After many students shared their research experiences with me, I am certain that a good work-life balance is critical to accomplishing a PhD and not becoming a science zombie. To do so, I made a promise to myself to try to avoid working on weekends, take all my assigned holidays, travel as much as I can, and enjoy my PhD whilst producing good and meaningful data. So in a few words, next time we are in the lab until 8 pm we should ask ourselves, as The Clash did, “should I stay or should I go now?”.
This article was specialist-edited by Emma Parsons and copy-edited by Dzachary Zainudden
- 5 https://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/basics/adults/index.htm