The phenomenon that makes students feel like their work defines them as a person is really pervasive in academia. The work we do as researchers, regardless of department and field, is extremely interesting to us, but it doesn’t have to define everything about us. This boundary between work and person becomes very blurred for a lot of people, and it can lead to some not-so-great life choices, like lack of sleep, poor diet, not taking enough breaks, and taking work struggles too personally.
There are a lot of habits that I had during my time as a student that really helped me keep the motivation and work momentum alive and got me through the Ph.D. process. I hope they are helpful and liberating for you to read about, and inspire you to take a look at your own habits to assess if any of them can be tweaked for the new year!
1. I didn’t work weekends.
I didn’t perform any experiments, data analysis, research-related prep work, or do any writing during the weekends while I was in grad school. At all. I did all of that during the work hours in the week.
There was one thing that I had to do on the weekends, which was that someone had to feed our model organism 1x a day, but that was a quick 20-minute chore that we rotated amongst all of us, so it was only 1-2 times a month. It was mindless, though, so I counted it as “getting my steps in”, rather than “working in the lab” or “doing research”.
Taking breaks is so important, and it needs to be normalized in academia. Working on the weekends in addition to working on the weekdays was honestly never on my radar! One of my cohort-mates had a very similar mindset as me, and didn’t work on the weekends due to having plans and seeing family then, and it helped normalize my decision. It should be a more accepted standard!
2. I worked 9-5 or 10-6, every day.
There was one day a week when the day started at 9AM, due to a meeting, but otherwise, I got to the lab at around 10AM every day. No one said anything about it, because I was still doing work and progressing. I also didn’t stay much later than 6PM on most days, unless something went wrong with a protocol and I had to stay an extra few hours.
I had a friend who I would sometimes see on the bus to campus who also started work in their lab every day around 10AM, and we’d talk about how it was just what worked for us. In addition, I remember going to a career seminar on campus, and there was someone on the panel who was a medical science liaison who told us she went to the lab at 11AM every day during grad school, which was really refreshing to hear.
Honestly, whatever works for you and your schedule is and should be totally fine in grad school. I’ve heard horror stories about how some faculty advisors berate their students for not being around for regular hours, or not as much as they had been when they were students themselves. It’s absolutely toxic, and that culture has to change.
Some students have physical conditions and other obligations that make it so they take longer to get ready in the mornings as well, which makes it difficult to show up bright and early on a regular basis. Whatever works for that student for them to have a healthy work-life balance and still make progress in their work should be the standard. As they say, work smart!
3. I meal prepped my meals for the week every Saturday morning.
I mention meal prep in another post on my blog about 6 personal things I wish I knew when I started my Ph.D., and for good reason: it’s so effective, both financially, as well as health-wise. I still meal prep, even after grad school! I honestly can’t imagine living life having no meal prepped food in my fridge.
I wasn’t always like this, though. During the first few years of grad school, I didn’t meal prep, and cooked meals every day. I was definitely aware of the concept of meal prepping, but it hadn’t fully registered for me as something worth doing. If that’s you, then trust me, just try it out once. Pretend I tricked you into meal prepping and go for it! It’s only 2 or so hours of cooking for an entire week of convenience and health. There is a plethora of meal prep inspiration out there to suit various dietary preferences. I personally highly recommend Budget Bytes and The Domestic Geek.
Personally, I do not have a problem with eating the same meals every day for 6 days in a row. If that isn’t appealing, I completely understand. You can also “food prep”, by simply preparing a large amount of food every time you cook, so that it lasts at least 2-3 days. That way, you’ll still have something to reach for that’s homemade and economical.
4. I didn’t check my email after 6PM.
I’ve heard of this being a great habit to have for almost any job where you’re not on the clock after a certain time, but it was something that I also developed for myself naturally.
There was definitely a period early in grad school when I felt that tug, that pressure, to fully commit every waking hour to keeping up with the literature, research progress, and emails. I was refreshing my email app on my phone every few minutes and was constantly switching between my planner, notes, and calendar on my laptop.
I helped myself shut it down fairly quickly by looking at the students around me. Some had extracurricular responsibilities. I remembered one person gushing about the soccer team they were on. Someone else had plans with their relatives every weekend. Another seemed to be going to multiple restaurants that they enjoyed every weekend. Sure, some students seemed to be checked into research more than others, but I realized early on that I was still allowed to have time for myself after work, and I knew from knowing myself, that’s how I wanted to handle graduate school. Even when I had some rather urgent scheduling and logistical issues with my committee members towards the end of graduate school, they were resolved within 24-48 hours, and I didn’t have to continuously check my email late into the night.
5. I rewarded myself with activities and experiences.
As I mentioned above, grad students don’t get paid well at all for the work that they do. I lived fairly comfortably, and my program was in a high COL city so the stipend was decent, but I definitely had to budget and think about how I wanted to reward myself for big accomplishments during grad school.
I saved up and went on 3 trips during my time as a grad student. They weren’t extravagant, and they were all domestic destinations. However, by budgeting, I was able to enjoyed short holiday trips with friends. Making valuable memories with those that I care about was still high on my list of priorities, and those trips really helped refresh me and keep me motivated to do good work. I also enjoyed local activities that aligned with my interests, and those included concerts, art-related events, and food festivals. I even attended some of them alone!
6. I went to therapy.
I truly believe all people, regardless of age, should have the opportunity to go to therapy whenever they desire it.
Our mental health is equally important to our physical health, but it’s seen as weak, inappropriate, and taboo to mention it in “professional” settings, and that’s really sad. We can mention back issues, but not mental health issues? It’s also unfortunate that we are not taught in primary education to identify our emotions, communicate them efficiently, and work through childhood traumas; many adults genuinely require psychotherapy to heal, maintain, and improve their lives. In addition, it’s unacceptable that the mental health crisis at the graduate training level is so prevalent. It’s imperative that we speak openly about it, while not letting it stay untreated and a normal part of being in graduate school.
I definitely went to therapy during graduate school. Although it wasn’t actually related to being in graduate school, it helped me work through other personal issues that were interfering with my work. It’s important to actively take care of yourself in all aspects, both physical and mental, in order to have the opportunity to do the best work you can do, and to live the best life you can live.
7. I kept in touch with loved ones.
Note, this doesn’t have to be relatives! I personally have a healthy relationship with my family, but I recognize that for some folks, circumstances make it difficult or impossible. My loved ones consist of relatives, as well as those that I’m not related to by blood. Whoever it may be, it’s important to reach out on a regular basis. Just a short phone call or text exchange can really lift your mood, and theirs as well. In addition, graduate school and life in general can lead people to drift apart, due to the inevitable increase in isolating activities and lifestyles, so actively maintaining friendships and relationships is very important. It’s just one of those things you need to do in life, but it’s worthwhile.
The healthy habits I have listed here worked well for me. I recognize that there are definitely going to be differences in peoples’ research schedules, collaboration efforts, and values when it comes to free time, so this isn’t a one-size-fits-all list! Curious to hear what healthy habits you have in your academic job. I’d love to implement more healthy habits into my lifestyle.