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I am looking for a bit of advice on how to handle the workload in a PhD while juggling several collaborative projects plus family pressures.

I am in the final year of my PhD which, overall, has been fairly successful to date. I am currently collaborating on a number of projects with other academics - most of which have been going on for some time and are nearing completion - which along with other work I am doing independently will form my PhD thesis. When I took on the projects I was confident that I would have the time and knowledge to turn them around fairly quickly.

However, I recently had my first child with my partner a couple of months ago and I have found it almost impossible to get much meaningful work done since (and also in later stages of the pregnancy) due to the pressure of supporting her and my child - sleepless nights, caring for the baby and her along with the additional strains on our relationship. I am now under pressure from most of these collaborators to finish my parts of the projects and this has been causing me considerable stress, which in turn has made it even more difficult to focus on projects and get them completed. I have to add that on most of these projects I have done a considerable bulk of the work, while other collaborators have at times been slow with their turn around, which is one of the reasons I now have so many ongoing projects. But I get the feeling that several of them feel I am now stringing them along but giving repeated dates for completion that I do not meet.

I feel under huge pressure and strain from multiple directions. I often do not check my emails for days knowing that there will likely be another email asking about progress, my relationship is suffering and I do not properly enjoy spending time with my child - my work seems to pollute much of my life now. Funding is not an issue as I have sources of funding that will take me well beyond the time I need to complete my thesis, but I feel I am burning bridges with other academics in the the field, which is causing me considerable stress.

I think I probably know what I need to do, but can't bear to do it... I have two first authorships and a significant authorship and am writing up a further two first authored papers. These alone would be enough for my PhD and probably a decent postdoc position. I should inform my other collaborators that I won't be able to work on their projects any longer, or at least not within the forseeable future. It would pain me to do this as I have already invested considerable time in these, and without my further input some (most?) would be unlikely to be completed and published, or would be inferior publications to what they could have been, as well as seriously damaging my reputation with these academics.

I would appreciate thoughts of people on how I should approach this - especially from people who have been in similar situations or have dealt with very slow and unreliable collaborators.

  • Related questions: Doing a PhD with significant external time obligations (e.g., marriage) and Points to consider when deciding whether to get married during a PhD. I also remember there is a question about having a baby during PhD. Does it ring a bell to anyone? – scaaahu Feb 11 '15 at 11:36
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    Found it. Related question: Maintain scientific output after having a baby. – scaaahu Feb 11 '15 at 12:25
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    Some colleagues had babies and went on parental leave for several months, when they don't work beyond an occasional email. Everybody seem to understand the situation, and no damage was done. Have you fully explained your situation to your collaborators? – Davidmh Feb 11 '15 at 15:51
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    Gnometorule - your comment is very wide of the mark, as well as borderline offensive. I made clear in the text that I do NOT need this work for my thesis - I already have enough publications out and in preparation that I could abandon the collaborations tomorrow and my thesis would be just fine. The issue is letting people down due to changes in life circumstances affecting my capacity to work. Oh, and it is also presumptuous of you to claim I "decided" to have a child (as if there would be anything wrong with that in the first place) and that I have crumbled. – rt1870 Feb 12 '15 at 21:07
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I've been on both sides of your dilemma, both as the slow and unreliable collaborator and as the person dealing with a slow and unreliable collaborator, and I deeply understand your dilemma and your pain.

The first thing to understand is that this is not an unusual situation, and you aren't a bad person for having it happen to you. In fact, this is a fairly normal situation of life for most people pursuing post-Ph.D. research careers. The basic problem is this: collaborations, grant proposals, professional service, and many other aspects of a scientific career all have long time horizons and high uncertainty associated with them. That means that you often have to make a time commitment without really knowing how large it will be or what it will be competing with six months, one year, three years down the line. What that means is that, no matter what approach you take to personal time management, you are likely to be frequently faced either with significant unfunded gaps, with majorly overloaded periods, or even both in oscillation.

At the beginning of a Ph.D., most people do not have this problem, because they have precisely one research project, and they can work consistently on just that project and their courses (and maybe TAing). This situation sometimes persists to the end of a Ph.D. or through a postdoc. As a person moves towards independence of a researcher, however, they start to have more opportunities and more choices, and are faced with this dilemma of planning under long-term uncertainty.

Unfortunately, under the current organization of academia at least, there seem to really be only two solutions to this problem:

  1. Be low-ambition as a researcher, ensuring that you are never overcommitted but greatly decreasing your chances of obtaining a tenure-track position at a strong research institution, or of making tenure once you have one.
  2. Triage and honesty.

The best advice that I have ever seen about the second path is in this blog post: "The only "balance" is in choosing which ball you are going to let drop today and deciding not to drop the same ball repeatedly."

Now, as to what to do: first, you need to be honest with your collaborators about the change in your life circumstances. Having a child radically changes your life and your available time: as a parent of a 2-year old, I have about 20 hours/week less for work than I used to, and that's despite making compromises I'm not entirely comfortable with in the amount of time I spend with my daughter. Science will expand to fill the time allotted to it, so the first thing you need to do is to decide how much time you are setting aside for family, and guard that time with your life. Practice saying things like, "I'm sorry, I can't meet with you then, I have to be parenting then," and "I'm sorry, but this weekend I have family commitments." and spend the time you need to spend with your partner and your child. Second, you also need to take care of yourself: if you aren't sleeping well and eating healthily, your research productivity will drop even as you spend more time working and your stress level rises.

Now, if you do this, it means that you are not going to be able to follow through on all of your commitments to your collaborators. There simply aren't enough hours in the day. And that means you're going to have to triage. In my experience, the most important thing here is honesty. In my collaborations, I can plan how to manage a collaboration in which somebody tells me, "I'm going to need to put this on the back burner for a couple months," or "I'm going to be able to spend only 4 hours a week on this," but I can't plan how to manage a collaboration with somebody who tries to conceal their overcommitment or who repeatedly promises things that they cannot deliver.

You need to figure out your priorities for investment on your projects, not for all time, but at least for a few months. You can reassess afterwards. Talk it over with your advisor, to make sure they're OK with it, and then let your other collaborators know that you've had to reassess your commitments and what they should expect from you. Be explicit about the fact that it is becoming a parent that is driving this change: any collaborator that is worth continuing to work with will understand and respect this fact and be willing to work with you on this. Anybody who doesn't is somebody that you want to be very cautious about continuing work with in any case.

And make sure that you have enough space to enjoy time with both your child and your partner. Our time in life is far too short and precious as it is.

  • That is a really thoughtful answer - thank you! The link is also very informative. An idea I have had after reading it is to perhaps plan my life around what I do with my family, and then fit work into the spaces around that. Perhaps I am thinking of things backwards at the moment... – rt1870 Feb 12 '15 at 21:03
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    @rt1870 I think that if your family is important to you, that's the right approach. Even if the "spaces around that" much significantly larger time than the family time is, it's a matter of priorities: when both your partner and your collaborator come to you at the same time saying they have an emergency that needs 6 hours of attention in the next 24, which one are you going to turn down? For example: your partner has the flu and wants you to take care of the baby, and at the same time the journal denied the request for extra time on the paper revision. Which way do you go? – jakebeal Feb 12 '15 at 21:27
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First, congratulations on the birth of your baby! It is a wonderful and life-changing experience, but also can stress your body, mind and relationships as you have experienced.

I empathize with your situation, as I also had my first baby born during my PhD studies.

In my opinion, you are facing two different causes of stress: stress from external sources (pressure from your collaborators) and stress from within yourself (pressure that you give yourself).

External stress

To reduce stress from your collaborators, I would suggest that you periodically spend some time to make a high-level plan for the next few months of work. How much time and energy do you have to work in the next few months? Which projects are you going to tackle, and what outcomes will you be able to achieve? The goal is to come up with a realistic plan that you can work towards. Given that you feel that you currently have too many projects, as evidenced by not being able to complete tasks by deadlines you commit to, I would recommend putting some of your projects on the backburner. If your collaborators are reasonable people, they should be understanding when you explain your situation.

Internal stress

One of the things that helped me a lot was regular meetings with a counselor. At my institution, there was a mental health and counseling center as part of the student medical servies. I was able to talk to a counselor for free on campus about once every one or two weeks. This was helpful because it helped me to do a "brain dump" and forced me to explain to another person what I was experiencing and how I planned to move forward. I also received good suggestions about habits that I could adopt in order to work more effectively.

In particular, my counselor suggested that I needed to establish clear boundaries to separate my work life from my home life, but only working in the office, and not bringing any work home. By separating physically the spheres of work and family life, this helped me to separate them emotionally as well.

For the family dimension, I would recommend that you keep up communication with your partner, and also stay connected with your family and friends. Additionally, you may want to consider marriage counseling. I was fortunate in that the mental health and counseling center at my institution was also able to provide marriage counseling (also free!), and we both found it extremely helpful in terms of forcing us to communicate and talk deeply with each other.

Finally: Don't give up. Things do settle down with the baby after the first few months.

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