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According to a recent international study on work-life balance within academia

"a majority of researchers and scientists had conflicts between their work schedules and personal lives at least two to three times a week."

Nevertheless,

"about 60 percent of scientists were happy with their work-life balance. The rates for women were lower, at 52 percent."

I wonder what differentiates these 60 percent 'happy people' from the remaining 40 percent. What do you think are good strategies for a healthy work-life balance? How do you balance your academic work/life with your personal life?

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Disclaimer 1: I know the two worlds : academia and the outside world ;) I worked in public and private universities, and in a consulting firm.

Disclaimer 2: I can only speak about life for people involved in theoretical areas, I know that science involving living things / big experiments has real constraints.

I heard a lot of people in academia complaining about the conflicts between their work schedules and personal lives (me included, because I'm grumpy). But we have to face it, most of the time there is nothing to complain about it.

  • "I have a deadline today at midnight" : I do that all the time, but the calls for papers are out several months before the deadlines, so the problem here is planning, not the nature of the work.
  • "I have to finish this grant application before midnight" : hum, grant applications and conferences deadlines seems to be of the same kind.
  • "It's 3 AM, I just got that email that needs an answer" : I don't think this email is that urgent. An BTW, if something is really urgent, phone still exists for that matter.
  • "Someone (supervisor, head of the team, dean, etc.) wants me to work more/at night/etc." : Slavery has been abolished. If you have good results, the thing is that in academia you are master of your schedule.
  • "I cannot stop thinking about that problem" : yep, here this is true, we bring our work everywhere. If a researcher cannot live with that aspect of the work (which can be quite stressful), then he should probably consider finding an other job.

My point is that working in academia is working in one of the most flexible field. This is where there is a big difference with the "outside world". This flexibility is the problem: many people have difficulty dealing with it, and thus are giving themselves very strong constraints, so strong that they cannot handle them.

  • I agree fully with you; a friend of mine even said that academia helped to balance work and life because of this flexibility: he is able to take care of his newborn son at night because he can afford to get late to the lab (he probably works a little bit when feeding its son, as I know him). – Benoît Kloeckner May 28 '12 at 9:58
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In my experience, there's less distinction between work life and personal life than in other jobs. If you're teaching, you'll get emails from students on the weekend and late at night. A paper deadline at midnight doesn't care that you're supposed to finish at 5. If you're working on an interesting problem, you're going to think about it at home.

I think the way to be happy with that is to simply accept it. If you're counting on having a 9-5 job if you're paid for working 9-5, then you're not going to be happy in academia. If you're uncomfortable with the line between work and personal life being blurred, you should perhaps consider a different job.

  • 2
    Lars, I don't think that's necessarily true. Having seen both sides of the fence, I know it's common for folks to be expected to work longer hours outside of academia too, and I know some people who do research who do achieve a work-life balance. I don't think saying "Find another career" is really a factual or constructive answer to this question. – William Gunn Apr 13 '12 at 22:41
  • I'm only speaking from my personal experiences in both academia and industry. It's certainly true that in industry you might be expected to work longer hours as well, but in my experience, this is more prevalent in academia. – Lars Kotthoff Apr 14 '12 at 17:27
  • I'm curious if working long hours in academia is something that is self-inflicted (poor planning, overcommitting, passion) or if it's something that is primarily external (chairs want you do do more courses and you can't say no, University wants you to attend more meetings and you can't say no, people want you to get more research funding and teaching and service or else you lose your job). Any perspectives? – Irwin Feb 24 '14 at 21:04
  • Both from what I'm seeing. If you're junior, it's mostly self-inflicted (although you're expected to do this to some extent to get ahead) and later it's because of commitments you can't turn down. – Lars Kotthoff Feb 25 '14 at 12:45
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Academia, despite talk of positions being "full-time" or "part-time," really doesn't work according to a fixed schedule. It's one of the "perks" of academia—the ability to maintain your own schedule, so long as you get approval from your bosses (if you're a student or postdoc) or from your institute (if you're a professor or higher up).

Of course, the downside is that not everybody is on the same schedule as you are—or cares what your schedule is supposed to be. (Grant agency deadlines, for instance, don't pay any attention to what's going on in your life at the same time!) So, that might mean there will be times when you have to really put the nose to the grindstone.

The key to having a successful balance is to make sure that everybody involves knows what's going on, and so appropriate accommodations can be made.

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