The balancing act
With the weekend here, comes time for some school work. School and work is a tough combination, but I did this to myself. The payout is both in experience and security, but the risks are just as high, failure on either end would mean severe disruption to any plans I’ve made. Then there’s the third and fourth pillars to this equation, physical and mental health. Thus a complex balancing act where if one thing becomes too heavy, the whole thing topples over.
Four years. At the end of the term I will have completed my fourth year towards my PhD. It’s been a long and hard road, but it’s only gotten harder this past year when I started working full time. I don’t regret it, but I’ve had to readjust my coping mechanisms and rethink how I take time for myself. Forcing myself to write every day helps, I also read a lot, which also keeps me balanced, but it’s still not an easy way to live.
Right now I’ve got work related tasks and school related tasks that I’m trying to accomplish, but since school and work have been so closely intertwined, with my job being a continuation of my education, there is still a significant amount of overlap that I’m trying to deal with. School-PI and hospital-PI have also had to adapt to this change, not all that well in some cases. It’s been a struggle to keep everyone on the same page as I try to push forward, I have too many people I need to answer to and not enough skill knowing who needs to know what and when I’m just passing along useless information and wasting time.
It should be no surprise that mental health is one of the core pillars I try to focus on. Everything requires balance, but in my experience we ignore mental health until we cannot. So I have spent the past five or so years trying to reverse that way of thinking and putting my mental health front and center. It’s paid off quite a bit I think, while I wouldn’t call my mental health great, I don’t think it will ever be great, so stable is the goal.
When school was my only focus, weekends were my own time. I focused on doing things I enjoyed or frankly doing nothing at all (something I really enjoy!), which gave me the strength to keep going. Like I said yesterday, a PhD is a marathon, not a sprint. I’ve been keeping a good pace and now that we’re close to the end, I just want to finish as strongly as I can. Still, this last year everything changed and now I work, so what do my days look like now?
Mostly longer, I work full-time and while the job is “non-traditional” to say the least, research can mean a light day or days where I don’t get to see daylight, I have to find stability in something inherently unstable. That involves a lot of scheduling. Literally my phone calendar is color coordinated so I know just by looking at the colors what types of things I have. I also try to organize my to-do list (also via phone app) so I know when things are due and what I need to work on. So basically time management has been important.
Weekends have become school days, or days where I work on my degree. Meaning working on the IRB application I’m still trying to get approved, or working on “last paper” so that we can finally get it submitted. I still have to write my dissertation proposal, make my slides, etc. There are other odds and ends, like finding a new committee member since one of them left recently. So weekends have become school days and week days are when I work, leaving little time for me.
Me time has become reading, blogging, and taking time when I can get it. Scheduling is important in this case so I know when I have free time days before it comes and I can plan accordingly to take full advantage of it. Sometimes I spent it working on something I’m behind on, but most of the time I take the time to recharge.
This isn’t sustainable. Let me be clear about that now. I wouldn’t be able to do this long term, but for the moment I think I can pull it off long enough to finish my degree. This change came at a good point because I have no formal classes required, only research that needs to happen. So to finish my degree I can schedule it around my other commitments instead of trying to force the times to attend class into my commitments.
Most of the time these days I’m just tired. Once I come through the other end it will be worth it and again work and school has so much overlap that I wouldn’t have done this any other way because when I finish my degree the stuff I’m doing at work will make it easier/better. This kind of path isn’t for everyone and I know people who work full time and go to school full time while just starting, I don’t know how people have that kind of energy, but more power to you.
So how has life changed since I started working full-time? Well mental health has taken an even larger role. I’m trying to be more aware of how I’m feeling and work with it instead of just powering through because I just need to get one more thing done before I take a break. Breaks look different now and planning has also taken a more prominent role. I think if I hadn’t done my masters, this would’ve been impossible to pull off because I learned a lot about how to best manage my time.
I would share more on how I manage my time, but really I think there are so many suggestions out there because time management is such a personal thing. It’s like mental health, what helps me may not help you and while it doesn’t hurt sharing (I do share both mental health and time management tips that work for me), there’s no how-to one size fits all guide.
More often than not, posts — like this one — are designed to get you to think about that sort of thing. How would YOU balance yourself in a position like this. You may not find yourself in this position when you’re doing a PhD (or maybe you’re just a curious reader who likes hearing about my progress specifically), but it helps to think about these scenarios because you may realize things you could do better now for yourself.
As I’ve found out the hard way, balance is always going to be my answer. All things in moderation, that includes things that are “good for you” like hard work or studying. Because anything in high enough concentration can be toxic (including my favorite, fact water toxicity). So things are currently, in my opinion anyway, not sustainable. But since I know that I have a finite amount of time that I need to work like this, I can plan accordingly.
The point is knowing when you’ve found yourself in an unsustainable situation and to find your escape route. Knowing when and how to hit the eject is part of the only reason I can keep going like this.