Why it is important to have an identity outside of your PhD: Work-life balance is important!

Often there is a myth perpetuated about doing a PhD, and that myth is that you must eat, sleep and breathe your thesis. This usually means working long hours and on weekends. But is this productive? I argue it isn’t.

As I have moved through my PhD journey I have reflected many times on the value of my PhD and how at times, this PhD became linked to my identity.  Throughout my PhD I have tried to create a seperate and productive life outside of my PhD. This has meant taking on teaching work, ensuring I have a work-life balance and time away from my PhD.

I have tried to create a work-life balance by not working on weekends, something I haven’t always achieved. I also endeavour to do all my work in my university office space (something unravelled by COVID-19).

Subscribing to the eat-sleep-breathe-your-thesis discourse can lead to burnout and increased frustration in yourself and your PhD. See, if you put all of your self-worth and value as a person into your PhD, when you receive criticism or something goes wrong it can be catastrophic for your sense of self.

There are also some other factors why I believe your PhD should not become part of your identity and why work-life balance is important:

  1. You are more than your research. You are not the sum of your achievements and publications. You are a person, who has value beyond what reviewer 2 says.
  2. You will move on from this project. Some people will probably continue on their research trajectory in a very similar vein to their PhD. But with the job market, the reality is you will end up working on somebody else’s project, or in whatever project could provide you with funding. If you tie your identity solely to your PhD project, without developing a love for the research process, you will find yourself with a level of unease when you need to work on someone else’s project.
  3. You will finish your PhD. It is very common to hear of students who complete their PhD and take months to physically and emotionally recover from the process. If you invest so much time and energy into your PhD (and no other elements of your life), when you submit you will feel empty and lost. This is just inevitable – you will have to grieve the loss of this part of yourself.

Working all of the time can lead to burnout and it isn’t sustainable. Further, if your sense of identity is linked to your 24/7 work-life, once that work-life is gone you will have nothing left.

I think that the old adage of a 24/7 PhD is unsustainable. You can’t work non-stop on deep intellectual work for 3-5 years without a break, it is impossible. You need to have time away from your thesis to see the mistakes in your own work and the value in your work.

The current culture of academia is toxic. It encourages hyper-productivity and unsustainable workloads. There have been movements recently, such as the Slow Professor movement,  which aim to slow the process of academia down by meaningfully engaging with research and research outputs. Many rightly argue that the slow professor movement is a movement which few have the privilege to take up. There are opportunities for resistance against the toxic work culture of academia.

I think the next generation of scholars can work against the culture of toxic academia by undertaking small resistances. One of these resistances could be not working on the weekends. The other resistances could be undertaking hobbies and activities outside of your PhD, activities which enable you to forge an identity which is not linked to academia. If the next generation work together to say no to a toxic culture, we can begin to make changes.

PS. Sorry for the long break in between posts! Leave a comment below telling me what you think of this post, or what you would like to see in future posts!

3 thoughts on “Why it is important to have an identity outside of your PhD: Work-life balance is important!

    1. I think it is very important to make sure you have something outside of your PhD. It is a big undertaking, but at the end of the day – like everything else – it will come to an end at some point.

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