It’s Not Just About Work-Life Balance

It's also about a better balance in your work life, says Lynn Talton.

October 16, 2017

One of the most enduring impressions of my graduate school and postdoctoral experience was a pervasive feeling of guilt whenever I wasn’t working on my research. I see evidence of similar feelings in the graduate students and postdocs with whom I interact now. Recently, I was talking with a graduate student about exploring the entrepreneurial side of research as a possible career path. After I explained the wide range of organizations and opportunities available on campus, he sighed and repeated a familiar refrain: “That all sounds great, but I just don’t have time.”

We’ve all been there -- I bet you’ve uttered this very phrase in the last few days. The truth is that no matter your current position or your future career path, there will always be more work you can do. So now is the time to develop the skills to strategically balance your work priorities -- and to do so in a way that improves your career prospects.

In a field as competitive as academic research, it’s a natural response to want to double down and work longer and with more focus. That focus can help you power through to the next publication, but it can also hurt you. By concentrating so intently in one area, you can miss out on opportunities to broaden the scope of your research perspective, develop your professional networks, explore career possibilities and find joy in your training experience.

I’ll share a few of the habits that I often see in the most successful research trainees -- habits that made them better graduate students and postdocs and also set them up for amazing careers.

Getting Involved in Something Outside Your Research

The graduate students and postdocs I’ve seen move on to really interesting careers are the ones who occasionally left the library or the lab. In addition to their research, they also got involved in organizations on or around campus. Everyone’s heard that getting involved in campus organizations can help you develop your leadership experience and broaden your professional network, but there are other benefits. Regular doses of accomplishment, purpose and meaning are vital for long-term satisfaction. And because research successes can be few and far between, you should stock up on wins in other areas.

What are you interested in? Whether it is protecting the environment, social justice, pedagogical innovation or health equity, you can probably find an organization on your campus related to that interest. You can choose something that relates to your research or not -- the point is to participate in the broader community, make new connections that could reap professional rewards and perhaps find inspiration for your own work.

I’ll use my own experience as an example. As a postdoc, I got involved in founding the first postdoctoral association on our campus and became chair of Postdoc Advocacy. In that position, I worked with university administrators to produce policy changes that positively affected postdocs at my institution, including a stipend increase and the addition of a campus office focused exclusively on postdocs. I saw real results that I could appreciate, even during times when I wasn’t making much progress in my research into figuring out how the brain stores permanent memories. I was enhancing the training experiences of hundreds of researchers at a time and eventually found it so rewarding that I decided to make a career of graduate student and postdoctoral affairs.

Getting involved in something beyond your research could lead you, too, to gain experience, connections and passions that might evolve into a career you never expected. But even if your experience doesn’t result in a new career path, you can still benefit from the feelings of accomplishment and purpose that can keep you motivated during the tough times in your training. And you will gain additional skills and experience that you can mention when you’re on the job market.

Exploring Research Beyond Your Specialty

Why did you decide to go to graduate school? You probably loved research and were really curious to find out more about your discipline. Unfortunately, however, graduate school and postdoctoral training can be tough, and focusing on one specialized question for years can suck a lot of the enjoyment out of discovery. Curiosity needs to be nurtured, but lucky for you, you are in a place full of exciting new discoveries.

I know a postdoc with a great approach to sampling research on the campus. She bookmarks all the seminar and lecture calendars, and each week, she picks one lecture to attend. Often the talks are in her discipline, but if nothing in her field is available, she picks a lecture from another field with an intriguing abstract.

At one of these cross-disciplinary talks, she learned of a commonly prescribed heart medication that acted on a similar molecular pathway to one implicated in a genetic condition causing cognitive impairment. She quickly set up an experiment testing that drug in a mouse model of the condition and found significant improvement. Suddenly, a safe drug that had been prescribed for decades could be used to treat a previously intractable condition. Because of that one insight, she was able turn what would have been a fairly standard paper into something newsworthy.

Other students and postdocs have their own approaches to exploring research: reading papers referenced in their campus research news bulletins, creating interdisciplinary presentation groups with graduate students or postdocs from other departments, or following research blogs across multiple fields. Whatever the approach, the point is to stimulate your curiosity, engage with exciting ideas and keep those areas of your brain exercised so they can still operate even when you repeat the same experiment, reread the same document or lead the same class for the hundredth time.

Don’t forget why you started research training in the first place! Keep that interest alive. It can only help you in your career. Understanding a wide variety of research approaches and perspectives can inform your own work. Tying together threads between disciplines can make your work more relevant and applicable to the real world. And notably, crossing disciplines can give you access to a wider array of funding options and a more versatile professional and academic network.

Prioritizing and Planning Your Development as a Professional

Most graduate students and postdocs see the value in the first two habits I mentioned, but unfortunately, many don’t think about planning their professional development until they near the end of their training. Yet professional development is not just about preparing for your next career transition; it can also make you a more effective graduate student or postdoctoral researcher right now. Everyone, regardless of career path, can use development in communication, leadership, collaboration and teamwork, networking, and time and budget management.

When your inbox is constantly inundated with emails about seminars, lectures and workshops, it’s hard to decide what you need to do and when you should do it. I see two types of graduate student and postdoc responses to this situation: the No-Gos and the FOMOs.

The No-Gos are the most common response; they get overwhelmed and just tune everything out. Unfortunately, they are the folks who contact their campus career center two months before the end of their training to start figuring out how to network, find a job and write application materials -- way too late to benefit much from preparation.

The other extreme response comes from the FOMOs, those with fear of missing out. They come to every event, workshop and panel discussion. It’s great they are exploring their options, but they are not approaching their development strategically or efficiently.

One good model for spending your time productively while still leaving time for development is the 80:10:10 rule popularized by Peter Fiske. This rule stipulates that you spend 80 percent of your work time working really hard, 10 percent of your time developing yourself and 10 percent of your time letting everyone else know what amazing things you are doing. How might that look for a graduate student or postdoc? If you typically work a 50 hours per week, then you could spend 40 hours per week working on your research, attending discipline-specific research lectures, writing, doing classwork or teaching. Then, plan to spend five hours per week on attending professional development workshops or lectures outside your research discipline, participating in organizations and activities, and developing your research and career skill set. The remaining five hours each week should be spent on letting your mentor and colleagues know what you’ve accomplished, networking with others, and planning how you will strategically spend your time next week.

While you will certainly develop new academic skills and competence during your training, you may need to look elsewhere to develop your leadership, teamwork, networking, management and communications skills. By using a model like the 80:10:10 rule to organize your research and development time, you can strategically advance your research, develop the skills you’ll need for your career now and in the future, make time to get involved with activities outside your research, and explore research outside your discipline. Will you occasionally need to bump your research up to 110 percent to meet a grant, conference or dissertation deadline? Yes! But if you’ve built planning and forethought into your process, those periods should be less stressful.

Don’t let the competition and stress of academic research life make you put your head down and ignore all other considerations outside research -- you’ll ultimately be hurting rather than helping your career. Invest some of your time and energy into the development of your interests, contacts and skills. You’ll probably enjoy your training more and find yourself with better career prospects when you finish. Remember, it’s not just about finding a work-life balance, but also a better balance in your work life, too.


Graduate Career Consortium logoLynn Talton is director of the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles. She is a member of the Graduate Career Consortium -- an organization providing a national voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.


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