Contributed by Brian (May 10, 2013) | When I hear the word balance, I immediately think of a seesaw. For this device to work properly, the lever must pivot around the support point. As such, two positions can exist within this system – stable and unstable. It is relatively easy to imagine the most stable position - when only one person is on the seesaw, leaving one end at the ground level and another end up in the air. However, to ‘appreciate’ the unstable position, or horizontal equilibrium, it requires a well-managed and calculated balance of the system input.
Now that the childhood memory of the seesaw has been convoluted, I want to explain how this system is related to your work/life balance. As a husband, father of three children (all under 5) and two dogs, one may think I spend most of my time on the ground level of the seesaw with no counterbalance. However, this has never been the case. To be honest, I have an enjoyable life filled with many hobbies and time to devote to my counterbalance. How is this possible? The primary answers lie in your ability to identify what you value as important.
Work will always be a top priority because it provides you with an income and hopefully, some happiness. However, in academia these incentives may not necessarily apply to every postdoc. For example, some enter the postdoc world for high impact publications, a chance to work for an incredibly talented investigator, learn a new technique, or to get proper training to obtain the prized academic PI position. A common theme to these reasons is, ultimately to be challenged and increase intellectual stimulation, which may drive happiness. Unfortunately, this may leave you sitting alone on the seesaw only later learning you missed out on many great opportunities to be an active participant in life outside of your laboratory. Many postdocs understand the value in having a social life and the importance of family, however, not all PIs, family members, or friends understand the delicate balance of the postdoc ecosystem. Therefore, in order to maintain a balance in academia, I have developed a system (highlighted below) that works well for me to manage my work/life seesaw.
1. Always be motivated but understand what an investment of your time really means. This requires one to multi-task and understand time management. Tip 1: Synch email accounts to your phone and integrate tasks directly with your mobile Google calendar. Keep track of volunteer work or tasks performed. When you are updating your CV/resume this will save a significant amount of time. Incorporate ‘project management’ applications into your daily life.
2. Plan ahead, set reasonable goals, and think of what’s next. Tip 2: Plan your calendar a month in advance and section your days into work and family time. Share this calendar with your family (and possibly your PI) so you are held accountable.
3. Determine what you want and communicate effectively. PIs are not mind-readers. You have to communicate and negotiate with them. At the end of the day, you need to make sure that the value you add to your lab is somehow balanced with reasonable incentives. Tip 3: Meet with a career counselor and join the national and your postdoc associations. The time devoted to work versus the time for career development or family must be close to 50/50. This is where one can really lose focus. Effective communication is critical in science and outside.
4. Evaluate your progress. In academia, we often do not get a chance to evaluate ourselves, our progress, experience, or PIs. Tip 4: Sit down with your PI as early as possible and work on myIDP together. Plan your projects and career with your PI. Make sure that they understand what your goals are and how they can help you along the way and add value back to you. Keep track of these interactions using a weekly progress report, tracking your activities, goals, and completed tasks.
5. Reward yourself. Take time off to spend with your friends and family. They are your support network. Tip 5: Increasing the numbers of hours you are in the lab does not necessarily correlate to an increase in productivity, and can often lead to burnout. Time away from the bench allows time for reflection.