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PhDs, Striking The Perfect Balance & 'AcademicFOMO'

PhDs, Striking The Perfect Balance & 'AcademicFOMO'

Image is one of my own, taken during a PhD break.

It seems to me, coming now into my second year, that the PhD process is all about striking a balance. Not just between work and personal life but also between the thesis and everything else we're expected to do to become 'successful' PhD candidates (publications, conference papers, organising events etc. etc.). It can be really overwhelming, especially at the beginning and it's something I think about on a weekly basis. How has this past week gone? How much time did I spend on research? Was it enough? Did I get time to do other important things?

'Imposter Syndrome'

The current EdX MOOC 'How to Survive your PhD' discussed, in its first week, the common emotions felt by PhD students across the world. There has since been a lot of chat on Twitter about the different emotional states of the PhD (you can follow along using #SurvivePhD15 - it's still a very active thread) and, my friend, Lucie Whitmore over at 'Costume and Conflict', recently posted an excellent blog about 'Imposter Syndrome' which is definitely worth a read. 'Imposter Syndrome' is the feeling of being a fraud or that you're constantly tricking everyone into thinking that you're smart and capable and will soon be 'found out'. It's particularly rife in academia but also in other sectors such as web development (and this is a particularly good description of imposter syndrome in general.)

An emotion that I think is very much linked to 'Imposter Syndrome' is guilt and this is one I've experienced a lot as a PhD student.

Guilt and the PhD

There are a multitude of reasons for feeling guilty as a PhD student and I think a big part of it, for me, is that I never feel like I'm doing enough. There's no end to my working week and the feeling of working on a task to completion is quite rare (it only seems to come with finishing a conference paper, article or (hopefully, one day) a database) and so I always feel like I should be doing more. I also often feel guilty if I feel that I haven't done my best in any particular area of my life - that I'm not putting enough time and effort into being a good friend, good partner, or even a good dog owner, or I'm not working out hard enough, or my house isn't tidy enough, or my emails haven't been answered quickly enough...

I think this is where striking a balance comes in and is really important to get right as early as possible. Perhaps it's impossible to be the best at all of these things in life but I feel that many PhD students typically have [very high standards or perfectionist tendencies and so striving to achieve in every area in life becomes a constant desire, and subsequently a cause for stress.


Something I struggled with at the start of my PhD was balancing my time between working on different aspects of my thesis and doing all the other things which are seen as vital elements of the PhD process. I definitely have a bad case of 'AcademicFOMO' or 'fear of missing out' and though it's calmed down slightly as I've got some experiences out of my system, it is still something I struggle with.

The PhD comes with the potential for so many amazing opportunities and experiences. Not only are there things which I feel like I should be doing, there are also a huge number of things I really want to be doing such as conferences, teaching and learning lots of new things. Every week there seems to be another dozen emails offering so many new and exciting opportunities to take part in and I want to do them all!

But it's so easy to get carried away and forget why you're enrolled in the first place - to carry out research and write those pesky 80,000 words. I have found it easier as I've progressed through first year to say no to different opportunities. I think being honest and open with my supervisor has really helped. I try to run any new, big commitments I'm considering by her before I say yes and I think she now knows me well enough to know how much I can handle and what will actually be useful for me in the long run.

Work-Life Balance

The other balancing act for PhDs is definitely trying to maintain some semblance of a life outside of your work. This is where I feel the 'culture of busyness' in academia is particularly detrimental. Particularly on twitter and other social media I've noticed a competitiveness between academics about who's busier, who's getting the least sleep, who's working evenings and weekends which I feel is really unhealthy.

With there being no set end to your working week, it's really up to you how you manage your time and when you 'clock-off'. I try to work within a 9-5 time frame but sometimes that just doesn't work out - living in a different city to my university means that up to 4 hours of my 9-5 day can be taken up with commuting. If you also factor in training events and research seminars, it becomes inevitable that you will have to eat into evenings and weekends to make progress on your thesis.

I think it's important not to make this a habit and to make sure to take time out to do other things and see other people but this is where my PhD guilt comes in. I feel there's so much to try and fit in that it's impossible to do everything well. However, perhaps the important thing is just to keep trying...

Does anyone have any strategies for managing this? How do you strike a balance within your PhD or between the PhD and other activities?

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