PhD work-life balance – a challenging path

PhD work-life balance – a challenging path

There will be several questions popping up in your minds when you hear about a PhD, like, is it hard? Is it stressful? How long is a PhD study? Is it a typical 9-5 job? How many hours does one spend in front of the computer, working in the laboratory, reading articles and books, writing scientific papers, or attending lectures? Is there work during weekends too? Is there enough time for family? Is there time for other interests after work? Is there a social life? Is there time to go on vacation? etc… etc… etc.

Precisely, most of you would be wondering if PhD students have a work-life balance.

Therefore, in this blog, you will see what their work-life balance looks like. Particularly, how our Early-stage researchers (ESRs) from the AgRefine project manage their personal and professional life efficiently.

To make it more interesting, I conducted a short online survey with a majority of multiple-choice questions; in some questions, more than one option could be chosen and the rest were open for comments. 14 out of 15 ESRs (including myself) participated in the survey. AgRefine is a diverse platform. The participants are of different age groups, belonging to different years of their PhD studies and with different educational backgrounds living in different countries.

Being a first-year PhD student, I was eager to know what other ESRs think about having a balanced lifestyle and how they actually achieve it.

Before showing you the results of the survey, let me begin with what a work-life balance means,

Work-life balance indicates how a working individual effectively manages time between professional and personal life, without sacrificing one or the other.

Personally, for me, work-life balance does not necessarily mean spending equal time on my work and leisure. I always think balance can be achieved by feeling fulfilled at work, as well as, with things that I enjoy doing outside.

Next, is work-life balance really important, and why?

Yes, there are several benefits of having a work-life balance. Here, I have pointed out some important ones.

  • Everyone experiences some kind of stress in their career. Prolonged stress at the workplace could lead to both mental and physical health problems. It is indispensable to maintain a healthy work-life balance to reduce stress and prevent burnout.
  • People with an effective work-life balance have a good sense of satisfaction and fulfillment in their lives.
  • Well-balanced people can experience enhanced productivity, better performance, and creativity at their work.
  • Greater work-life balance strengthens both personal and professional relationships.

In the following sections, the key findings of the survey will be disclosed.

I have categorised the results into three sections as common, work-related, and non-work-related. For a few questions, the results are given as poor, fair, and good, which indicate 0-2, 2-4, and 4-5 scores, respectively, on a scale of 0-5.

1. Common

Figure 1 (a): Work-life balance
Figure 1 (b): An imbalance

In general, about 42.9% of ESRs have a fair work-life balance and 28.6% of them either have a poor or good balance (fig. 1.a). A vast majority of them, around 90% who have a fair or poor work-life balance said that there is an imbalance in their personal life (fig. 1.b).   


Figure 2: Plan to manage a work-life balance

Next, a question was raised to know how they plan on managing their work-life balance. Half of the ESRs chose to unplug from work outside the working hours. More than a third said that they effectively manage their tasks by setting daily or weekly targets, and more than a quarter said that they prioritize their work or are flexible (fig. 2). Even though they have plans, they find difficulty following them completely. Only, 14.3% of ESRs are good at following their plan.

Figure 3: Compromise

The ESRs who fairly or poorly follow their plans must make some compromises in their lives. About less than three quarters and 57% of them said that they had to compromise their time for family and friends, and leisure time respectively. 43% of them said they had to compromise either their hobbies or physical activities (fig. 3).

Furthermore, 9 out of 14 ESRs had prior working experience before this PhD study. I was interested to know what difference they could see in their work-life balance between their previous job and their current PhD. There was only one ESR who did not have any difference. The most common responses from the rest of them were that they feel the PhD is never-ending and that there are more and better things to do. Also, they said they always keep thinking about their PhD even during their free time and find it more difficult to unplug from their work.

2. Work-related

Figure 4: No.of working hours per week

Out of 14 ESRs, 11 of them are between first and second year, two of them are in their first year, and one ESR is between the second and third year of their PhD studies. Figure 4 gives information on the number of hours ESRs work per week. A large number of ESRs, about 46%, said that they work between 40 and 45h, 23% of them said that they work between 45 and 50h, and 15% of them said that they work either between 35 and 40h or more than 50h.

Figure 5: No. of working hours on the weekends per month

In addition, most of the ESRs, 9 out of 14, work on the weekends as well. Figure 5 shows data about the number of hours ESRs work on the weekends per month. 40% of them said that they spend between 10 and 15h, 20% between 20 and 25h, and 10% said that they work either less than 10h or between 15 and 20h.

Next, you will read about what keeps the ESRs happy and productive at the workplace.

Figure 6: Productivity at the workplace

10 out of 14 ESRs said they find themselves more productive in the morning than in the evening. I was curious to know what makes them happy and productive at the workplace, whose results can be seen in figure 6. Nearly 30% of them said that receiving constructive feedback plays an important role in their happiness and productivity at the workplace. About a fifth of them preferred to have freedom of decision-making, or a supportive supervisor, or challenges and diversity of tasks to keep them happy and productive during their studies. Lastly, one ESR said that having supportive colleagues at work could also contribute to his/her happiness and productivity.  

Figure 7: ESR-supervisor relationship

To learn about the importance of a good supervisor during PhD studies, two questions were raised. A majority of ESRs, 42.9%, and 35.7% said that they have a good and fair relationship, respectively, with their supervisors. On the other hand, 21.4% of them said they do not have a good relationship as shown in figure 7. Certainly, a good supervisor plays a crucial role for a PhD student to be successful. 42.9% of ESRs said that their relationship with their supervisor affects their PhD studies positively. Also, 14.3% of them said this relationship could affect them neutrally or in a negative way.

Furthermore, since the Covid pandemic lockdown, most of us have become accustomed to working from home. Yet, it is surprising to know that half of the ESRs still do not prefer to work from home. 21.4% and 28.6% of them said that they choose to work from home one and two days per week, respectively. In addition, only for two out of 14 ESRs working from home makes a good contribution to a work-life balance during their PhD studies. Six of them said that it contributes only fairly, and the rest said it does not seem to make any significant contribution.

The next focus will be on understanding the opportunities and challenges faced by ESRs during their PhD journey.

Figure 8: Challenges faced during a PhD

First of all, over 35% of them said that they face stress as the biggest challenge during their PhD studies. 15.4% felt that getting an unsatisfactory result or managing time effectively to be challenging. Also, it appears that the lack of motivation, problems with the experiments, and learning new things were some of the other difficulties faced by the ESRs (fig. 8).

Figure 9: What do you like about your PhD?

In spite of facing many difficulties, there are some factors that drive them forward during their journey. About 60% of ESRs said that they like to gain new knowledge and 21.4% of them said that they see PhD studies as an opportunity to follow their passion. The rest of the people enjoy the freedom and flexibility of work (fig. 9).

The following section will be about the non-work-related responses from the ESRs.

3. Non-work-related

To find out how the ESRs balance their life outside work, a few questions were posed.

Working out, watching TV, traveling, shopping, socializing, gaming, spending time with family, and friends are some of the common activities of ESRs outside their working hours, of which working out is the most common activity. It is exciting to see that a majority of them spend somewhere between 4-6h per week on maintaining their health by engaging in some physical activities.

Additionally, sports, cooking, playing guitar, dancing, climbing, yoga, reading, hiking, cycling, and building Lego are some of their interesting hobbies. However, only, 7.1% of them said that they have enough time for their hobbies. A large portion, 64.3% have fairly, and a significant number, 28.6% hardly have time for their hobbies.

The responses on stress management will be the next topic of discussion.

Figure 10: Stress management activities

Figure 10 shows some of the activities of ESRs on their stress management. A large number of ESRs, 28.6%, said that they handle their stress by taking a break from work, and exercising is the second most chosen activity. Cooking, reading, outing with friends, etc. are ESRs’ other common stress management activities.

Figure 11: No. of days of vacation per year

Despite having a busy work schedule, taking a vacation is absolutely essential for a mental well-being. From figure 11, it can be observed that most of the ESRs, 42.9% said they take a vacation between 15 and 20 days in a year. Slightly more than one-fifth and 14.3% of them said they go on vacation between 20 and 25 days, and 10 and 15 days, respectively. A similar proportion, 14.3% of them, seemed to take a vacation of more than 25 days (using all the holidays offered by the University).

Figure 12: What did you miss the most during the Covid lockdown?

The Covid pandemic has largely affected the entire world in several ways, and undoubtedly, we have had hard times both in our personal and professional lives during the lockdown period. One-half of ESRs said that they missed having a social life and 21.4% of them said they missed spending time with their family during the lockdown. Additionally, 14.3% of them said that they suffered from a drop in their productivity at work and it appears that the same proportion of them faced a lack of communication with supervisor/colleagues and networking during the professional events (fig. 12).

The results of the survey end here.

I believe these results could give insights into PhD work-life balance to non-academic people as well as be useful to other PhD students, both within and outside the AgRefine group.

Lastly, the ESRs would like to share some of their thoughts with the readers on a work-life balance.

  • “Do exercises, meet friends, take breaks, be stubborn with what you like to do”
  • “It’s important to take days off or vacations. If you don’t unplug you lose the opportunity to view your work with a fresh pair of eyes.”
  • “Prioritize your happiness 🙂 and do exercise whenever you can (but not alone!)”
  • “Peer pressure. Have people around you that remind you how important it is to enjoy life out of work 🙂 ”
  • “Exercising is good for the mind”
  • “Acknowledge that work is by far not the most important part of your life.”
  • “I think the most important thing is not to feel guilty if you don’t work after your working hours or weekends. We are here to learn and not to live, to work.”
  • Sometimes it is good just to stop working and continue the next day. I know there is always a lot of tasks to complete, but “a PhD is not a race but a marathon” (Cormac Murphy, 2020).

Finally, I would also like to add that “Definitely, getting a PhD is not easy, but you must know what kind of balance works for you and follow it. More importantly, do not compromise on your health and family because there is only one”.


I take this opportunity to thank all the lovely AgRefine ESRs for their participation; my supervisor for his constant support; my colleagues from the Laboratory for Circular Process Engineering (LCPE) group, the AgRefine project Manager for her endless help, and the Marie-Curie scholarship for the funding.  

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