The Happy PhD Zone: How To Maintain A Work-Life Balance In Academia

There is a very, very famous myth called work-life balance in Academia. Let’s get this straight right now: there is no work-life balance in Academia. It’s just not possible.

What is possible, however, is in words of Radhika Nagpal

to find a way to manage your work and your private life in such a way that you feel happy about both and at the same time maintain your health.

This means you should try to be the best whole person that you can be. Not perfect in every aspect of your work and life, but overall pretty damn good!

That’s nice. But how can you do something as demanding as a PhD and simultaneously have some time for yourself?

I’ve been there and I nearly left science because of it. In this post I will share what I do (or try to do) to keep my sanity while doing a PhD.

First let me clarify something. I realize that I’m in a very privileged position in that I don’t have any teaching duties, I rarely supervise students and I don’t have any kids. Trying to have a work-life balance in academia being woman with children is a challenge.

But I have in the past juggled experiments, coursework, teaching and redecorating an apartment. And though I have no kids I’m still part of a family that means everything to me.

Enter The Happy PhD Zone

In short, my philosophy is that I love science, but I won’t die for it. I’m here because I like it, I believe that I’m good at it and I enjoy it. To do a good job I need to have energy and motivation, i.e. be well rested, fed and excited. This is what I do to stay in the Happy PhD Zone.

Know Why You Are here

Sometimes I forget why I chose a career in science and there are days when I seriously consider leaving. But most of the time I know why I’m here.

I’m here because I really, really, so-deep-down-it’s-easily-forgotten enjoy the lab work. Sounds crazy?

I’m serious. Whenever I peak down the microscope and see those macrophages smiling back, I know I have the best job in the world.

You don’t need to have your career planned out when you start a PhD, but having an idea of why you’re here is actually a major motivational factor.

Know What You Are Willing To Do And Not Do

Again, there is no work-life balance in academia. You need to figure out what works for you and when you work best.

I know my best time is between 8am and 1pm, so I usually work between 8am and 4-6pm. Although I aim at keeping the evenings and weekends free it is important to be flexible.

When an experiment lasts until midnight I stay in the lab, but I make sure my partner is well-informed and understands why. I arrange for him to pick me up when I’m done and I usually go in late the next day.

I will stay late or come in the weekends when it is necessary. But as a rule I’m only present 8am to 5pm, Monday to Friday.

Ok. Now you know your motivation for doing a PhD. You also know your boundaries.

Let’s move on to the specifics. How can you organize your PhD work to fit into a 8 (or 9 or 10) hour day and you stay in the Happy PhD Zone?

Work-life balance in academia acording to asian father

Let me share with you 3 simple hacks to keep your PhD work-life balance and enjoy the Happy PhD Zone.

3 Hacks To Maintain A Work-Life Balance In Academia

Disclaimer: What I do is largely based on The Four Hour Work Week and some of the productivity posts here on Next Scientists.

Hack #1. Make plans. Many, many plans

As PhD students we’re trained to put in a significant amount of time planning our experiments.

You need to think of everything in advance: in my biology world it’s to make sure the lab is ready, well-stocked, the equipment is booked, calculations are done and so on. Doing the actual experiment should take less time than the preparations.

I guess we’ve all been there: running around, fetching things, making solutions and rearranging the double-booking only to find that our experiment collides with a meeting.

That’s why I have a hierarchy of plans.

From micro to macro planning. I have a very detailed plan for that particular experiment. Then I have a plan for the day, for the week and for chunks of 3-5 months.

Planning, or at least having some goals, for a year, the next 5 years or similar is also recommended. For your day-today-work however, the daily, weekly and up-to-6-monthly plan is the most useful.

I do all my planning in Evernote. I have a template for the weekly and daily note looking like this:

Work-life balance in academia evernote template

You can download this Evernote template here for free (and as a bonus a template to plan your experiments).

I try to spend Friday afternoon summarizing the week and setting up a plan for the coming week.

First thing in the morning I set up a plan for the coming day. This gives me an overview of what I’m doing each day and every week. I only keep 1-2 daily and weekly notes at a time and move them to an archive notebook to avoid build-up. If something is not done it’s moved to the next day. No feeling bad and no freaking out.

The most important side of these plans are the goals. For every day I choose 3 goals.

Next Scientist has already a post on using goals, but it never hurts to repeat. The point of the goals is to help you prioritize and increase efficiency. The most important rule is that a goal must be measurable so that you will know when it is completed.

For instance, “read-up on subject X” is not a good goal as you’re never going to feel like you’re up to date anyway. «Read 3 papers and make a short summary (400 words)» is way better. You know what to do and when you’re done.

I prefer to keep my goals fairly ambitious to increase focus and make me avoid distractions, but it is a fine line between ambitious and impossible. It comes with practice.

When you’ve accomplished your goals for the day go home.

We aim at being productive while keeping a work-life balance. Otherwise we wouldn’t reach the Happy PhD Zone. So at 6pm max, what is not done today is moved to tomorrow and we can go home.

That’s right. The goals dictate what you should do on a given day and when you’re done, you’re done. This approach has made me more efficient and allows me to leave work when I’m done – not feeling bad even if I’m the first to leave the office.

The daily goals should sum up to accomplish the weekly goals.

Hack #2 Be selective

It has been said before and here it is again: being effective does not mean you should work a lot, or fast, or efficiently. It means you should work on the right task! And if you work a lot, fast and efficiently on the right task, the better.

This was actually a major revelation for me and have really changed the way I approach my work.

For instance, don’t aim at reading every paper, but focus your attention on those that are worthy. Knowing how to read a paper takes some practice, but briefly scanning a paper before diving into it, will increase the quality of your reading time.

The same goes for other tasks such as replying to emails or attending meetings.

Work-life balance in academia internet

I have left meetings when my experiment needed me and I will do it again. I also recommend identifying and avoiding time thieves: constantly checking your email, Facebook or surfing the web for the «perfect paper».

I find it helps to check my email once a day and set up dedicated time for the literature searches. And I (try to) save social media for those 10 minute incubation breaks.

Hack #3 Eat, sleep and drink

Life scientists are a curious crowd. No matter how much we understand of the human body we usually fails to take into account its basic needs. I’m no exception and I constantly struggle to fit food into my daily routine.

There is just no time to sit down for long enough to eat and often I don’t feel the hunger until it is too late and I get a headache, feeling exhausted and hating my experiment.

Work-life balance in academia sleep

On the days that I manage to eat regularly I don’t even mind the late hours in front of the microscope. The same goes for drinking. I keep a water bottle in my office and sometimes even put one just outside the lab area. It makes all the difference.

You also need to sleep. Prioritize it. Go to bed early, avoid working late and other activities that keep you wake and alert. Stress might really get to your body and if you constantly have trouble relaxing or sleeping it might be time to get help.

Lastly, it is important to exercise.

Again, even though you are a scientist, you need to keep you body healthy. Ever heard of “mens sana in corpore sano”?

I go to the gym twice a week at fixed times. Monday and Thursday night, that is what I do and it takes a lot to change that. I find that exercise gets easier when it’s part of an inflexible routine.

What do you think of these hacks to keep a work-life balance in Academia?

Let’s recap the main ideas:

  • Set a plan, have goals, do your best and if you are not finished, go home without feeling guilty, you will resume your work tomorrow.
  • Focus on what matters and say no to distractions.
  • Stay healthy. Taking care of your body is taking care of your mind.

What strategies do you use to keep work-life balance in academia?

What did you do to enter the Happy PhD Zone?


Please share with us in the comments section.

About Signe Asberg

Signe Asberg is a PhD student in molecular medicine. Her research is focused on the interactions between the immune system and intracellular bacteria. Signe's blog is about doing science, surviving life in academia and Minecraft. You can follow her on Twitter (@BananaFurby)


  1. It is nice to know that there are more people with the same idea’s about work-live balance in academia. I would like to add to this topic that there is always a tomorrow. If you do your best in your work, you should not feel guilty to leave early. Do what needs to be done today and everything else can wait until tomorrow.


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