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  • Madeline Topf

Re-thinking "work-life balance"

I run every day.


Well, six days a week, maybe five if I’ve done some sort of cross training activity. I’ve run every day since I can remember, although then it was always toward a ball and with a bunch of other people. Now it’s just me and my air pods.

In graduate school, students generally agree you need some sort of hobby. If it is to distract yourself from your constant stream of failures or just to have something fun to do, I’m not sure. I remember someone, when I was working over a summer at Harvard, said they did pottery to have something they can make progress on when their main work is stagnant.

Either way, the hobby is positioned in relation to the work. It is still serving the work. Work-life balance as a way to be better at work.

Is running good for my productivity? I’m not sure. Honestly sometimes I go out at 3pm for a long run, and by the time I get back I just eat dinner and sit around. I never ever go in the morning because I don’t understand anyone who can wake up before their body wants them to or before the sun peeks in the window.

I think the lie of “work-life” balance is that it’s dividing something up that is really just your life. Whatever you do is your life. I think you either have to work to live, or live instead of work. The lucky can do the latter. If I try to think about my experiments when I run, I am working. If I run in order to make progress on something to feel better about my work, I am still working.

My advisor and lab culture allow me to set these boundaries for myself. Unfortunately, this is frequently not possible. To propose this mind shift is to question the institution of scientific research in academia.

But the institution isn’t working anymore. Rates of mental health issues and burnout in grad students have skyrocketed. I’m sorry, but I don’t really want to sacrifice my happiness and wellbeing for a mid-mid tier salary in microbiology, or for my ivory tower colleagues to think I’m smart, or to write a paper slightly faster than I would otherwise. It’s not worth it.

We, as graduate students, may have more power than we realize, if we work together. Power is really what we would work so long and hard for anyway, right.

I love being a researcher. It’s fun, engaging, and challenging. It is a rewarding and fulfilling part of my life. I want to keep my enthusiasm. I’ll keep running too, dancing in my head to charli xcx, as I slowly plod miles and miles away.

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