This is not a particularly new subject to write about, however it is something I have been thinking about lately. How much of our identity is wrapped up in our identity as a PhD student and as a researcher, and how much remains of who we were before? I, like many of you, am lucky to be doing a PhD on something that genuinely fascinates me. While this is great in so many ways, it makes it hard to make clear boundaries between work and downtime. This has been made more so for me with the increased requirement to work from home.
There were discussions on twitter recently about whether PhD students should be counting their weekly hours or not. At the same time there have been letters dug up that a certain PhD supervisor had sent to a researcher years ago saying that their work ethic was not up to scratch because they were not seen in the lab on evenings and weekends. Their argument was that the program was highly competitive, and they could easily be replaced with someone who would be willing to put in those hours.
To focus on the first part about counting hours, I have been thinking about this since reading other people’s views on the matter. To a certain extent I do count my hours. I have children and family commitments, which can sometimes lead to me needing to work slightly strange hours. I find it useful to know how much I am managing to do and if I am managing my time well. When I do have a day completely free, I like to work office hours just so it feels more like work and then I can leave it alone after I am done. However, I find that the hours that are not counted are often just as important.
The expectation that being in a competitive program means you will dedicate all your time and life to it is, to me, highly flawed. If people are exhausted and have no time to just be a person, their work will suffer, and burnout is almost inevitable. The attitude that junior researchers are expendable is also unacceptable. People get on these programs by merit and should be treated with the respect they deserve.
Going back to the point that hours that are not counted being just as important, giving your brain downtime to focus on other things is, for me at least, an integral part of working on a PhD. Removing myself from the research and coming back fresh always works better than working until my eyes are dropping. It can also be when I get my best ideas or figure out a problem. While working on other things I find my thoughts suddenly jumping back to my work with solutions.
I am not sure I have answered my own question at the beginning of how boundaries can be developed between who we are and what we do. Perhaps this is something that is unique to everyone and we need to figure out ourselves.
I think the main point I want to make is that the number of hours spent on research is not a competition. Some might benefit from working long hours, and there are certainly times when specific deadlines require this. However, others may find their brain works well for around four hours and they can get into a zone and blast through a huge amount in that time.
Sharing ideas with one another is good and is healthy. Competition based on hours worked is not. We are all here because others believed we should be. It is in many ways a huge privilege but is also essentially a job. We need to be kind to ourselves, let ourselves relax from time to time and remember to be a human.
As The Killers state in the song referenced in the title of this post “My sign is vital / my hands are cold”. We are people who do research (well and to a high standard), and the person side of ourselves should not be sacrificed to become cold, empty and robotic researchers who sometimes get to be people.
Would you like to write a blog for us? Email Neil.Ackerman@glasgow.ac.uk