Finding Balance: PhD Internships and the Work-Life Divide

Blogger Vesna Curlic joins us this week with another addition to the Working while PhDing series. This week, she is reflecting on her own PhD internships, her priorities, and the fear of “what comes next,” post-PhD.

I have less than a month left in my time as a SGSAH blogger, so naturally, I’ve become a little bit sentimental and reflective. I’ll likely do a more formal wrap-up post later in the month, but one of the things I’ve been most proud of in my time as the SGSAH blogger was curating a series of guest posts about working during the PhD. It was so fun to hear such a wide range of experiences. The tone is unanimous across the posts – doing an internship or some kind of placement during the PhD is mutually beneficial. Internships and placements during the PhD help hone existing skills and builds interesting transferrable ones for the future. I am a big proponent of this idea and was happy to hear that all our contributors also felt their internships were useful.

I’ve done a variety of internships over the course of my PhD, all of which have been really amazing and productive. However, this is still a sensitive subject for me. You see, when I started my PhD, I had a crisis of faith. It was September 2019 and I suddenly found myself alone in a new city (on a new continent!) away from my family and my partner and all of my friends. At the same time, the realities of the academic job market sunk in for me. Suddenly, I was seeing stories every day about smart, talented academics leaving academia, either by choice or being forced out by poor working conditions. Obviously, I knew it was a difficult market before I started the PhD, but the reality only truly sunk in when I realised how difficult it was for me to relocate my whole life. The image of doing this kind of move countless more times for precarious academic contracts was daunting.

I tackled this crisis of faith the only way I know how – making a plan. I started reading about what people did when they left academia, I started thinking about what I wanted to do, what kind of life I wanted to lead, where I wanted to live. I also started researching internships and part-time work. I decided to make the absolute most of my time as a PhD student – learn as much as I can, get as much experience as I can, all while still trying to fully prepare myself for an academic career. I applied for every internship that I was qualified for and interested in, with varying amounts of success. However, I did end up with a few different positions over the course of the PhD.

I don’t know that I would recommend my exact approach. Now, nearing the end of my PhD, I can I have held six different internship roles so far (not counting different tutoring contracts), across a variety of sectors. I have absolutely loved each one and learned so much. It has made me more confident in my skills and my employability. Even with positions I didn’t get, I worked on my interview skills and my cover letter writing. However, it has also been a lot to deal with! At times, I’ve worked as many as 3 contracts at a time, on top of full time PhD work. As I approach the end of my PhD, I’m keenly aware of the fact that I’ve stretched myself too thin at times. I don’t know that I would recommend my particular approach, which was fuelled mostly out of fear of being horribly unemployable at the end of my education.

Still, I would recommend trying to do some part-time work or an internship during your PhD. Especially if you didn’t take any breaks to work between your undergraduate and doctoral studies – having some work experience can help translate what you do to outside audiences if you choose to leave academia. However, you are well within your right to be selective. In my personal opinion, these internships should be paid, too. I’m highly suspicious of organisations that don’t pay for specialised skills and labour. I’m sure some of these opportunities are worth it, but I can’t help but feel that it is largely exploitative. Speak to your peers and your mentors before accepting unpaid work, at the very least.

Also, I would recommend doing an internship or a placement from a place of love or interest or passion, rather than from a place of anxiety. Don’t sacrifice your work-life balance (or your research!) in chasing other opportunities. If I’ve learned one thing, it is that you probably can’t do it all. If you focus on preparing yourself for an academic-adjacent career, you likely won’t be able to do all the things you need for an academic career (i.e. publications). You risk burning out, sacrificing your health, or damaging your personal life by trying to do it all.

I still don’t know what the post-PhD life holds for me. I love research and teaching so dearly that I would love to make a go of an academic career. I also think there are many other things I would enjoy doing. I love writing, I love working with books, archives, and heritage material, I love working on international education. I have no idea where my life will take me, but I have a much better sense of what my uncompromisable values are. I still have about a year left in my PhD, so this journey is far from done, but regardless of where you are in your PhD, I hope hearing about my experience might soothe your career anxiety a bit.

If you would like to contribute to the SGSAH Blog, please email Vesna ( with your idea.

Vesna Curlic is a PhD researcher in History at the University of Edinburgh and current SGSAH Blogger. Her thesis project considers the relationship between disease, disability, and the British immigration system in the early twentieth century. More broadly, her research interests include the history of medicine and science, modern immigration law, and public health policy. She splits her time between Edinburgh and her hometown of Toronto, Canada.

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