Maintaining a life outside a PhD

Is it possible to maintain a life outside a PhD?

There’s a common assumption that the way to succeed in academia is to sacrifice any semblance of a normal life. And if things aren’t going well, a common response is to work ever longer hours, tipping work and life further and further out of balance.

But I’d say it’s not only possible to maintain a life outside a PhD, it’s necessary.

How I maintained a life outside my PhD

During my PhD, I was also competing at an international level in aikido (a Japanese martial art). One of the reasons I went to Nottingham was that there was an aikido club there practicing my style, meaning I could carry on my training.

In the first year of my PhD I took over coaching the club, so 3 night per week I had to be at the sports center. That responsibility meant that it wasn’t a choice of whether or not to train; I had to be there. When I wasn’t coaching, I was often training elsewhere (often 6 or 7 days per week).

I viewed training as essential and non-negotiable, so I found a way to do it. Sometimes this meant leaving an experiment running in the evening, going to teach a class for two hours, then going back to the lab afterwards to finish the work, even if that meant getting home after midnight.

It might sound awful, but the training kept me sane. As soon as I stepped onto the mat nothing else existed. I never thought about the PhD when I was training; not once in almost 4 years.

Non-negotiable commitments

You don’t have to go to the same extreme I did, but it’s good to have something outside the PhD that you treat as a regular, non-negotiable commitment. It could be a yoga class, a meal with the family, a date night with your partner… It means you have control over at least some small part of your life, no matter how stressful the PhD gets.

So you shouldn’t say to yourself, “I’ll do that if I get enough done today”. Just say, “I’m doing it” and find a way.


See also:

Time to think

A PhD is not everything

4 thoughts on “Maintaining a life outside a PhD”

  1. this article is just what I needed to read right now. I am beginning my PhD program next week and very anxious about being able to maintain my outside interests/commitments.

  2. Thank you, Thank You, Thank You for writing this!

    I could not agree with you more on this. I am a self funded full time student in my first year. I work 2 full days a week in various countries in Asia and compete in Boxing (training 6 times a week). For me it keeps me sane and makes me focus when I am having a ‘PhD Day’. My weeks are highly structured and I have yet to miss or delay a deadline unlike some of the other students. Nor do i work weekends. When I work on my PhD I do just that rather than have endless coffee breaks, play video games or ‘look’ like i am doing work.

    That been said, what I have found interesting in my university is a naive opinion that if you’re not in the office, chained to your desk, working on your PhD all the hour’s god sends you going to fail. This makes me smile on daily basis. For example, I just came back from a month in Thailand and 2 weeks in Malaysia – much to the horror of the other students! I had numerous texts about “ How they were only a very dedicated few people left in the office over summer while other people were out sunning it”. While they presumed I was in the latter group, little did they know that while I was travelling carried around all my literature with me and worked 4 hours a day on drafting my research proposal from starch (which is now been given the thumbs up by my supervisor and submitted to the ethic committee). There is a narrow mindless with some student which makes me smile. I hope at some point they learn work can be done anywhere at anytime and stop leaving their jackets on the back of chairs and their lights on in they office when they are clearly out…

  3. Thanks for the testimony. I have also observed that the PhD journey gets so stressful such that taking time off to do other activities can keep one going as you map way forward.

  4. Totally agree with this. I use regular physical training sessions to clear my brain. It’s a really good indicator of how stressed I am, to get back to focusing in the moment not about writing!

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