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Balancing Work and Life

Module by: Rice ADVANCE. E-mail the author

Summary: Keynote presentation presented by Jennifer West at the 2011 NSF ADVANCE Workshop: Negotiating the Ideal Faculty Position, A Workshop for Underrepresented PhDs and Postdocs in Science, Engineering and Psychology September 18-20, 2011

Balancing Work and Life

Figure 1
Figure 1 (Picture 1.png)

Take care of yourself

  • Stay healthy
    • Eat right, exercise, have a hobby, etc.
  • Make time for things you enjoy
    • Music, sports, reading
  • Spend time with family and friends

Create a Support Structure

  • Accept less than perfection
    • Cleanliness, simple meals, etc.
  • Hire a housekeeper
  • Plan to do shopping and chores on a schedule
    • Less frequent will give you more time
  • Expect your partner/spouse/roommate to share in household responsibilities
    • Delegate tasks to others

Use Available Resources

  • Take advantage of childcare, backup childcare, summer camp, etc.
  • Lose the guilt
    • Understand limitations
    • Be realistic
    • Don’t make comparisons with others
    • Accept your own work style, whatever it is
      • 8-5 PM regularly
      • 3-day post-procrastination binge

Balance in the Workplace

  • Learn to say “NO” but do it nicely!
  • Never commit immediately
    • Take time to consider requests
  • Ask yourself
    • Is this work important?
    • Do I care about this task?
    • Will this effort help me in the future

Prioritize What You Do

  • Will this help my students?
  • Will this get me tenure?
  • Will this advance me professionally outside my institution?
  • Will this interfere with something that I care more about?

Convey your priorities clearly to others

When You Say “Yes”…..

  • Follow through
  • Give your time to the process
  • Put energy into the efforts
  • Bring your conviction to what you have agreed to do
  • Be present to the process and enjoy the moments
  • What will you “not do” in order to do this?

Talking Points

You will want to meet with graduate students to assess the quality of the program.

If Practical, Say “Yes” to….

  • Panel Service
    • NSF, NIH, NASA, DOE, others
    • Do this at least once as early as possible in your tenure clock (ask for help to get on a panel)
  • Reviews of manuscripts and proposals
    • Do not do more than 12 reviews total per year (count any panel service)

General Rules

  • If something can be done in 5 minutes
    • Do it now
    • Be done with it!
  • Make realistic to-do lists and track them
    • List by date due and importance
  • Don’t procrastinate
    • It only makes things harder
    • Limited time requires great focus

Use Your Resources

  • Use available secretarial support
    • Don’t make photocopies
    • Delegate any grant paper work possible
    • Delegate travel arrangements, other scheduling
  • Use TAs if available
    • Think about what you want them to do
    • Leverage their time and yours

Managing Children

  • Take advantage of all family leave/tenure clock delay policies
  • Find effective and reliable day-care
  • Find sick-child services (some institutions provide support)
  • Find a community of parents with children of similar age
  • Hire a sitter when you need time away
  • Spend quality time with your child
    • Let go of thinking about all the other things you need to do
    • Let go of guilt that you are not “there” all the time
    • Find ways to bring your child into your work world
      • Time in the office (have things for them there)

Traveling with Children

  • Travel is easier with babies and with older children
    • Travel when you don’t have children
  • Understand the resources available for childcare at meetings
  • Work with your partner to time travel effectively

General Strategies

  • Set regular (weekly?) meeting times with your graduate students/undergraduate research students/postdocs
  • Set times to write in a setting that is uninterrupted (target when you are most productive)

Talking Points

Provide lists of questions.

Strategies for “Think Time”

  • Find alternate places to work
    • Internet café, park with tables, etc.
  • Educate family, friends, significant others, and students the demands and your work style
    • Some may not understand academia or tenure
    • Some may not know how you need to work toward your goals
  • Set a specific time to read email, rather than reading as they come in

The People in Your Life

  • Think about all those individuals in your life play an important role in helping you find balance
    • Inform them what is happening for you
    • Ask them for help when you need it
    • Offer help when you have the opportunity
  • These individuals can help balance your life
    • Keep them fully on board with what is going on


  • It is not possible to get EVERYTHING DONE!
    • Prioritize and set your standard to match the task
  • No one is perfect!!
  • At some point you will feel
    • Incompetent (as a PI/spouse/parent/partner/child)
    • Disorganized
    • Overwhelmed
    • Unable to cope

Talking Points

If your work is in two very different areas, work with your mentor(s) to craft a talk that integrates, to the degree possible, what you have done. Focus most on the work that you will build on for the future and what aligns best with the department where you are interviewing (which may mean having to prepare multiple talks to match the relevant department’s interests).

If your work is based on something done by a collaborator, acknowledge that by saying “Research by my collaborator demonstrated that…, and based on that, I designed the following set of experiments…”

You Will Wonder…

  • How to get it all done.
  • Whether you can get it all done.
  • If it is all worth it.
  • If you are alone…..

When That Happens…

  • Take time to regroup
  • Talk with people that you trust
  • Get some sleep
  • Go for a walk
  • Meditate
  • Regain your balance
  • Spend time on what you most enjoy

Talking Points

If you don’t know how to target your talk to the level of the audience, talk with your mentor and colleagues. Ask the Department where you are interviewing who will be in the audience. A talk to primarily faculty and postdocs will be different from one that has upper level undergraduates and beginning graduate students, for example.

And Then…..

  • Do what needs to be done!
  • (And remember how hard it is for your students who have children…)

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