Toggle navigationOpen menu
Researcher Development

Researcher Development

Finding balance, creating boundaries

A common question people ask before starting a research degree is “how do I (or can I) have a work life balance during my degree?” The list of research degree myths suggests you can’t have balance, that your work must become everything or you are doing it wrong or will fail. That is absolutely, factually, not true. This section is going to think through what a ‘work-life balance’ is, look at how other researchers balance their lives, and help you to think through what it means for you.

You’ve probably heard this phrase a lot in all sorts of contexts, but what actually is it? The definition is usually about balancing your work and personal life, so that your work life does not become your life whole (which can lead to stress, burn-out, and general unhappiness). But thinking about it in this way can make it feel like your work and your personal life is in opposition, and balancing is about fighting between them.

Another way of thinking about work-life balance is that you contain multitudes – you are so many things. Work is one of them, an important one, but just one part of who you are, what you are interested in, and what your life is made of. A positive work-life balance is about acknowledging your ‘multitudes’ and finding a life that works for you and your particular set of circumstances.

What a ‘positive work-life balance’ looks like will be different for every person. Everyone has a different combination of interests, preferences, and needs. And it’s not true that everyone has the same 24 hours in a day – for example some people have caring responsibilities or an illness which takes up time. This is why it’s a good idea to spend some time thinking through what a good work-life balance looks like for you personally, and not worry that you’re doing things differently to someone else (see the perils of comparison section for more on this).

Research has found that PGRs with a positive work-life balance are more likely to be satisfied with their overall degree experience AND more confident that they would finish on time. So having a positive work-life balance (whatever that means to you) is good for both how you feel about your degree and for your progress.

Why can it be difficult to find a positive work-life balance in a research degree?

  • As discussed previously, a major theme of myths about research degrees is that you can have no life outside of work, you will stressed (or you’re doing it wrong), and you won’t have time for anything else. When you frequently hear these myths, and don’t hear or see much to contradict it, you might start to think that’s just the way you’re supposed to do it. So you work that way, and the myth becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
  • Relatedly, there is a culture of overwork in academia. You might see your supervisors not taking breaks, working every weekend and evening, or sending emails at all hours. As well as that making you feel you need to work the same way, some supervisors encourage overwork (which is not a good thing). It can be hard to resist such a culture and do things another way if it’s the way people work in your team or lab or department.
  • There are lots of exciting and interesting opportunities during your research degree, which is one of the reasons it can be such a fantastic thing to do. The problem is that it’s impossible to do everything, and it can be very easy to start saying ‘yes’ to too many things. We’ll discuss this more in the ‘boundary setting’ section.
  • Unlike in a ‘normal’ job, you don’t usually formally book and take annual leave in a research degree. You do have an annual leave allowance, but without those formal processes it can be harder to take proper time off, especially when combined with the myths and pressures of overwork. We’ll discuss this more in the ‘taking time off’ section.

What a ‘positive work-life balance’ means for you depends on your own particular circumstances and preferences. This section will look at some tips for finding balance, how other researchers do it, and some worksheets to help with your thinking.

Tips on finding your version of work-life balance

  • Work through the worksheets at the end of this section to help you reflect on what your priorities are, how you work best, and how that may fit into your working week.
  • Look at the resources below on how other researchers manage their time, even if just to be reassured there is no one right way to do it!
  • Actively prioritise finding and maintaining a balance. It’s not something that will happen on its own, so you need to make your wellbeing a priority. Your wellbeing is always a priority.
  • Find a schedule that works for you, and stick to it
  • …But re-evaluate that schedule regularly, especially when your work or personal life changes.
  • Consider the ways that you can resist the pull of the academic culture of overwork.

Taking time off and how to take annual leave as a PGR

Something that’s emphasised in the list of ways different researchers manage their time, and in anything you read on work-life balance, is the importance of taking time off. Time off is not only important for your mental health and personal wellbeing, but also helps you be more productive when you are at work. Research has consistently shown that if you don’t take breaks or time off, you actually reduce your productivity in both the short- and long-term. If you look at #TakeBreaksMakeBreakthroughs hashtag on Twitter, you can find posts and photos from academics sharing their breaks, and why it’s important to them.

‘Time off’ ranges from breaks during the day, to a morning off, to a two-week holiday. If you struggle to take breaks during the day, check out the perils of comparison section and the resources on setting boundaries below. Longer breaks, and annual leave, can be surprisingly difficult to remember to take as a PGR. Unlike in a ‘normal’ job, you don’t usually formally book and take annual leave in a research degree. At the University of Exeter you have an annual leave allowance, but without those formal processes it can be harder to take proper time off, especially when combined with the myths and pressures of overwork. Some tips for taking annual leave as a PGR:

  • Talk in a supervision session about arrangements for annual leave, and go into that conversation with the assumption that you have annual leave (i.e. you are not asking if you have annual leave, but asking what the processes are for taking it). Some research teams do ask PGRs to log annual leave like other university workers do, or your supervisor may have a preference for how you inform them about leave. Check the working with your supervisors resource for information on how to have conversations with your supervisor if you’re not sure how to bring it up.
  • If your supervisor suggest PGRs don’t get time off, speak to someone about it. It may be with your supervisor if you have a good relationship, your pastoral supervisor, or the PGR support team.
  • Even though you don’t have to – treat taking annual leave like any other job. Book it in your diary and put on your out-of-office automatic reply on your emails.
  • Take your annual leave!


How do other researchers manage their time?

There is no one right way to do a research degree – the ‘right’ way is the way that works for you and your particular set of circumstances. Remember – what a ‘positive work-life balance’ looks like will be different for every person. Everyone has a different combination of interests, preferences, and needs. And it’s not true that everyone has the same 24 hours in a day, for example some people have caring responsibilities or an illness which takes up time, and even PGRs doing similar degrees will have different structures or stages to their research so you can never exactly compare with someone else (see the ‘perils of comparison’ section for more on this).

Here are some examples of the different ways different PGRs and academics manage their time:

Blogs and articles:

  • Karishma Kaushik talks about how her approach to work-life balance, and sharing non-work parts of herself at work, changed when she became a parent while a graduate student in the US. Article in Nature.
  • An article in Nature on the importance of taking breaks, including the ways different researchers make space for breaks and what they do with them, for example, taking the day off the day before what they know will be a very long lab day. Article in Nature.
  • A blogpost by Exeter PGR Gemma Delafield, on her own personal rules for managing her work-life balance during her PhD. Blogpost on Doctoral College blog.
  • A podcast with two Exeter PGRs, talking about being distance students. One, Jo Sutherest, discusses her personal routine at timestamp 3:24. Podcast episode.

There are lots of YouTube videos of PGRs showing a ‘day in the life’ routines. You could try:


There are two worksheets in this section to help you think about your own work-life balance:

Also check out the positive work habits section for tips on how to manage and balance your day-to-day working life.

Creating and maintaining healthy boundaries are essential to maintaining a positive work-life balance. These boundaries are in relationships with others, and with yourself. This section will signpost to other resources about setting boundaries with others, and look in more detail about setting boundaries with yourself.

Boundaries with others

When you have worked out what you need to do in order to have a positive work-life balance, you often need to communicate that to others. This includes where your boundaries are, for example when you will be working (and not working), when you will check email (and not check email), and how much you take on in all areas of your life. You may need to set these boundaries with a number of people in your life, including your supervisor, family, friends, and colleagues. Sometimes these conversations can feel challenging, particularly if you’re not sure if the other person supports you in what you want or need to do. These are some useful resources for thinking about and having those conversations:

  • Working with supervisors online resource, particularly the difficult conversation templates which are useful for difficult conversations with anyone, not just supervisors.
  • If you feel your supervisory team are not supporting you in the way that you need, you can speak from your pastoral tutor.

Boundaries with yourself

One thing people sometimes forget to consider is that you also need to set boundaries with yourself. One of the fantastic things about a research degree is there are a number of other opportunities you can get involved in, beyond just the research, including teaching, peer support, engagement activities, events, conferences, seminars, and many many more. In fact, it can be argued that a research degree isn’t just about the research, but also about these opportunities which can be helpful to whatever you want to do after your degree as well as interesting. This means it can be very easy to say ‘yes’ to doing too many things, or to feel a pressure to say ‘yes’ to everything. Inevitably, you can then end up with too much to juggle, making you feel stressed or unable to have the work-life balance that you want. You also need to make sure you allow yourself the time and space to do the work.


PhD student in Drama and Philosophy, Giorgia Ciampi discusses the importance of not forgetting your beginner’s mind here, getting seduced by every new theory you come across or trying to please everyone else:

You can download a transcript of this podcast.

One way to tackle this is to make some rules for yourself about what you say ‘yes’ to. It’s very hard to say ‘no’ to something what it’s something you really would be interested in, even if you don’t actually have the time, so making some rules can help you come to a more balanced judgement.

Your ‘rules for yes’ will depend on your personal circumstances and interests. An example of questions one Exeter PGR uses when a new opportunity arises is listed below:

1.       Am I interested in this? Do I want to do it?

2.       Will it help my future career plans?

3.       Is it paid?

4.       How much else do I have to do in that time frame?

5.       What is my chronic health condition doing right now?

This PGR considers the balance of the answer to those questions to decide if she should say yes. For example, she might be really interested in something that would also help her future career, but have too much else to do in the timeframe and be in a flare-up of her health condition, so says no. Or she might take a job that’s unpaid because she’s really interested in it and has the time for it.


Write a list of what your ‘rules for yes’ or ‘rules for no’ are, or what questions you need to ask yourself before you decide whether to do something.

Make this into a checklist or question list you can look at whenever a new opportunity arises. Look at your list if you’re ever stuck for whether you should say yes or no, and especially when you really want to do something despite, for example, time pressure, as that’s often when it’s hardest to say no!

IconWe value your feedback, and would appreciate it if you could take 2 minutes to give us some feedback on this resource