PhD Work/Life Balance: Does it Exist?

dissertation As of June 1, 2015, I have completed all my coursework and passed my doctoral comprehensive examination, and am officially ABD. All that’s standing between me and that fancy pants PhD is a dissertation. I’ve been working towards it for two and a half years, and now it is time. But in this unstructured time between comps and my dissertation term officially beginning, when I’m getting ready for this new phase in my life, a new complication appears: How in the world am I supposed to structure my time and manage everything? How in the world am I going to survive?

While I am currently not working, to say my life is complicated would be a bit of an understatement. I am in a transition period not just in school, but in a variety of areas of my life. My daughter is 3 and is transitioning into pre-school in the coming months. We are getting ready to put our house on the market and find a new place to live. My parents are working on moving from my childhood home to their new home in a new state, but are currently working through some health issues while preparing both houses for moving. My role as a step-mom is forever transitioning into whatever it is the kids may need at the time. And of course these are just the transitions I feel comfortable talking about openly online. While I feel like I am moving forward, I also feel like I have very little solid foundation from which to work, which is a terrifying prospect.

When going into my comps quarter, I was excited at the prospect that if I completed comps and passed immediately, I would have two months with which to play with to get my personal life settled and prepare for dissertation. Time to have fun, and remember what my kids look like. Time to organize myself. Time to do something crazy, like read a book… for leisure. Time to just be. And yet, it seems every time I get some free time, some unavoidable crisis comes up to fill the time, stopping me from being able to manage the things that I was planning to manage. This week alone, my mother has gone through a (potentially unsuccessful) medical procedure, my 3 year old has gotten sick and has required me to take her to the doctor twice, my husband has gotten sick and has required me to take him to the doctor once, and I got a pinched nerve in my neck requiring medical intervention for myself. This is above and beyond the swim lessons that needed to be gotten to, and the pre-school that needed to be toured (which had to be rescheduled due to illness already). Not to mention the complete lack of sleep due to illness of the kid, the older kid requiring food three entire times per day, and attempting to keep up on laundry (much of which has been vomited on) and dishes so that nature will not reclaim the house, and my social worker friends won’t have to awkwardly report me to children’s services after visiting (though, let’s be honest, none of my friends are coming anywhere near this disaster).

tumblr_ltz2w3NJmK1qgavwyo1_500So, okay, perhaps this week is a fluke. Surely life can’t always be this insane. And yet every night when I go to bed and envision what the next day is going to look like, I wake up to a total curve ball. I was assigned my dissertation mentor close to two weeks ago now. I originally contacted her more than a week ago, and she invited me to call her at some point last week so that we could get to know each other and touch base on how to go forward. Every day I envision that the next day things will get back to normal, I will begin to organize myself, figure out what I need to do, and contact my mentor. And yet here we are. I feel like I’m drowning before I’ve even had a chance to begin. It’s disheartening. What if this is normal?

At this point in my life, I’ve done a lot of things. I’ve been a step-mom for more than 12 years. I’ve been a bio-mom for more than 3. I’ve worked as a therapist for more than 5 years. I’ve been a student for decades. I am no stranger to the wild balancing act that is life. But there seems to be something about lately, with so much in flux, and with so little of my time truly structured that I seem to be finding far more challenging than normal. I can’t tell my sick toddler not to be sick. And I can’t leave my sick toddler with my sick husband so I can organize myself (or, ya know, sleep). I can’t tell my parents that, though they’re drowning and can’t do anything but sink further into despair without my help that I’m unavailable when my mom is screaming in pain and my dad is having a panic attack. So what do I do?

The answer that we always hear in these situations is to set boundaries and then make the tough calls to do what you need to do for yourself. Well, sure. I have no problem making the tough calls. What I need help with is what to do after that. How do you deal with the consequences of the tough calls? The results? I know the standard therapist line that to care for others you have to care for yourself first, and I believe it with all my heart. I really do try to practice what I preach. But when you have an unstructured life… when you have no “boss” to tell you when you need to work… how do you set those boundaries? How do you tell people you have to work, even in an emergency, when they know damn well you’re the one that sets your own hours? How do you figure out how flexible to be, and how much of yourself to give to others and how much to keep for yourself?

I actually truly welcome any input from those of you who have been through this. I want to be the best student I can be, while also being the best mom, wife, and individual human I can be as well. I have goals that go beyond being a wife and mother and getting my PhD, such as finding a new place to live that I actually like, traveling to new and exotic places, reading and writing books, figuring out what I want to be when I grow up, and figuring out how to live in some of those exotic places I intend to travel to (as well as figuring out how to pay for that!). But when I can’t figure out how to find the time to pick up the phone and call my dissertation mentor, the rest of it seems completely unattainable. Will life ever calm down? What do I do if it doesn’t? How do I get my hands around the situation?

Anyone who wants to chat about this, feel free to leave a comment here, or tweet me at @drfangirlphd. I look forward to learning from the experiences of others dealing with similar kinds of crazy and shamelessly stealing and using your successful techniques for my own benefit! Just kidding, I promise I’ll give credit… just please take pity on me and throw some advice this way!



2 thoughts on “PhD Work/Life Balance: Does it Exist?

Add yours

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: