when the going gets tough, the tough need to get smart!

No drowning  by MA1216Like many jobs, doing academic research can be fantastically rewarding and fascinating, but it can also be demanding, draining and just plain hard. I don’t know about you, but I think It’s SUPER lucky that your personal life never gets tough just at the point when you feel like your academic life is doing its best to finish you off, right? Right? Oh.

What constitutes a “personal crisis” is as individual as the person experiencing it. Common areas of stress include your own health, the illness or death of a loved one, relationship breakdown, financial worries – anything extraordinary and traumatic that has an impact on all areas of your life. Suddenly, your definition of work-life balance isn’t about having the time to train for a triathlon or learning to play the piano or even about being able to cheer your kids on in their after school activities. It’s about trying desperately to juggle the bare essentials of everything you have to cram into your day without collapsing.

Recently, I found myself in such a situation; my father became very suddenly, very seriously ill. He’s a widower and I’m an only child, so there wasn’t a whole lot of “sharing the load” to be done. I was trying to manage a full-time, challenging, brilliant job , with what felt like almost full-time care of my (challenging, brilliant…) dad. It was a difficult situation that I found myself making much worse by sitting hunched up in bed during another sleepless night, reading article after article about self-motivation, time-management and productivity, convincing my stress-addled brain that if I just tried harder I’d be fine. That I just needed to tough it out.

Within half an hour (after I’d scribbled a list of all my work and care commitments and couldn’t find any way to make them all fit), I’d be seriously considering quitting my job to look after my dad full-time or, perhaps, running away to work in a café in France. Obviously.

This was pretty much how my life – or, at least, my nights – played out for a good few months last year. It was…not good. Now, I can look back and, whilst I can’t honestly say I can laugh, I can give a sort of tight-lipped smile. What I was trying to do, while all hell broke loose, was carry on as normal and stick rigidly to the attitudes and tools that would normally work for me. I’m not saying that these things had no place in my planning – they definitely did – but the most significant thing I did was to give myself permission to realise that things WEREN’T normal and therefore to think differently about solutions.

My father’s still not well; things are still tough and I still don’t feel like I have enough hours in the day. There’s not a lot I can do about the circumstances, but I am starting to feel a bit more in control of how I respond to them. Here are three things that I think can make a genuine difference when the going gets really tough.

Find flexibility where you can
Academic research is hard work. Yes; I’m doing a PhD in stating the obvious. However, research can often offer a certain amount of flexibility in your working patterns or even in your work location. If you have some tasks that can only be done between set times or in a specific place, you may be able to juggle other aspects of your work to enable you to be with a sick relative, to attend hospital appointments or to cover childcare. You’re able to formally request flexible working arrangements, but you might not need to if you can take advantage of inbuilt flexibility within your role.

Keep your PI/supervisor informed
If you’re experiencing personal difficulties that are significant enough to have an impact on your work, it’s important that you discuss these with your PI or supervisor. This can feel really awkward, particularly if you don’t already have a great relationship, but your university has a duty of care to you, including specific policies to support you during difficult times. However, if you don’t tell people, they can’t help you. Now, this doesn’t mean that you have to go into the minute details of your problems; you just need to outline the issues, explain what impact they might have and how you intend to minimise these and suggest ways that your PI/supervisor could support you. You should try to find some specific things that you can both agree – “I need more time to work on the results, and I’m going to have to work at home sometimes” is not as helpful as “I need an extra two weeks to analyse the results and will need to work at home 2 days a week.” Obviously, depending on the situation, you may not know exactly what you will need, but having a plan, even if it needs to be reviewed at a later date, demonstrates your professionalism and commitment to your work.

Approaching the situation pro-actively, not only makes it easier for your PI/supervisor to support you while minimising disruption to the project, it can also help to give you back a feeling of being in control, which – from my experience – is crucial. When something unexpected and awful hits, you can feel completely at the mercy of circumstance; this can help you start to wrest control back.

If this type of conversation is your worst nightmare or you worry about not being able to get out everything you need to in a meeting, send an email first, summarising the situation and requesting a discussion. Then you’ll be sure that you haven’t missed anything you need to say and you’ll have a handy aide-mémoire (or piece of paper to clutch!) when you have the conversation.

Get help
Asking for and accessing help is crucial, and is about much more than just your academic life. When you talk to friends and family about your situation, I bet that most of them say something along the lines of “let me know if there’s anything I can do to help.” I also bet that you won’t. That might be because you don’t want to burden them, don’t think they mean it or feel like you should be able to cope on your own.

If you’re involved in postgraduate or post-doctoral research, you’re probably used to being capable; to being The Clever One; to figuring it out. So, it can be really hard to admit that there are some things that you can’t handle entirely on your own. Needing help doesn’t make you weak; recognising when you need help is smart.

Once you recognise this, you can take people up on their offers of help. Some friends might be well-meaning, but ultimately unreliable; you know the type. But most people really mean it when they offer support. So, if you need to, follow up these offers. But, remember, it’s your responsibility to ask (which can be hard). You can also make things easier by, again, asking for a specific piece of help “could you pick up my library book/dry cleaning?” rather than something vague. Matching people’s skills or interests to what you need, can also make a big difference. The biggest difference you can make, though, is simply finding the courage to ask.

Unlike most people writing a blog post, I really hope that this has been completely irrelevant to you and that everything in your life is just peachy. I hope that you never need to think about these issues, but I know that’s unrealistic, so I hope this helps, at least a bit. If you have experience of trying to balance the demands of challenging work and difficult personal circumstances, please do share them in the comments, and feel free to pass this on to anyone you think could use it.

Image credit – MA1216


  1. Sorry you’ve been through such a tough time, remember we are always here for you as well, seriously, ask and thou shalt receive.

    A wise friend once told me that you cannot cope with turmoil in both your work and personal life at the same time, so you should aim to keep one on an even keel while you deal with the other when a crisis hits.

    That has helped me prioritise and choose my battles during hard times, and yes, our family need to come first.

    With an aging population it is more and more common that we need to look after aging relatives and this can go on for long time with the longer life spans we now have.

    There seems to be more focus on supporting people with young children but I bet if we canvassed staff we would find as many coping with aged parents so it’s great you have highlighted this.

    I hope things start to become a little easier soon.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is all true, and the bit that cannot be stressed enough is ‘ if you don’t tell people, they can’t help you’. People don’t actually want you to fail, they want you to succeed.

    Liked by 1 person

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