The decision to pursue a PhD is a difficult and complex one, and there are many factors one must seriously consider before making such a decision. I was once advised that if one sees the PhD chiefly as a means by which to obtain a job (the implication being, a tenure-track teaching position), and if one would feel it a waste if one were unable to easily or quickly secure such a job afterwards, then one must seriously reconsider entering the PhD program. The experience, the process, the research, must be worth it to you on its own merits. And, of course, there are numerous other factors one must consider. Most people will talk to you about career prospects, about your degree of interest and passion in your topic, about your inclination towards doing research rather than some other type of work – and these are all extremely important. But I think that one’s day-to-day lifestyle should be included in that list as well.
When people ask me why I’m doing a PhD program, why I prefer grad school and academia over the 9-to-5, I often joke about liking to be able to take naps in the middle of the day. But, while I may not always be able to quite fully articulate it in that moment, this is not merely a joke, nor laziness on my part, but something I have given serious consideration to. We only live once, and when it comes to the amount of time each day spent working, as balanced against free time, and rest or sleep, I much prefer the flexibility of the academic lifestyle, the freedom to organize my own day, over the 9-to-5. No offense to anyone who works a 9-to-5, or who prefers it, but I have done the 9-to-5, and no matter how enjoyable the work itself, and the work environment, may be, I found that I was pretty much exhausted all of the time that I was not at work, making it very difficult to feel that I was being productive in any way in my personal (outside of work) pursuits – whether that be research, getting out and doing things in the city, or such admittedly petty things as labeling my photos online or keeping up with this blog. I loved the work I was doing when I worked/interned at museums and galleries, and loved being a part of it, but, still I came home totally exhausted every day. By contrast, when in grad school, I spend a few hours working, take a break, do something else I wanted or needed to get done during the day, maybe meet up with a friend for lunch, go to class, get back to doing my work in the evening, if I’m tired, take a nap, wake up and do more work, rarely feeling burnt out, or utterly and completely exhausted; rarely feeling I cannot wait for the weekend, and rarely feeling that I have wasted a day or a whole weekend lazing around or outright sleeping to make up for how tiring my week was. Having the flexibility to do schoolwork, rest, run errands, work on personal projects, in whatever order and at whatever time I choose (accepting, of course, that some things, like class and meeting with advisors or committees or whatever, are at fixed times), makes my every day much less stressful, and less tiring.
I don’t consider myself a lazy person, or a hedonistic person, but I would like to get more out of my daily or weekly life than the pattern of getting up early, going to work, coming home exhausted, and after only a few hours of personal/free time during which I’m too tired to do anything much, collapsing to sleep, then waking up and repeat (and spending the weekends catching up on sleep/resting/doing stuff at home rather than having the time and energy over the weekend to go out and do things in the city or with friends). I really admire, in a way, those who are able to live such a lifestyle without getting burnt out. If you can follow such a routine without finding it grueling, without being exhausted, without wishing you had more free time, without feeling it a hamster wheel, then I envy you; I am not capable of such a thing.
We all have times of day that we are more and less productive; we all have our own natural tendencies towards sleep schedules. Some people are morning people, others, night owls. To be expected to sleep eight hours straight at night, work more or less eight hours straight during the day (with a lunch break or whatever, but, big deal) with no naps or serious breaks, is a majorly artificial imposition upon our natural biorhythms. Some of my naturally most productive hours occur between 9am and 5pm, and I’d rather not be forced to always spend that time doing things other than my own personal projects; conversely, if that’s the right use of that word, some of the hours between 9-to-5 are not my most productive hours, and it would be great if I weren’t forced to work during those hours, but could instead take breaks, take naps, and thus be better equipped and re-energized to do work at other points during the day.
Now, granted, I do tend to work harder, and get more done overall per day, perhaps, when under the pressures of a work environment, with coworkers and superiors close-at-hand, but, the trade-off is that I am constantly exhausted. By contrast, when I am at grad school, and am free to do things on my own schedule, sometimes working hard early in the morning, sometimes late in the evening, and sometimes taking naps right in the middle of the day, I am still productive, I still get plenty done, and, I am happier, less stressed, less exhausted. (Not to mention that not being glued to a desk during normal business hours means that one can run all kinds of errands, make it to the bank, the post office, or just attend events, lectures, museum exhibits, at more or less any time of the day, scheduling around them.)
There are, of course, tons of self-help books out there about how to re-order your life, your sleep schedule, your work habits, in order to relieve the most stress and live the best sort of everyday life, and I won’t say that I have the magic answers like any of those books will. But, just from personal experience, I think that no matter how much work, how many responsibilities I may have, as a grad student, or as a professor, I feel healthier, happier, less stressed, when I am able to handle those tasks and obligations on my own time, in my own way, rather than being boxed into an artificial corporate schedule. Having to be up so early in the morning, having to be productive for the better part of eight hours straight, in a place that’s not comfortable, that’s not home, that’s not your own, with a boss watching over you (literally, or less literally) to ensure that you’re there, that you’re working – this I find very stressful and tiring. No matter how much I may enjoy the work I’m doing, no matter how well I may get along with my boss and my coworkers, no matter how much I may love the organization I am working for, in my limited experience with jobs and internships, I have found that the 9-to-5 experience remains far more grueling and exhausting than the academic lifestyle. And so, for the sake of my quality of life (alongside numerous other considerations), I have decided that at least for now, pursuing a PhD is the better choice than seeking a 9-to-5 job.
What’s your schedule? Are you a morning person or a night person? How do you balance work, and personal time? Do you prefer the 9-to-5 life, or the setting-your-own-schedule life?