realworld PhDs

A resource for job hunting PhDs.

Why I don’t like the phrase “life/work balance.”

We’re moving into the final phase of a major renewal project at my job, which means my hours have been creeping upwards - I’m staying a little bit later in the evenings, I’m sitting at my desk with my lunch, I’m checking my emails on the weekend and triaging them for anything urgent. So far, it’s not a lot of time, but it’s likely to get worse over the next month.


Thankfully, my office is a very conscientious place, and my boss is both aware that this is not ideal for me and willing to be flexible to accommodate me.

In short, my job is currently a challenge from the point of view of ‘life/work balance.’  But that’s a phrase I’ve always disliked, mostly because it implies a dichotomy - I have work, and I have a life, and that’s apparently everything I have. 

In actuality, I have a bunch of things - my job working as a business manager, this site and my work revising resumes and offering career advice, another website I maintain about my research, manuscripts and book proposals I’m trying to finish and submit, an apartment that needs to be cleaned and maintained, a cat who needs to be fed, a body that needs food, sleep, exercise, and relaxation.  All of these things need a range of my attention, depending on the time of day, what else I’ve done that week or month, what my upcoming deadlines look like, and how I myself am feeling.  Trying to split everything I do into either “life” or “work” seriously over-simplifies things, but I think it also diminishes my autonomy in running my life, of which my work is a part.

To give an example, recently, one of my colleagues had a problem with a faculty member calling her on the weekend to go over work.  She felt it was understandable, in that they had a major event coming up and the faculty member was worried about getting materials for it in time, but she still wasn’t happy to have her personal time invaded like that.  In response, one of the managers for my department suggested we set a rule that faculty can’t contact us out of business hours.  I contested, saying that I wanted my researchers to be able to contact me as questions arose, so as to keep our project moving along as quickly and smoothly as possible.

I would argue that the real difference between my colleague’s experience and mine is that of choice and consent - I’ve agreed to be available to my researchers outside of standard business hours for the time-being because it makes sense for this project.  My colleague had made no such arrangement with her faculty member - this person decided for herself that her questions were more important than whatever else my colleague might have been doing with her time.  But the reality is that no one should get to make that decision - as an adult, I’m always in charge of my time.

Which is why I find the term “life/work balance” unsettling, because all too often, it seems to be used to delineate a dichotomy between what I control (my life) and what controls me (my work).  But that’s false.  I control me.  If I choose to do nothing all day long at my job, I also have to live with the consequences of that choice, but it’s still a choice that is open to me.  I balance my life, of which work is a part, but it’s still just me balancing my life.