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Work-life balance: insights from geodynamicists

Work-life balance: insights from geodynamicists

Maintaining a good work-life balance is essential for a steady career and happy life in academia. However, like with all good things, it is not easy. In this new Wit & Wisdom post, Jessica Munch, PhD student at ETH Zürich, explores how to achieve a good work-life balance.

Jessica Munch
Credit: Manon Lauffenburger

Research is a truly amazing occupation, especially in geodynamics (okay, that might be a bit biased…). However, disregarding the position you have academia, research is also a job asking for a lot of commitment, an ability to deal with pressure, (very) good organisational skills and an ability to deal with everything on time to (hopefully) stay in academia (if you want to learn more about stress and pressure effects on researchers, there are plenty of articles related to that on the web – if you did not experience them by yourself already – yay!) Hence, it seems that this dream job can sometimes turn into a nightmare, which could partly explain why so many people quit academia.

The solution to avoid having to make such an extreme decision as quitting? The legendary work-life balance: how to reconcile a job that you cannot get out of your mind once you’re done with your day (it’s not like you can easily switch off your brain once you leave your office and forget about all the questions you are trying to answer with your research, right?) with your private life, hobbies, and families?

I wanted to try to figure out what a work-life balance really means. At the very least, I wanted to find a more meaningful answer than wikipedia’s definition:

Work-life balance is a concept including the proper prioritisation between work (career and ambition) and lifestyle (health, pleasure, leisure, family)

The definition I would give based on my limited experience, is that a work-life balance is an (often rather fragile) equilibrium between academia and your private life that allows you to stay efficient and motivated about your research without losing the link with/neglecting the world outside. All of that while being happy and healthy. Easy, no?

Given my restricted experience with this balance, I wondered how other researchers at different stages in their career deal with this. I contacted several researchers and they took the time to reply to my questions although they had a very tight schedule (thanks you very much!).

A first insight comes from Susanne Buiter, Team leader at the Geological Survey of Norway: “I guess the fact that I am writing you in the weekend, on a Saturday evening says something about my balancing work and private life at the moment!”. Sounds quite tough, but then she gives some explanations. She appreciates that everyone is very dedicated to their research in our field. This often leads to long and rather unconventional working hours for research and teaching duties. This is fine as long as it is voluntary, but it should not become an expectation. Susanne’s take on this is that there should be flexibility from both sides, and that it is absolutely fine that some weeks are very busy as long as other times can be more relaxed. Considering her research not only as a job but also as a hobby seems to allow for a lot of dedication while keeping being her both happy and motivated. She also raises the question if anyone is able to actually do all the work he or she has to do when only working regular hours.

A second opinion on this precious work-life balance comes from an early career researcher, Marie Bocher, a postdoc at ETH Zürich. When discussing with her, she first points out that a work-life balance is not necessarily a condition to do a good research: one should not directly link the lack of balance in your life to a burnout. For Marie it is okay to work a lot, as long as her research is meaningful to her and she is efficient and motivated. Sometimes you work really hard, do not have a real balance, have no time for hobbies, etc., but this does not necessarily mean you are going to end up with a burnout. These kind of moments can actually be enjoyable, because you often notice that you are efficient and making progress, which is quite rewarding. Hence, what you need in research (even more than a balanced life) is a meaning to what you are doing or a reason for going to work every morning. This is what will prevent you from having a burnout and will help you to be a happy researcher. Support and validation from peers can also help.

However, Marie wonders if the work-life balance issue has always been an issue in academia. She mentions the fact that sometimes people feel pressure to have a balanced life according to someone else’s definition. Sometimes colleagues comment on the fact that you work late and that this is not normal, and that you should have a hobby (pressure to have hobbies, quite paradoxical, no?). This might result in you pushing yourself to do activities even though you would prefer to for once hang out at home and relax during your weekend. Not everyone needs to have an hyperactive life. Instead, people should just try to live a life they enjoy.

Finally, she raises the point that work-life balance is actually a dynamic equilibrium: it is something that changes depending on your situation. You cannot organise yourself the same way if you are single, if you have a partner, or if you have kids. It is a hard to find balance and that evolves with life and responsibilities.

Potentially dangerous/lethal way of working on your work-life balance
Credit: Antoine Grisart

Speaking about kids and family, the third and last (but definitely not least) thoughts on this topic come from Saskia Goes, lecturer/reader at Imperial College London. For her, having a balanced life means having time for other things besides works and occasionally time for herself – a definition she is not sure she could apply to her own life where she constantly has to juggle between work and family. Saskia explains that it is a continuous challenge to do enough work to keep the department happy and functioning, but to also say no to enough work so that she still has time for her own research, students and her family. She also points out that she has very little time to do research herself – only a few hours now and then. Her main research activity at the moment actually consists in working with students and postdocs on their papers.

When asked how she reconciles family life with her work, Saskia replies that it is doable, but only with sufficient support in the form of a partner, school care, family or friends. Moreover, she emphasises that you need to accept that you simply cannot keep up with people who work 60 to 80 hours every week and can attend three to four conferences a year. Some types of research do not work with a family, unless you have a partner who can significantly help out for a while. Bringing up the fact that a job in academia often implies a lot of moving (research positions in different countries, etc.), Saskia mentions that until now, she only moved once with her kids. The main challenge was then the lack of support (for instance from friends and family) when you move to the new place.

Finally, when I asked her for tips on how to manage all of this, she suggested to make lists to keep track of what needs to be done when, and to then divide and plan the tasks day by day, week per week so that they look manageable. The main challenge lies in trying to balance the amount of things you take on with the time you have!

According to these different insights on the work-life balance, a universal definition seems impossible. Instead, the precious balance appears to be quite personal. It depends on your situation in life, on how much your time you can actually dedicate to your project, and your ability to manage the tasks you need to do (or refuse to do). Hence, the work-life balance is a very personal concept everyone has to figure out for him/herself. Ultimately, it is just a matter of being happy with what you do.

NetherMod Day 5 – Putten an end to Nethermod: interviews with attendees

NetherMod Day 5 – Putten an end to Nethermod: interviews with attendees

Today is the fifth and final day of the XVth International Workshop on Modelling of Mantle and Lithosphere Dynamics, or “Nethermod”, here in Putten, The Netherlands. Despite the overcast conditions outside, the lively scientific program included keynotes by Paul Tackley and Carolina Lithgow-Bertelloni in the morning and Clint Conrad and Louise Kellogg in the afternoon. With over 120 attendees, and a program built around selected keynote presentations with plenty of time for posters and discussions, Nethermod offers a unique meeting format. Today’s post includes interviews with three attendees at different stages of their career – student, mid career and more established – and asks about their experiences of the workshop and their perspective on the future of geodynamics.


Kiran Chotalia here at Putten

— Early Career Researcher —
Kiran Chotalia (University College London).
Kiran is entering the third year of her PhD, and is a first-time attendee to the workshop.

– What is your PhD project about and what did you present here?
My project looks into the effects of water on mantle circulation, firstly using parameterized models and then 2-D models. I had a poster on day 2 which presented some parameterized models that included a time-lag to simulated delayed mixing.

– The conference is aimed at leaving extra time to develop student-keynote interactions. What have your impressions been? Do you have any suggestions for changes for future workshops?
Considering the format and length of the lectures (45 mins + 15 questions), I think that 30 mins with the keynotes presenters was sufficient. However, there are around 40-50 other student attendees so perhaps the option to write some anonymous questions to help find consensus within the broader group’s needs could be incorporated. This would also help achieve a more overview style session, which cannot be covered in the lectures.

– What are your plans for after the PhD – is the Brexit process seriously weighing into your decision making?
I am definitely now more open to considering the idea of moving outside the UK. In any case, with time I have felt more integrated with the geodynamics community, and have a broader picture of who else is also out there and what the cutting-edge ideas are.

– What are your takeaway potatoes of wisdom from the meeting?
Dave Stegman’s comment – “Don’t always believe what you read” has stuck with me. It is important to be reminded of this fact! Science is only the best description at that time, and also considering the current state of pressure to publish, it is easy loose this perspective. It is also nice to be at a smaller, manageable conference with other researchers doing similar things. It is a chance to meet and talk to those beyond the home institute and I feel more up-to-date with what others are up to.

 


Fanny Garel at the poster of her PhD student Manar Alsaif

— Mid Career Researcher —
Fanny Garel (Géosciences Montpellier)
Fanny is a lecturer at Montpellier, and was an invited keynote presenter from the “Subduction and mantle flow modelling” session. Nethermod is her third workshop of this series.

– Your presentation built upon work from your earlier paper (Garel et al., 2014) that has had quite a reception in the community. Can you please summarize the talk for us?
My presentation was on numerical models that (re)produce the seismically imaged slab morphologies by varying different parameters and understanding the physical controls (e.g., slab sinking and bending).

– From your perspective as a keynote speaker, how did the daily student question session go?
Half an hour was perhaps slightly too short. The session is a key opportunity to open the discussion to more of the limitations and assumptions of the model. Students can ask more about the basics which you cannot fit into a presentation. Teaching is not just presenting, and vice versa. It is also helpful for speakers in terms of feedback for their own presentations!

– What are some of the biggest and outstanding questions in the modelling community?
Understanding when present-day subduction zones initiated, is one. Exploring a self-consistent interaction between single subduction zone specific-scales and global scales, both spatially and temporally, is still outstanding.

– Any tips or suggestions for ECS researchers at the end of the thesis and thinking of whether to continue for a postdoc?
You are already experts of your PhD subject, so keep your options open and try to change topic or your approach for a postdoc. There are plenty of different scales in geodynamics to explore, and perhaps it is best to change tools rather than objects. Consider your longer term view too and what the hot topics are that will lead to new opportunities in the next ca. 5 years.

– What are your takeaway potatoes of wisdom from the meeting?
There is always the requirement for simple models to help understand the Earth. Models can have lots of complexity but we can lack a fundamental and first-order understanding of problems – including the physics and relevance of feedbacks e.g. the Marianas trench, and surface and deep dynamics.
The generation and modelling of melt was also discussed, including the different ways of approaching it, and the links chemical evolution and dynamic evolution in a self-consistent manner.

 


Dave and the sunset

— Established Career Researcher —
Dave Stegman (Scripps Institute of Oceanography)
Dave is an Associate Professor of Geophysics and was a keynote speaker within the “Global modelling of Early and recent Earth” theme.

– This is the 15th time it has been run – how many conferences within the series have you attended?
My first in the series was in 2001 as a grad student and I have missed two of them since then. Some of the fellow students I met there the first time are here this week, so there is a real community building aspect to this meeting series and it is really important for the fabric of the community.

– How has it evolved since your first conference?
The format similar is pretty similar and has become increasingly student focused. The attendance of a high proportion of students makes the meeting fresh and dynamic.

– Can you summarize your presentation from earlier this week?
The take home message of my presentation was to shift our mindset in order to allow for scenarios that permit a molten lower mantle and a magnetic field in places outside the core. It was provocative, sure, but ensured a healthy scientific discussion.

– Origins of the geodynamo and core formation is a shift from your earlier work. Can you comment on the interdisciplinary aspects of modelling on vastly different temporal and spatial scales? 
This work really integrates geo- and paleo-magnetism, geodynamics and mineral physics, which really inform each other. Collaboration is required to progress.

– The “Geodynamics Liberation Front” was a big success and you are rolling out a new geodynamics themed t-shirt. Can you tell us more?
It will come in different sizes. The first was wildly popular – some more community themed fabric. Email me if you are interested in knowing more, else I’ll be bringing a suitcase full to AGU.

– What are some of the biggest or outstanding questions in the modelling community generally?
Those regarding Earth’s evolution and it’s entire history. The roadmap that makes most sense to me is to firstly calibrate our models of plate tectonics to present-day or recent timescales before going back in time, or to exoplanets.

– As a non-EU based researcher, do you have many active collaborations with researchers back on this side of the Atlantic?
Science is an international and you need to follow problems wherever they take you. Our community is really open to collaborations and in-person opportunities are important; they add much more value to Skype level meetings.

– Any tips for the next generation of ECS members of the geodynamics community, or those PhD students not sure whether to transition to postdoc?
Don’t underestimate yourself. The skills required to accomplish a PhD are valued in many settings… persistence, attention to detail, the ability to think at different levels, time management. Students often don’t realize they have these abilities and they are a starting point for many paths.

– Finally, what are your takeaway potatoes of wisdom from the meeting?
The informality of the venue and meeting format enables everyone to expand from their comfort zone. This is critical for learning as you cannot be inhibited to ask questions and start discussions. The financial support to bring so many students to the meeting really tips the scales… when students and ECSs are the dominant force they do not feel intimidated to make the most of it.


Thanks Dave, Fanny, and Kiran for your time!