Scientist, Educator & Speaker
Since becoming a faculty member in 1992, it took me nearly 20 years to feel that my work was in balance with the rest of my life. I will briefly describe my own struggles trying to juggle work with home. Then I will provide you with useful information from experts in the field – something I wish I knew about when I was feeling out-of-balance.
MY STRUGGLES FINDING BALANCE
Early on, I was raising two children (born eight years apart) while growing an intense academic career in the biomedical sciences at a Tier 1 research university.
While raising my first child, I also devoted an enormous amount of time to building a novel and exciting research program, developing teaching materials, juggling service to my academic communities, running off to scientific conferences and networking with colleagues. It never ended. It didn’t end when I picked up my child from daycare and then school. I was always thinking of the work. I always felt that I was putting my work above my child. And everything went before my then-husband (also an academic in biomedical research). I made a lot of mistakes that I still beat myself up over, including taking my sick child to daycare or day camp (more than once!) because I mistakenly thought that I had a critical experiment to conduct. I felt out of balance and that my family suffered for it. My husband and I divorced. My first-born eventually forgave me for my mistakes and now thinks I’m terrific although I still feel guilty.
By the time my second child was born (before the divorce), I vowed to do things differently. I put my children (but not my husband) ahead of my work. I no longer went to conferences or accepted invitations to give seminars at colleagues’ universities. I turned down multiple requests to join grant review teams at the National Institutes of Health – regular meetings with influential colleagues that would take me away from my children, but would have been great for my career. And my research began to suffer. I struggled with getting federal research funding to support my work, well before that became the norm in science. Lack of adequate funding meant struggling to attract and keep talented researchers, and being able to do the most cutting-edge research. Again, I felt out of balance but this time I thought my career suffered for it. What I now see is that my career went down a different path than the one I originally planned – not bad, just different. Fortunately, my colleagues still admire the work that I do in teaching, research, and administration – and are supportive of the path I’ve taken.
As I saw my research program starting to wane, I spent some time soul-searching and reflecting on what I wanted from my life and my career. It was important that I have a rich life outside of work. That I spend time with friends and family. I purposefully set aside time for the things that I love that have nothing to do with work. And it gradually became important to me that I do work that helps others be successful. I started taking on responsibilities that were internal to my university: more teaching, more administration. I gave myself permission to turn my scientific research program into a professional hobby rather than my primary profession – and that worked out well. Most of my time as an academic is now spent doing administrative work that is focused on helping my colleagues navigate difficult or tricky problems (including work-life balance!).
And I gave myself permission to find love. I am getting married to a wonderful, caring man in October, and I place my love in balance with my work. Life is good.
Now that both children are grown, I have been able to take on responsibilities that take me away from the home occasionally – building a professional-development consulting business, Women Advancing Together, which provides women with tools to help them cope with common problems they face in the workplace. My kids (both young women) are proud that I’m doing this work, and lovingly call me their “nerdy, feminist, bad-ass” mom. This work puts me in balance with my personal values of supporting those who need a helping hand.
WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY
Reiter (2007) notes that it’s important to personally define work-life balance from the perspective of your situation, and to re-evaluate as your situation changes. Importantly, how you choose to allocate your time and energy should fit your values and needs. These points require that you make conscious choices about how to organize your life. Reiter stresses that you should integrate inner needs and external demands that honor your personal qualities, values, and goals. I learned this by trial-and-error fairly late in the game, but at least I was still in the game!
Not surprisingly, work-life balance has an impact on job satisfaction. According to Orkibi and Brandt (2015), individuals with a positive outlook are better equipped to balance work and non-work demands. They found that positivity leads to greater work-life balance, and hence to greater job satisfaction.
Job satisfaction is often associated with whether you feel successful in your work. Groysberg and Abrahams (2014) describe the outcome of nearly 4,000 interviews and more than 80 surveys of senior executives who were asked what professional success means. Not surprisingly, a strong gender difference emerged regarding the meaning of professional success. More women than men defined professional success as individual achievement, making a difference, respect from others, and passion for their work. More men than women defined professional success as conquering challenges, organizational achievement, enjoying work on a daily basis, and financial rewards. I think it’s important to define what success means to you, and not how others define it. Work towards achieving your personal definition of success – always keeping in mind that the definition is likely (and should) shift as your circumstances change.
Pulling this all together, I have the following recommendation. Strive to move through work and non-work life with a positive attitude. Studies show that positivity, and being in alignment with your values and needs, will lead to a healthier work-life balance and better job satisfaction. Being a positive, well-balanced, satisfied person – that’s my kind of success! What’s yours?
Groysberg and Abrahams, Harvard Business Review (2014). https://hbr.org/2014/03/manage-your-work-manage-your-life
Orkibi and Brandt, Europe’s Journal of Psychology (2015). http://ejop.psychopen.eu/article/view/869/html
Reiter, Journal of Applied Behavioral Science (2007). http://jab.sagepub.com/content/43/2/273.abstract
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