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Is There Really Such a Thing as Work/Life Balance?

Whether you are just a couple of years into your undergrad or well into your first “grown up” job, you may be starting to ask yourself, “When will I have time to have a life? When I find balance?” You’re not alone. In fact only 26% of students who graduate with an undergraduate degree in science or engineering end up actually doing the type of work they studied for.

From census.gov – If you like interactive charts you should go check this one out!

When surveyed many students considering a STEM career expressed a concern that jobs in science and technology don’t offer a very favorable work/life balance. Even before students graduate they get a growing sense that they might need to look outside their chosen field to find a job that allows them to have a family and a life outside of work.

Why Balance is Hard

The truth is almost every career path presents the challenge of managing a healthy balance. Is there any evidence to support the idea that STEM careers are particularly difficult?

The Department of Biological Sciences at Binghamton University did a study on this very topic..The study reveals some of the real-world reasoning behind the unbalanced perception of STEM jobs.

  • A lack of women in the workplace leads to the absence of a healthy work/life balance in the culture.
  • Millennials tend to value personal time more than previous generations.
  • Academia emphasizes early achievement during the time when most people are forming life partnerships and starting families.
  • Specialized research and industries often require moving to a specific location away from family or in areas where couples cannot both find work in their chosen field.

Is Balance Impossible?

With these real-world issues you may be wondering if balance is even possible. It turns out balance may be a bad term. It might be better to think of it as resource management. You have a limited amount of resources that must be managed between your work and personal life. There are thousands of books, articles and blogposts about time management and finding balance in life (see  http://stemedia.org/2017/03/how-to-manage-time/) . If you’ve never delved into the world of lifehacking literature I suggest you start with The 80/20 Principle by Richard Koch*

One bit of good news is that things are changing. There have been laws introduced to encourage women to enter and stay in STEM related disciplines.  Men are also expressing a greater desire for balance, with these emerging trends we see an change in work culture. This is good news for everyone wanting a better work/life balance. One could imagine a snowball effect where.everyone is encouraged, even expected, to have a full work and social life.

The above mentioned study actually tested a method which helped students find a balanced career. It turns out that perhaps the biggest key to satisfaction in your chosen career is to interact with mentors who are getting it right.

Finding a Mentor

 When you see people who are happy in the job that you want to one day have it gets much easier to picture yourself doing the same thing. It is a nice concept, but finding these people can be hard. Here are some ideas to get you started.

Get to know your professors/managers/co-workers

When you have the opportunity, ask people that you respect about their families and interests. Have a discussion about how they manage their resources to be their best at work and at home.

Reach out to people you want to emulate

Don’t be afraid to send an email to that super important speaker you heard at the last conference or the author of a great article you came across. Asking an off-topic question might be a refreshing break for people who are constantly buried in technical discussions. 

Reward good mentors with attribution and accomplishments

When a mentor invests time in you they usually do it for the satisfaction of seeing you succeed. Follow up and thank them, acknowledging the difference they made in your life.

Start the Conversation

My opinion (backed up by science!) is that you can balance your work with a healthy personal life. The more you talk about this topic with your peers and colleagues, the more it will become a part of the STEM culture where you live. Let’s reclaim our personal lives while we pursue our passion to create, innovate and make the world a better place!

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