CAREER COLUMN

Three tips to achieve academic success — while enjoying a social life

Alejandra Ortega explains the importance of working efficiently to make time for friends and fun.
Alejandra Ortega is a bioscience PhD candidate at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Thuwal, Saudi Arabia.
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Woman playing Gamelan.

Credit: Nazir Azhari bin Mohd Anis/EyEM/Getty

Academia is strenuous, overwhelming and highly competitive. Those of us who are in postgraduate programmes need high marks in our classes and a lot of publications under our belts if we want to get excellent scholarships and postdoc positions.

I learnt this when I was studying biology as an undergraduate student in my native Colombia and pursuing a postgraduate scholarship in the United States or Europe. I experienced so much pressure trying to learn biochemistry, genetics and statistics that I sacrificed everything else. I gave up my social life, ignored my extracurricular activities and ended up consumed by my work. Rather than perceiving work as a part of myself, it was my whole self. So many classes demanded that I write weekly reports, do lots of homework and study for exams. I wanted to be among the best, and I succeeded, but at a great cost: the memories from my years as an undergraduate and master’s student are limited to study rooms, late nights and stress. Life needs to be balanced.

Looking back on that decade of monotony from my current perspective as a bioscience PhD student at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Thuwal, Saudi Arabia, I realize that we do not need to be workaholics to be good at what we do. Instead, we should focus on our tasks to finish them in less time and with less effort.

Here are three tips on learning to work hard and play hard.

Set small goals, plan your schedule and stick to it

Spend the first two minutes of your day (or week) writing down all of the tasks you need to complete that day (or week). Do not be too ambitious.

For example, instead of promising to finally finish that paper introduction today, aim to write 300 words of it. Our brains work better with small, simple tasks. Then, allocate time to complete the activity in a realistic schedule. Is 300 words in 1 hour too much? Then take two hours — and achieve this goal by avoiding distractions.

There are many digital and conceptual tools available that can help you to focus. My favourite one is the ‘Pomodoro’ technique. With this technique, you have a short period of time (I use 20 minutes) to work on a single specific task and nothing else — no messaging, no checking e-mail, no refilling the coffee cup. Afterwards, you get a break (five minutes, in my case). Then, you go back to work for the same initial period of time, take another break and repeat the cycle until the task is finished. In two hours on a Pomodoro schedule, I am more productive than in an entire day of distraction-filled ‘work’.

Aim for your own best

Academia can be dangerously competitive. In the race to the top, we can start to compare our work with everyone else’s. I was surprised to realize that my chances of getting that dream scholarship were the same with a near-perfect grade as with a good grade — I had spent too long chasing perfection when ‘good enough’ would have done the job. I was disappointed to find out that some of my classmates with lower grades were accepted into other nations’ postgraduate programmes in the biological sciences. Do not get me wrong; they are brilliant, amazing people. But I had missed many nights out and so much fun just to score a handful of extra points on an exam. Sometimes, an extra mark isn’t worth it.

There is always time for extracurricular activities

Every Sunday and Tuesday, I meet with friends to play some instruments and sing. I have firefighting training on Wednesdays, and on Thursdays, I go for a run. Finally, on Fridays, I attend a film club. These activities take only one hour per day, and they actually make me more productive. To arrive on time to these hobbies, I have to work rather than ‘fake work’. There is no need to check your phone or e-mail every 15 minutes. If you do this while telling yourself that you might have an important e-mail, you are fake-working.

Follow your passions, find some hobbies and make them part of your routine. Sign up for a regular class, or play table tennis with a friend once per week. Force yourself to make time for such activities. Your brain needs breaks, so do not saturate it with work. After three hours of analysing data, you stop thinking clearly and start making mistakes. Stand up, go and play table tennis and come back with a fresh mind. Extracurricular activities keep us motivated to work more efficiently.

The path to success is not working hard — it is working smart by being productive. The key to this is getting involved with activities outside work, such as music, sports and other hobbies, and to spend time with friends. These activities keep you motivated and make you work efficiently. Work smart — and play smart.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-02504-9

This is an article from the Nature Careers Community, a place for Nature readers to share their professional experiences and advice. Guest posts are encouraged. You can get in touch with the editor at naturecareerseditor@nature.com.

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