Entomology Students: Do You Maintain Healthy Work-Life Balance?
By Hannah Quellhorst
Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series contributed by the ESA Student Affairs Committee. See other posts by and for entomology students here at Entomology Today.
Here’s a question that entomology students probably don’t think about often enough: Yes, we are scientists, but how do we advocate for our whole selves?
It starts with advocating for yourself in your environment. Are you maintaining your boundaries and saying no when you need to? Are you surrounding yourself with advocates and cheerleaders? This is important not only in our personal lives but also in our work spaces and laboratories. We may not be able to fully control our surroundings, but we can be our own champions.
What we can control, to some extent, is promoting our well-being at the personal level. We can exercise, get enough sleep, improve our diets, invest in hobbies, play board games and sports, and connect regularly with friends and family.
To promote my own well-being, I schedule these things in my calendar and my agenda book the same way I do for lab meetings, conferences, or experiments. I prepare my meals in advance so that I make sure to eat when the week gets busy. I set an alarm so I will go to bed on time. I take hours to play with my dog and walk long distances for my exercise. And I invest a lot in my personal hobbies. I keep reptiles, insects, and arachnids; I paint, play music, and follow soccer fervently. It is important to have things outside of the lab life. These activities enhance my overall well-being and increase my productivity when I return to the lab.
Although our mental well-being is an important contributor to productivity, this is often something we don’t discuss with other people. In particular, graduate students are affected disproportionately by mental illness compared to the general population. In a study published in Nature Biotechnology in 2018, results showed that graduate students are more than six times as likely to experience depression and anxiety as the general population.
The paper points out that work-life balance seems to be one of the main solutions; however, the authors acknowledge that this is “hard to attain in a culture where it is frowned upon to leave the laboratory before the sun goes down.” This issue is systemic. However, we as a professional society, as universities, as entomology departments, as PIs and advisors, and as individual students can take steps together to start making a difference for ourselves and others.
What can we do at the lab level to promote students’ well-being? My advisor makes a point to organize outings and events. As a lab we go out for lunch, we go hiking on the weekend, we go insect collecting, we watch sports together, we volunteer together, and we make time for holidays (including acknowledging birthdays) and special cultural festivities. Some may view these things as taking time away from lab productivity, but they enrich our lab life and culture and inspire us to be our most productive, healthy selves. These activities make us feel appreciated and allow us to bond over common struggles, as well as de-stress.
I challenge students and professors to start talking about what they can do on every level to promote well-being: personal; within a lab, department, or research unit; and on up to the institution at large and our entomological profession as a whole.
Here at my institution I am lucky that my department head is focused on mental health and general well-being for faculty, staff, and students. In the summer of 2019, a variety of events have been developed to promote mental well-being among students. For example, in our department we have weekly organized activities such as yoga, walks around campus, meditation sessions, coffee breaks, and game breaks on the lawn in front of our building. Some professors even spontaneously scheduled breaks during courses to allow students to regain calm, breathe, regroup, and refocus. Finally, our department conducts a Bug Works discussion series where we talk about professional development and how to improve physical and mental health with wellness coaches—just a few examples of the wide range of topics the series provides.
Advocating for our whole selves means working to promote our own well-being. When we address our well-being emotionally, intellectually, and physically, we are then able to make an impact in our labs, our departments, and our professional society at large. Start by addressing your health and diet, sleeping on time, and investing in your hobbies. Organize fun activities as a lab. Take it big by involving your department head and other professors by scheduling coffee breaks, game breaks, yoga, meditation, or other activities. There are many ways in which we as scientists can start improving our own well-being.
Hannah Quellhorst is a Ph.D. student in entomology at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.