I just wrapped up a two week course for graduate students on effective and engaging teaching in the social sciences and humanities. The first day of class, as we talked about issues we’d like to cover over the session, one student asked how to ensure that teaching doesn’t take up all her time so that she can actually finish her dissertation.
I outlined my core belief when it comes to teaching (don’t reinvent the wheel) and a handful of strategies I had discovered worked well for work-life balance in general: have a strict schedule and clearly outlined goals, and be sure to block out time for your non-student self.* I made an off-hand remark about how, in my research on graduate students, I found that students with children were much better at all three of those things than students without, but particularly the last one, because they felt they had a good excuse for “turning off” their grad student role.
The student who originally asked the question piped up, “Oh, I get that. I’m great at calling it a day to go take care of my dog.” I asked her to pretend, for just a moment, that her dissertation was as important as her dog. If she could stop herself from writing too many comments on her students’ papers or tweaking the reading list again or over-preparing for the next day’s lectures because she knew she had to go home to take her dog out, surely she stop herself from doing all those things because she had to take care of her own research.
Bottom line: Setting aside time for your research while you’re teaching isn’t neglecting your students, it’s taking care of you and your career (and ensuring you can still afford dog food when you finish your PhD).
*It can be tough, because of all the immediate reinforcement that teaching and the classroom provides, but as Jeremy illustrates, anything (including research or ones dissertation) can be turned in to a game that offers similar psychological incentives.