Keys to research productivity: Work-life balance in the Waterloo Region

I moved to the Waterloo region a little under a year ago for my Master’s studies at the School of Pharmacy. Well, technically I moved to Kitchener (the sister city of Waterloo), where the School of Pharmacy is located. Graduate studies are different – while in undergrad you focus your time primarily studying for exams (allowing for some semblance of organization as well as much needed breaks after finals each semester), the responsibilities in graduate school are as varied as they are tough.  Be it thesis proposal defences, comprehensive exams, a constant pressure to publish, or teaching assistantship work – the perceived lack of organization (at times) and the consistent pressure can cause burnout. One becomes easily frustrated, productivity is lost, and mental health may suffer.

So how does one avoid burnout in grad school, and maintain a high degree of personal effectiveness in one’s “GRADventure?” The answer to that is “don’t forget to have fun” – relaxation is key. I’ve lived in Canada most of the 23 years of my life, and I’ve lived all over: from a large city on the west coast (Vancouver, BC) to a small town in Southwestern Ontario (Simcoe – if you want to look it up). For someone that has experienced much of what Canada has to offer already, both on my own and with family, I was still shocked (in a good way) by the University of Waterloo and the surrounding city, and all that is offered here.

Take advantage of what is around. There are many things one can do in Kitchener-Waterloo and surrounding areas – I’ve saved you time “researching” by discussing some fun activities I like to do below. Hopefully this will also inspire your own sources of fun!

For those that are well antiquated with random facts, several pubs in the area host trivia nights. A group of me and my friends attended a trivia tournament at Abe Erb brewery, and placed second – did my knowledge of baseball teams indirectly help me in my research? You bet it did. On the topic of baseball, I occasionally hit up the batting cages (no pun intended) in the neighbouring town of St. Jacobs.  Just be sure to stretch before taking 100 swings with a heavy bat – my arms were sore for an entire week. Although I mentally (and physically) felt pretty good about hitting a baseball or softball a long distance, the lack of manual dexterity caused by sore arms is not always ideal for laboratory work…

Yichang hitting a baseballMore accessible sports to play include basketball and soccer – all you need is a ball and one of the many parks located throughout the region.  After the Toronto Raptors won the NBA championship, a friend of mine went with me to shoot hoops. It was a lot of fun, even though I discovered I lost my basketball shooting form (believe it or not I previously qualified for a free-throw contest). Alternatively, one can watch sports to have fun (live in Toronto if you have a weekend to spare; at a local pub; or just in the comfort of your living room). However, one should probably pick a non-stressful game to watch, if the idea is to relax after a long day of research. It’s a good thing I’m not a huge Toronto Maple Leafs fan (on account of my time living in Vancouver), because Game 7 fell during crunch time of my thesis proposal preparation.

Other activities in the area to do to unwind include skiing at Chicopee or going to the beach – although finding a good beach does require a bit more travel.  For any sort of beach trip, food availability is key – if one doesn’t want to travel for food and the beach, there are many places to eat locally.  Many great restaurants, as well as the Kitchener and St. Jacob’s farmers’ markets come to mind; furthermore, there are food festivals such as Ribfest in Kitchener and PoutineFest in Waterloo Square. A favourite of mine is the meat lover’s poutine – since regular poutine is already unhealthy, you may as well go all-in, right? Afterwards, you can even wash down the greasy poutine with a vegan meal at the nearby Copper Branch restaurant. 

Be it trivia with friends, sports, food, or otherwise, don’t forget to partake in fun activities while in grad school, to avoid burnout and keep your mind sharp for all your research activities. As I am writing this blog post, I am on a “work vacation” at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. My supervisor sent me here to take a course that is very useful towards the analysis conducted in my research. While “adventuring” at the University of Michigan, I made time to check out a local art festival – part of relaxation activities to deal with the stress of travelling to another country.  Make time for yourself, and be sure to strike that work/life balance – that paper may not write itself, but it isn’t going to write any faster just because you spend 10 hours in a row on it (instead of 5 hours writing then 5 hours relaxing)!

Headshot of Yichang HuangYichang Huang is a MSc Candidate at the School of Pharmacy of the University of Waterloo.  His research is epidemiological in nature (the use of data to study health outcomes), and he focuses on Alzheimer’s medications and its potential association with adverse heart conditions. For more blog posts by Yichang, follow him on Instagram.

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