Is a work-life balance impossible in Cambridge?

Give yourself a break

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The workload of a Cambridge degree is never ending. It’s big, dark, and ever present. And closing your eyes won’t make it disappear, no matter how much you might wish it would.

If, by some miracle, you manage to finish the required reading, there will be a further reading list to treat yourself to. An essay could always be better argued, more coherently written, and more thoroughly footnoted. If only one week a supervisor would say, “Take the week off. Go and catch up on current affairs, watch a film, go to a art exhibition. Do something different.”

But that would be wishful thinking.

Perhaps the inability to set limits on where work stops and having a life begins is just a ‘Cambridge thing’. As some of the most highly self-critical and self-loathing people around, this would make sense. Deliberately neglect work for an afternoon? Prioritise yourself? Many would rather turn their faces away in shame than embrace the idea that it’s ok to take a day off.

Work Bitch: every supervisor’s alter ego?

I would be working twelve hours every day if I did my work to the standard that I expect of myself. Theoretically, I’d have notes for all my lectures, would never have to hand in a rushed essay, and would be more than prepared for exams in summer. Of course this is an ideal, graspable only for the most committed of mathmos and a miscellany of anti-social scientists. Working to full capacity all the time leaves you no energy for anything at the end of the day but falling into bed, exhausted.

I tried it in week three (honestly, I have no idea why). Becoming a hermit, I chained myself to my desk and glued my laptop firmly to my hands. The week was spent reading, writing, and not much else. My eyes hurt, my posture became hunched and the only exercise I got was walking with ten massive books to and from the UL.

Why have a life when you could read these instead?!

On the bright side, I was no longer tired all the time and got through a pile of books that was a foot high. But in the end it didn’t pay off. My essay that week was ‘weak/average’, I had seen none of my friends for longer than a few minutes, and for several days I hadn’t even left college. Neither had I gone to any lectures, as they seemed more a distraction from work than anything helpful in the long-run.

I count myself as lucky that I genuinely do enjoy most of the work I do, even if it does sometimes feel as if all my interests from a year ago have been drained away and replaced with irrelevant facts on obscure history that I barely understand. Writing about awful kings and pointless wars 800 years ago can be quite cathartic given the state of the world today.

So. Much. Fun.

But I’m not in thrall with my subject the way some people are. I envy those who work because they actively want to and count reading textbooks as a pleasure activity. Hearing the truly keen go on about their last lecture on the most niche and irrelevant parts of their subject (agriculture in medieval Norfolk, anyone?) as if it’s a hot topic of conversation makes me wish I loved what I study more than I do.

Of course for those who really hate their course, the work can be unbearable. The relentless succession of deadline after deadline, essential 9am lectures Monday to Saturday, and the hours spent in supervisions only to be told that their efforts simply were not good enough is crushing. I don’t blame anyone who feels swamped by work or as if they live for the sole purpose of satisfying their supervisors.

What a day off feels like

And then there’s the people seem to have it all – on track for a good degree, involved in various extra-curriculars, and a social life. They would say “it’s all a façade” and deny that they have it together. But even having an element of work-life balance is so important. Some weeks more work will be done, some weeks it won’t.

Distancing yourself from the mentality of every supervisor, DoS and Tutor here – that work is of the utmost importance to the expense of everything save health – is crucial.

Perhaps for some working all day, every day is enjoyable. They might want to do it.

But it doesn’t take a Cambridge student to realise that having a life is not a crime.