Finding The Right Balance

Benny Razali met up with Nadia Rajaram of Cancer Research Malaysia to talk about the work-life balance and mental health among academics in her field.
Benny Razali

According to a recent research, about one out of two PhD students experience psychological distress, while one out of three face common psychiatric disorders. Be it a personal or an organisational reason, it is a matter of importance that needs to be laid out under the sun. As a PhD candidate herself, Nadia is familiar with this issue.

Failure to disconnect

 ‘Usually people who stay in this field are doing it as a labour of love. They’re here because they love what they’re doing, and it’s really hard to disconnect from it. You tend to give it your all at whatever cost, and that includes the quality of your mental health. You’re overworked and you know you’re stressed out. You want do the best that you can, but you have limits that you refuse to acknowledge.

My experience is quite limited to non-profit organisations and academia in the US, but from the conversations I had or the news I read, I can say that we don’t really have a very conducive environment for academia. Maybe it’s different in advanced countries like Sweden, but in general we don’t really make room for discussions that ask stuff like are you feeling okay or is this too much?’ she issued thoughtfully.

Burning out

Seeing fellow academics quitting the field has left Nadia with an uneasy feeling in her mind.

‘It’s really sad – to have the talent but stopping midway because of the burnout. This is a very important issue to be talked about, especially amongst PhD candidates. Sometimes the supervisors can be very tough and they tend to put a lot on the students. There needs to be fair assessments of what needs to be accomplished in a certain period of time instead of having them do everything within a time constraint.’

Nadia recalled a time when she almost quit because of a tough supervisor.

‘This happened during my Master’s degree. I had a very tough supervisor, but she’s tough in a good way.

I didn’t know where to start my research project, because epidemiology is huge; do I do cancer research, do I do cardiovascular disease, do I do communicable disease or outbreaks? Every time I came up with a proposal, it would get completely shut down because I didn’t have the experience to make a good proposal. It felt like I was going around in circles and I would come out of her office in tears. I started to think that I might not be good at this and that was where I almost gave up.

It was a tough time, but I appreciate it now because the experience really helped me with framing the work that I do, so the output can be meaningful and helpful to others in future research.’

A continuous journey

To Nadia, even though being an academic can be quite stressful at times, she has always been confident that science is the right pathway for her career. Right after SPM, she pursued a bachelor’s in biomedical science at Grand Valley State University in Michigan, US.

‘After I came back, I started working in a medical centre for a year and a half – working as a patient-relations officer, doing random things. This was where I finally found my love for epidemiology.’ Determined to pursue her newfound love, Nadia decided to apply for a Master’s in epidemiology at Michigan State University and was there for another two years.

Having completed her Master’s degree, Nadia then returned home and had the opportunity to work with a non-profit organisation that advocates on women’s rights, which gave her the experience to participate in United Nations assemblies. Even so, she decided that her love for science and research is still greater above anything else. After considering her options, she joined Cancer Research Malaysia, contributing to breast cancer studies in Malaysia and across the region. She promptly began her PhD in Epidemiology at The University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus soon after.

‘I’m in my third year of my PhD study now, almost wrapping up, and I still can’t really see the light but hopefully soon enough,’ she said humbly before laughing it off.  ‘It has been quite a journey and I don’t think it’s going to stop. Especially with the line of work that I’m in – it’s just a lifelong education that continues on, and that’s what I like about it.’

Reaching for the work-life balance

Like every other person you know, Nadia also enjoys Netflix, reading good books and playing with her dogs.

‘I have three of them. It’s nice to come home after a long day and they’ll just relax me immediately,’ she told me with a fond expression on her face.

‘I don’t think I’ve reached the work-life balance yet, but I’m trying because in my opinion that’s all that we can do. The scale will always be tipped over to one side, and you’ll have to find a way to tip it back. My own way to tip my scale back into balance is by going on vacations.

We work eight to nine hours a day. I’m doing my best to cut it off enough within eight hours, telling myself, ‘okay I need to go home now and work can wait’, but not everyone can do that.

I just read this somewhere; self-care is a discipline – you have to be disciplined to take care of yourself. I might never reach the balance, but I’m always trying to reach it so I think that’s good enough for now.’