Four years ago I was fresh out of my undergraduate studies, in a new city, at a new university and wanting to finally do something that had been on my bucket list for years. So I joined a martial arts society at the university. It’s the time for experimenting right? A few months in and I was in love with the group and everyone in it. Before I knew it I was in the committee, organising events, and helping teach self-defence classes. I was having an absolute blast doing it all. I considered this group part of my identity. In the meantime I was fortunate enough to secure a PhD place and was asked: “will you be giving it up?” I am now in my penultimate year and am also the President of the society so that tells you how many fingers I held up to that idea. I considered this group part of my identity. I experienced other academics and even members of my supervisory team tell me I need to “prioritise”. So I did; I chose balance over academia.

It’s important to remember that this is not a selfish choice. This is important for your work productivity and your mental wellbeing. Yet why do I hear this rejection so often? Is it because university societies are considered something just for undergraduates? Is it because I should love my project enough to want to spend every waking minute on it? But I don’t – should I? (hello there Imposter Syndrome).

Many academics don’t take advantage of the opportunities outside academia offered to them by their university. A reason echoed through the departments is “I don’t have enough time”. Well, no, you don’t have time, no one does. You need to make time for your own wellbeing. So here is where we come to the frequently quoted “work-life balance”. This seemingly unattainable ideal we are all striving towards. My goal here is to convince you that university societies can help achieve this balance, irrespective of your academic position.

Being a researcher is tough, regardless of your area. Sometimes a whole day can go by where I haven’t spoken to a single person outside of my research field. Sometimes I haven’t had a single conversation outside of my research field. And yes, Neuroscience is awesome but when I’m having a tough time of experiments not working or hitting a wall with my writing, this isn’t conducive to good wellbeing. Having a hobby outside my academic circle has helped me massively with this; I chose a physical hobby and there have been a plethora of studies showing the benefits of exercise on mental wellbeing. For me at least, this holds true; I have never left the training room still stressing about what I walked in there with.

Through participation in a society I was able to meet so many people from a wide range of disciplines and backgrounds that I otherwise would not have; physicists, geographers, linguists, fashion designers, musicians, undergraduates, parents, grandparents. I find an evening of training grounds me and reminds me that my life bubble is more than just my work. It helps me realise that there are other things I can do, things I am good at. This is one of my go-to treatments for when Imposter Syndrome strikes.

So why look within the university itself? Firstly there are so many options. Do you want to try pole fitness? Learning Spanish? Quidditch!? (yes it does exist). Secondly, many options would be harder to come by or much more expensive outside a society setting on account of universities providing subsidies. Finally, these societies are usually right here on campus! How useful is that for an academic? Every Thursday I finish up in the lab, pick up my martial arts gear from my locker, grab a snack and in 10 minutes I am in the training hall, punching the day’s stress away.

November 2019 was a big month for me. I had my first first-author publication from my PhD and after 4 years training, I achieved the next level in my martial arts journey. As you can imagine, I felt like I was winning at life (did I do it? Did I achieve ultimate work-life balance!?)

A pinch of salt; you do need to be careful not to take too much on. It can be quite exciting with everything that is on offer but you don’t want to burn yourself out and then be discouraged from everything. Take a moment to establish your priorities and plan what you want. Do you want to have a hobby restricted to a couple of hours a week? Do you want to meet new people and socialise outside regular events? Do you want to be on the organisational side of it all? Answering these questions beforehand can help with not getting swept away.

I feel my PhD has been wonderful, developing me both as a researcher and as a person, yet my society work has added to this far more than I could have ever imagined. The opportunities that I have experienced because of this society have developed my organisation, communication, and managerial skills to name a few. I have taught martial arts and self-defence to students, women’s groups, and even deaf children, something I never fathomed myself doing back on my first day 4 years ago. Not only do these experiences add to my CV but they remind me that I am a very capable researcher. I feel they further define me, Yes I am Marina the Neuroscientist, but I am also Marina the Martial Artist, Marina the Teacher, and Marina the Well-Rounded Person.

So I put it to you; whether you are a masters student, PhD, post-doc, researcher or lecturer, if you are at a university, visit the student’s union website, scroll through the list of societies, write down five that interest you and go to a taster session. You have little to lose, and so much to gain.

Here’s a video of me discussing this and other factors that help maintain wellbeing in academia:


I’m Marina! A PhD student researching the effects of light on our brains. I am passionate about changing the public perception of scientists and encouraging people of all backgrounds to pursue science. I train martial arts, listen to metal, keep snakes and almost certainly have more plants than you. You can find me here @MarinaGNeuro on Twitter and HERE.

How Punching People Makes Me a Happier Researcher
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