Zakiya Qualls: The work-life-lab balance

While I wouldn’t trade being a job-hunting, full-time student, entrepreneurial scientist, blogger mom for the world, at times, it can become quite tricky balancing these different responsibilities. It is necessary that everyday, aside from lab, I dedicate time to dissertation writing, career development, and the job-hunting process. Recently, my schedule has been chaotic as daycare viruses threaten to take out the whole family and interviews for various medical communication/medical affairs positions are coming in on a steady basis. While unpredictable circumstances can dampen a whole week’s plan and rapidly result in a pileup of tasks, graduate training along with 10+ years of biomedical research experience have taught me to quickly adapt to unforeseen complications and to figure out ways to make things work given a limited amount of time and resources. Similarly to the translatable entrepreneurial skills described in my previous post, being a bench scientist working on multiple projects, teaches you skills that you can apply off the bench to successfully balance your day-to-day work-life (and in our case) lab balance. I find that the more effort I put into planning and scheduling my day the smoother it goes and the less time I waste idling trying to figure out where to start. Here are some tips that have helped me keep my sanity during this transitory stage between completing graduate school and becoming an industry professional:

Be transparent.

This to one of the most important aspects of the work-life-lab balance. You should inform your PI of your career goals and what stage you’re at in their accomplishing them. Are you going to interviews? Are you taking an outside course, completing an internship, or attending that NIH BEST sponsored career event on campus? If your PI knows that your goal is to leave academia, he or she may be more understanding of the other commitments you are making outside of the lab and your unusually early or late lab hours. When I shared my career goals with my PI, he was supportive and offered advice and even gave me a few contacts. This doesn’t apply to just your PI, but advisors, colleagues, and family members; they should all know what’s on your plate. Don’t be afraid to say no if asked to do something. If your timeline changes for a deadline, let all involved parties know.

Make a schedule the night before.

Having a created a daily checklist in advance keeps you from wasting time in the morning. Have you ever started the day with full intentions of being super productive, but quickly realize your wasting time trying to gather your thoughts, making mental to-do lists, and prioritizing the order in which to complete tasks? Well, I know this may seem like a no-brainer for a sizable chunk of the population, but for the rest of us (myself included) who aren’t the naturally over organized, taking the time before bed (10-15 min) to plan out tomorrow will change your life. And surprisingly, let you sleep better. Additionally, while the schedule I plan out the night before is detailed, I have a mental routine I try to follow daily so that I always have a general idea of what I should be doing at a given time. Following this rule constantly keeps your day moving forward while preventing you from getting distracted by time fillers (e.g. social media, surfing the web). App and website blocking apps like FocusMe and SelfControl can help you break productivity killing habits and enable you to get the most from your time. One thing my real estate mentor taught me was that your time is your largest and most valuable asset. The more efficiently you manage your time, the more productive you can be and the quicker you can accomplish your goals.

Create passive opportunities.

It is beneficial to set yourself up in a way that even when you aren’t actively working (eg, sleeping or spending time with friends and family) profitable opportunities still reach you, and work is still being accomplished in your absence. For example, just having an updated detailed LinkedIn profile has opened up so many doors without any active job-hunting. Recruiters and old classmates message me all the time with new opportunities in which they fill I may be a good fit. This never happened when my profile wasn’t updated and professionally presented. The more you can do to associate your name/face with your professional skillset, the more likely you are to be noticed by interested parties.

Take active steps to relieve stress.

Being on the constant move will take a toll on you no matter how organized you are. Stress weakens the immune system, raises blood pressure, and can leave you in a irritable mood that can affect the way you interact with others. Luckily, there are many simple ways you can relax your body and reset yourself leaving you feeling alert and refreshed. I am a firm believer in a holistic lifestyle approach, and modern science is now in agreement with many of the holistic approaches to healthily living. For example, many recent studies indicate how intermittent fasting and short periods of meditation and rest throughout the day can enhance performance, optimize physiological function, and slow aging and disease progression (1) (2) (3). I try to schedule at least one time a day where I do something I enjoy, unrelated to my professional and educational endeavors, even if it is something as simple as painting my nails for 10 minutes or taking half an hour to watch a TV show while I scarf down a meal. Relaxing and clearing your mind are equally important to the longevity and sustainability of productiveness.

As one gets closer to transitioning away from academia, it can often feel like you are taking on a full-time academic and industry position at the same time, making it easy to feel overwhelmed. However, if you apply the same skills that allowed you to multitask in a lab to the rest of your life, you can continue to be productive while also limiting stress. What are some of the ways you have successfully balanced your work, life, and laboratory obligations?


Current position: Ph.D. Candidate, Immunity, Infection, & Inflammation (I3) Research Track; Freelance medical writer & blogger
Program start date:  September 2011
Institution: Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences 


  1. Anton, S. D., K. Moehl, W. T. Donahoo, K. Marosi, S. A. Lee, A. G. Mainous, 3rd, C. Leeuwenburgh, and M. P. Mattson. 2017. Flipping the Metabolic Switch: Understanding and Applying the Health Benefits of Fasting. Obesity (Silver Spring).
  2. Golbidi, S., A. Daiber, B. Korac, H. Li, M. F. Essop, and I. Laher. 2017. Health Benefits of Fasting and Caloric Restriction. Curr Diab Rep 17:123.
  3. Ooi, S. L., M. Giovino, and S. C. Pak. 2017. Transcendental meditation for lowering blood pressure: An overview of systematic reviews and meta-analyses. Complement Ther Med 34:26-34.
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