Setting boundaries is incredibly important to your well-being as an RA. Your boundaries are the parameters in which you can work productively and sustainably. Having boundaries doesn’t mean “never working overtime” - we all have tight deadlines or bursts of motivation sometimes! - but it does mean recognizing that constantly working overtime can lead to burn out.
Setting boundaries can be difficult because of the power dynamic inherent to the PI-RA relationship: as stated in Princeton’s (Economics) Department Guidelines for Hiring PreDocs, “the supervising faculty member has tremendous sway over their [RAs’] future careers.” No matter what your PIs’ expectations are, your best work will be done when you respect your own boundaries. However, it is easy to feel as though your PIs’ expectations take priority over your boundaries, especially if you are hoping for a reference letter.
If you have limited previous work experience, it can be difficult to figure out what boundaries to set on your own. Here are some boundaries you may want to consider establishing:
- Hours for responding to emails/messages
- Days/hours working in the office
- Accessibility while on vacation
- Timing of work travel
As valuable as it is to learn to figure things out on your own, there comes a point when it’s faster and more effective to ask your PI (or another RA, or a postdoc you’ve befriended, etc.) for help. No one benefits when you’re stuck on a problem and banging your head against a (figurative) wall, and there is absolutely no shame in needing help getting unstuck.
It’s important to write down what you’ve done on both a daily basis and longer term. This could take the form of a weekly email to your PI which you draft as the week progresses, or something more private like a note to yourself. This serves multiple functions. First, if your PI asks what you’ve been up to, it’s helpful to have a detailed answer at the ready. Second, when it comes time to apply to another job or to grad school, you’ll want to have a clear record of all that you’ve accomplished and learned as an RA. See our tips on organization for other related advice.
It takes a while to get used to research work, and PIs will vary in how gentle and constructive they are with their feedback as you’re improving (and really, you’ll be constantly improving). Don’t take harsh criticism or a difficult day at work to mean that you’re not cut out for research, or that you’re not valuable as a person. Separating your sense of worth from your work will help you both 1) accept criticism and learn from it, even when it’s not delivered sensitively, and 2) be happier.
Some things we’ve found helpful are having hobbies other than research and talking with friends and coworkers about non-work topics.