Setting Boundaries

The one thing we all have the same amount of is time, and we all value it differently. Some people are happy to spend more time if they save money. For example, they might choose to build their own website, rather than have someone else do it. Even if their web-building knowledge is limited. Even if their notional hourly rate is higher than the web developer they might hire. Even if they might spend longer on the task than the web-developer.

Other people would rather walk over broken glass than spend time on something others could do. Let alone if they could do it cheaper, faster or better. 

Thus, setting boundaries on time can be difficult. We all value and prioritise it differently. 

As with a lot of things, the best time to set boundaries is/was 10 years ago. When you first started out in work or as a student. 

The second best time to start is now. 

So, with that in mind here’s some advice on setting boundaries. 

Know your boundaries

Seems obvious, but what are your boundaries? Time at work? Time at play? Commute? Email? Phone calls? Team meetings? I find the best thing is to actually write or type them out. That takes them from an abstract thought to something real. It will also allow you to ensure they make sense. And keeping that note, file or recording can serve as a reminder for what you want in your life. 

I feel there are some good rules (boundaries) you can apply for yourself that will improve productivity and are reasonable to implement. Reasonable as in easy. Reasonable as in others should be able to cope with these rules. Reasonable, if everyone did it the world would operate fine (better even). 

Email – only check it twice a day. Once in the morning. Not first thing. Maybe after you’ve worked for an hour or so. Then, check it later in the day. In the last two hours of work. But again, not the last thing you do. That means, most emails could be handled in 24 hours. And by handled, I mean acknowledged. It is then a matter of scheduling whatever work is required arising from the email. This approach also means you do not respond to emails after hours. And, if you want others to respect your boundaries, don’t send emails outside these times. And definitely not outside what you consider to be acceptable work hours. 

Meetings – Only attend if there is an agenda. And, if you can see a role for yourself in the activity the meeting/group is meant to be about. Politely decline if you don’t see these things. If there is no agenda, or the purpose of the group is unclear, please feel free to ask. 

Work hours – academic work hours are tough to manage. Access to equipment, reagents, people, places, samples, and subjects all mean non-standard work hours are likely for many. But as a PhD student, if you’re full-time then put in 32 – 401 hours of work. And at least set yourself the target of 9-5, Monday to Friday. That will set you in good stead for life beyond your PhD, including industry roles.

Communicate them with others

I don’t mean send people your list of boundaries or working conditions or rules you’ve set for yourself (there’s an exception, see below). But do let them know if, and when they ask. So, if they say why did it take so long for you to reply to their email. You might tell them how you now handle emails. And that if they are after an urgent or rapid response, they should call you. If you have set you work hours, and they call outside those, return the call inside your work hours and explain why you did that. 

If you’re lucky enough to be reading this as you start out, communicating your intentions to start with might actually be a good thing. It’ll let your supervisor, and others know how you intend to work. It will also give them a chance to respond and tell you where you might need to consider changes. 

Stick to your boundaries

At first, it will be easy to break the new rules for yourself. I know that is often what I do. In my case, I have an assistant who can help me. Keep me on track. But, if you don’t have that, you’ll need to keep yourself in check. Or you could hire a coach to help you.

Know that it is harder to be 99% than 100%. That is, making exceptions just this once or for this person makes it really hard to maintain the rule. Whereas, if you apply the rule consistently all the time, it is easier. You know that these are the times you check your email. Not outside. You know these are the times you answer your phone. 

And like any plan, if your planned boundaries aren’t working, revisit them. Change them. Update them.

Dr Richard Huysmans is the author of Connect the Docs: A Guide to getting industry partners for academics. He has helped more than 200 PhD students, early career researchers, and established academics build their careers. He has provided strategic advice on partnering with industry, growing a career building new centres and institutes as well as establishing new programs. Richard is driven by the challenge of helping researchers be commercially smart. His clients appreciate his cut-through approach. He knows the sector and how to turn ideas into reality.

To find out more, call 0412 606 178, email ( or subscribe to the newsletter. He’s on LinkedIn (Dr Richard Huysmans), Twitter (@richardhuysmans), Instagram (@drrichardhuysmans), and Facebook (Beyond Your PhD with Dr Richard Huysmans).

1Depending on the scholarship etc. some PhDs are actually listed as being 32 hours of work per week. You need to check with your institution. Thus, for some, having three days away from research (i.e. the weekend and an additional day) is not only acceptable but actually supported.