Sharon L. Walsh, PhD

Director of the Center on Drug and Alcohol Research
Professor, Behavioral Science and Psychiatry
University of Kentucky

Q: What is your current research? Please briefly describe your area of research and/or practice:

spotlight-sharon-walshA: Our laboratory currently conducts substance abuse research focused broadly on the clinical pharmacology of opioid and stimulant dependence. In the opioid area, we have clinical trials underway assessing the potential efficacy of novel treatments for opioid withdrawal and an array of inpatient projects examining the abuse liability of opioids, the neuropharmacological properties of prescribed analgesics and opioid treatment therapies, the interaction between opioids and other receptor systems, and pharmacokinetics. We also have laboratory studies and clinical trials underway evaluating novel pharmacotherapies for the treatment of cocaine dependence.

Q: About how many hours per week do you spend in alternative involvement in professional organizations, administrative duties, teaching, clinical requirements or similar?

A: A rough estimate would be 15 hours per week (and of course this can vary considerably), including contributions to outside organizations at the local, state and national levels, review activities and various administrative activities.

Q: Are you involved with any activities or hobbies unrelated to your work and if so, how do you find the time to participate in these activities?

A: My primary outside activity is keeping up with my three children and their remarkably busy school, athletic and social schedules (in one more year, I’ll officially have three teenage children, yikes!). I also enjoy attending plays and concerts (and try to squeeze these in sometimes when I’m on business travel with a night off). I love gardening and can fit this into any spare moment (as the weeds will always wait for me). I enjoy cooking and baking and do this with the children on the weekends. We have several pets and they are always there waiting to play when I come home.

Q: How do you choose to prioritize work and non-work activities?

A: Prioritization is often driven by external deadlines or scheduled events both from work and non-work. More generally, my first obligation is to my family, and I am happy to stay up late writing so that I can attend a school play earlier. Academic life can be challenging but can also be wonderful because it allows for a lot more flexibility than many professions. I am very fortunate to have wonderful collaborators and staff who make sure things get accomplished when I am absent.

Q: How have you achieved a balance between work and personal priorities?

A: I would say that this is a work in progress as achieving and maintaining balance is an active process. Throughout my career, as demands have changed both at work and at home (almost always increasing it seems), I’ve reevaluated methods to achieve balance and tried implementing new strategies—some as simple as closing my office door during certain periods so everyone knows I’m writing and/or delegating more tasks to others (both at home and at work). Both of these examples increase efficiency, and it is crucial to be efficient if you want to achieve both your career and personal goals. I also have a very supportive spouse who has been helpful and flexible—I view this as a prerequisite to achieve happiness and balance if you plan to have children.

Q: What percentage of your time is allocated to work vs. home life?

A: Of my waking hours, I would estimate that the division is about 50/50 (and of course this can fluctuate widely depending on whether I’m in the throes of grant writing or undertaking some major home project). I tend to work on the weekends from home- especially in the early morning when everyone else is sleeping. When the burden of work and home increase, I sleep less.

Q: Are there any special organizational strategies you use to be efficient at work?

A: I am a list maker. I love to have a list of tasks, and I really like seeing them crossed out when done. When I want to have a block of time for writing, I turn off my email to avoid the incessant interuption of incoming messages. I meet with staff on Mondays and we set goals for the week so we are all making progress at the same time.

For Example:

Q: Have you found it helpful to assign specific workdays to specific work-related tasks, like manuscript-writing, grading papers, etc.?

A: This is not really possible as my schedule fluctuates wildly and I travel quite a bit. When I’m in the office, I do always have a priority list of tasks to be done and try to always accomplish some (and remove them from the list) before the end of the day.

Q: How many hours per week do you spend writing papers for publication?

A: I would estimate on average at least 10 hours on an ongoing basis—writing, reviewing and revising papers. Writing grants tends to be more time-intensive and compressed.

Q: How do you protect time for writing papers?

A: I will sometimes close my door and even put a gentle note outside to let people know that I’d prefer not to be disturbed unless it is an emergency. If my children are at school, I’ll sometimes write at home because there are fewer disturbances. Once I decide that a paper is ready to be written (e.g., the study is completed), I’ll set reasonable goals for myself to have specific sections done by certain dates.

Q: Have you found it helpful to restrict the number of days per week you work (e.g., do not work on weekends?) or the number of hours you work per day?

A: I haven’t found that to be helpful. So much work can now be done from your laptop wirelessly that I will work from anywhere (home, the airport, hotels). I really love what I do, so if I have no obligations on the weekend, I’m perfectly happy to sit on my porch in the sun and work.

Q: How do you find time to exercise or sleep? How many hours of each do you average?

A: I belong to a YMCA very close to my house with very liberal hours of operation. I attend specific classes there which I enjoy (spinning, aerobics, pilates) that are scheduled but, when I miss those because of conflict, I’ll go and work on the machines. I also have two large dogs (for whom the dresser drawer that holds my exercise clothes has become a conditioned stimulus) who I walk regularly and try to put in around 15 miles a week with them. I’ve never been one who needed a lot of sleep to function, and I probably get about 6 or 7 hours per night.

Q: What advice do you have for other researchers who are learning to balance both career and personal life goals?

A: My advice is to be true to yourself. There is no recipe for balance that applies to everyone. With regard to career, the beauty of a terminal degree is that it allows you the latitude to do a variety of things with your work time (sometimes simultaneously and sometimes sequentially). If you discover that one aspect of your career development is lagging or perhaps less interesting to you, do something different with that time. The same holds true for personal life goals. Take care of yourself, surround yourself with good and uplifting people, and replace activities that are unfulfilling with ones from which you get satisfaction and happiness.

Q: What is the best piece of advice you ever received from one of your mentors?

A: I’ve received a lot of good advice and have been very fortunate to have wonderful mentors. I think that the best piece of advice that I’ve gotten was from George Bigelow who told me (in the context of presenting science and teaching) “talk about what you know.” It sounds simple but it sure can keep you out of trouble.


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