Work/Life balance? As a grad student?
You might be tempted to argue that this concept stretches the bounds of possibility.
But programs at the University of South Carolina, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and the University of Washington would disagree. They offer strategies on how to cope with massive amounts of work and stress, while still maintaining functional relationships and getting more than four hours of sleep.
Dr. Peter Larson and Dr. Anne Lindsay from the University of Central Florida argue that, while the going can be tough, work/life balance as a grad student is still possible.
Your family and friends may not understand the demands of being a graduate student. You may not be able to change that, but you can communicate when you have something big coming up (such as final papers or defenses).
Schedule some time each week to do something other than academics. Use some just for yourself, and some for your SO/partner/spouse and friends. You may not always be able to honor this – sometimes you just have to work – but make it a normal part of your week to have time for yourself and others. It also helps if you can have a space at home where you don’t do work, so that you’re not trying to relax when surrounded by books you have to read.
An active social life can help. Even if you’re hanging out with other graduate students and you talk shop, it still gets you out of the grind. When I was a graduate student we had a weekly happy hour (that wasn’t always at a bar) and occasional dinners/potlucks (good for stretching out limited funds). Take advantage of free movies/concerts or other events.
Once you’re into the thesis stage, work with others – exchange drafts, discuss books, etc. This may not seem to fit under work-life balance but it does. A partner or reading group not only helps with your work but it keeps you honest, and having a schedule and obligation in turn can keep you on track and thus more balanced.
Lastly, be prepared to struggle with this, and know that everyone is going through it. That may not be much consolation, but don’t think that you’re the only one going through it. Likewise, don’t feel guilty for taking time for yourself; getting your mind off your work can produce better work later than trying to force your way through.
The idea of work/life balance is one that you will struggle with for your entire academic career. I think that all professionals have this issue but that we see it more acutely in academia because our jobs do not conform to a traditional 9-5 schedule and the process of research and writing can be a solitary experience. It is very easy to lose touch with those who do not understand the way academia works, this means friends, family, even significant others.
My advice is twofold. First, take the time to explain academia to your loved ones. Don’t assume they understand and don’t resent them for being confused. It is very foreign to the way that most other professions operate. Make sure they understand that your time will be limited during the semester and why, how your work is evaluated, and how jobs work. You could even try telling them what questions you would love to answer at dinner, such as “what are you writing now” and which they should never ask, like “When will you be finished”. You will have to explain many times but when you have a breakthrough, it will feel great.
My second piece of advice is to actively make decisions about what constitutes work and what constitutes your regular life. You can’t BE the job. If you don’t take time to have a life outside of academia you will not be as successful. The stress will get to you mentally and physically and you will alienate your support system. For me, this means that I don’t do academic work when I get home from the office. If I decide to work on the weekend, I go to the office or library. Creating that separation has been important to balance for me. When I was in graduate school, that wasn’t as possible. Instead I tried to make sure that I scheduled time to see my friends, so they would know that I cared about them despite my busy schedule. Sometimes it was once a month. I’ll be honest, sometimes it was less. And I did lose some friends along the way who weren’t willing to wait until my winter, spring, and summer breaks to see me. It makes me appreciate my lasting friends all the more. Also, I found that I made a lot of lifelong friends in graduate school who do understand what academia is all about and never judge me for silence, grading, or the pile of unread books on the floor.
Want more suggestions? Here are some strategies from grad students in UCF’s MA in History program:
“I stay physically active. This serves as a hobby and also an excellent stress reliever. It normally means I get one hour a day to myself away from school and work.” – Daniel Bradfield
“Keep reaching out to the people in your life, even if it’s just a quick text message or phone call. When you need a break or a night off, sometimes you just have to take it.” – Kevin Mercer
“Ultimately, my balance comes from my scheduling. If I can schedule everything I do, then I can see how much time I can make for the extracurricular things that keep me balanced and calm.” – Meghan Vance
- “I do Swing Dance on the weekends, try to fit in some exercise, and make study dates with other friends in grad school.” – Kendra Hazen
- “I freely admit when I need to take a day off work to do school work – that has been key…I also make sure I am clear with my boyfriend and family about what is going on with school, when I am stressed, and when I need support.” – Leanne Wiggins”
How about you? What strategies do you use to stay sane? Leave a comment, below!