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  • Writer's pictureTrudy Horsting

How to Find and Maintain Work/Life Balance While in Graduate School

Balancing a graduate degree and, well, life, can be extremely challenging. Graduate school can often feel like a full-time job and many graduate students also work part-time jobs to help sustain their finances. Additionally, depending on the degree, many work teaching assistantships or research assistantships within their department.

Along with these various forms of work, students also have to maintain some semblance of a social life. You have to keep contact with your family. You have to maintain relationships with your friends. You have to find time to foster your relationship with your significant other.

You also have to find time for yourself to decompress and enjoy your hobbies.

Here are some of the strategies I’ve found to help me balance it all. It’s never perfect, and it changes as my schedule does, but these things allow me to maintain my schoolwork, my social life, and my hobbies.

1) Find a Work Schedule That Works For You

Easier said than done, right? Absolutely. But, at the same time, it’s likely not as complicated as you think. Experiment with different patterns that work with your school obligations and find which you enjoy the most.

Personally, I work every day of the week but take a few hours off here and there as events come up. I feel like doing some work every day makes me feel more free to take a vacation or do something spontaneous when I'm asked. But, this kind of schedule doesn’t work for everyone.

I know some classmates who work 5 days a week like a standard 9-5 job and then take every weekend off. This is a more structured schedule which allows full-time students to feel a bit more “normal” as they’re in the same routine as their friends who are in established careers.

You might work best on a different schedule where you divide your days in half. Or, you may find a certain monthly routine works best.

It may take some time to experiment and find what feels right for you.

2) Combine Work with Socialization

It is possible to work and play at the same time. Try coordinating study dates with your classmates.

My friends and I have two days a week where we always work in the office on campus together. I’ve also met with friends at coffee shops and in our own houses to study.

When the busy weeks of the semester are piling on and you don’t feel like you have time to take a long break from work, working together can help fulfill the socialization we all need.

3) Truly take holidays off

It’s so easy to work over holidays. Thanksgiving, Halloween, Christmas, and other holidays don’t mean that school obligations end. Each time I’ve tried to just relax over the holiday seasons, I’ve found myself committing to projects and deadlines over the “break.”

It’s hard to say no and to force yourself to slow down when you know there are things to be accomplished.

Try to remember that rest can make you even more motivated when you get back to work. Rest can also prevent burnout which is detrimental to productivity.

4) Learn How to Say No

You don’t have to take every opportunity offered to you in order to succeed in graduate school. It’s okay to say no to paper projects, grant proposals, teaching classes, and research assistantships. This isn’t to say you should turn down everything. But, no one has time to do it all.

I turned down teaching a course for the first time last year. It was a two week intensive course the same exact week as my doctoral comprehensive exams. If I didn’t pass those exams, I wouldn’t be able to complete my PhD. I had to prioritize.

I expressed my gratitude for the opportunity, expressed my regret that I couldn’t accept, and explained that saying no now didn’t mean I wouldn’t love to teach the same course in the future at a different time.

Saying no is a part of finding balance.

5) Eliminate Commitments Which Are no Longer a Priority

No one can do it all. But it's easy to keep doing things because doing them is a habit in your life. I recently quit a freelancing job that wasn’t fulfilling and no longer aligned with my career goals. It was only five hours a week, so for many months I maintained it thinking that it wasn’t that big of a commitment.

While it wasn’t a large time commitment, it was time being taken away from higher priorities. Every moment matters, and those moments add up over time.

6) Decompress Before Bed and Take Time for Yourself in The Morning

It is so important to take time for yourself. Personally, I recommend taking some time for yourself before bed and when you first wake up in the morning. This ensures that not every waking moment is consumed with thinking about work. It gives your brain some time to reset.

Every morning, first thing, I go to the gym. This is my “me” time. It’s my time to decompress. Before bed, I take some time to read a book for fun. If you find it hard to fit this time into your work day, at least fit it in on the bookends of your day.

7) If You’re in School in a New area, Take Advantage of Unique Opportunities There

Don’t spend all of your time on campus or in your apartment/house. Many people who attend in-person programs are in a new city or even state. Prioritize taking some time to explore that new area.

I moved to Arizona for graduate school. I’ve taken advantage of the fact that so much of this state is mountainous territory. I’ve hiked, camped, rock climbed, and more. You’d be surprised at what you can accomplish even on a short day trip or weekend getaway.

8) Give Yourself Realistic Deadlines

Sometimes, you can’t pick your deadline. If an assignment is due on a certain day, then it's due on a certain day. But for papers or projects you’re working on in your own time, don’t promise yourself you’ll have them done in an unrealistic time period. You’ll just feel bad about yourself.

Give yourself realistic deadlines and then be sure to fulfill them. You’ll feel accomplished, productive, and more balanced.

9) Don’t Criticize Yourself for taking Down time

If you’re incredibly motivated and hardworking it can be hard to allow yourself time to completely relax and not be productive. I find myself working on a paper while watching a movie or stopping reading my book to reply to emails.

Allow yourself time to just relax. And, critically, don’t criticize yourself for doing so.

When you’re on a break, it's okay to silence your notifications.

10) Prioritize Health and Wellness

That means sleep, exercise, healthy eating, mental health, and getting sunshine. If you don’t take care of these things, you can’t take care of your school work. You certainly can’t socialize. And you won’t be doing anything to your full capacity.

Allowing yourself time to ensure your health is 100% will allow you to complete your degree at 100%.

Everyone is Different

It’s okay if school is your priority. As a full-time student it should be. But remember that if you don’t take care of yourself, you won’t be able to take care of your work in the way that you want to.

Everyone has different needs and will have a different routine that works for them. What’s important is that you take the time to figure out what your needs are and what schedule it takes to fulfill them. Work/life balance has to be a part of the picture.


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