Work-life Balance: Tips for Keeping your Sanity and Identity in Graduate School

By: Elizabeth Deacon, PhD student in Classics at the University of Colorado Boulder
elizabeth.deacon@colorado.edu

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Graduate school can swallow up your whole life. Faced with the large increase in workload compared to undergrad, new grad students often respond by pouring more time into their studies, letting schoolwork eat up their evenings, weekends, and any other scrap of spare time. This is hard on mental health, though, and in my opinion is a big part of why grad school has such a reputation for being bad for mental health. It’s also less effective at getting work done. Yes! You may be able to get more done by allotting less time to work.

Work-life balance is hugely beneficial. When work is your top priority twenty-four hours a day, everything else you care about becomes second priority at best and gets neglected as such. Carving some time for yourself out of your work schedule can leave you wondering if you’re dedicated enough to your field or if you’ll have time to finish your work once the carving is done, but taking time for yourself will in fact make you more successful in your studies. When parts of the day are dedicated to eating properly, exercising, and relaxing, you get a chance to recharge and keep yourself in the best shape mentally and physically, which allows you to work harder and better in those time periods that you do allot to work.

And make no mistake, graduate school is work, as in a job. For undergraduates, college can be a whole-life activity; students may live in dorms, eat meals in the dining hall, and meet most of the people they know in classes or college-sponsored clubs. There is no separate home life away from school. Bringing these habits into graduate school is not a recipe for success. The work is more intense and exhausting, so a break from it becomes critical, and the all-encompassing support networks colleges build for undergraduates do not apply as well to graduate students. Grad school can appear a lot like undergrad, but it functions much more like a job. Graduate students must build their own support networks outside of school, and are well-served by the break from study.

So how do you achieve work-life balance when your job is so eager to eat up your whole life? There’s no easy answer there, but here are a few techniques that have worked for me and other graduate students I know:

  • Build a distinction between home and work: Make home feel like home. Take some time to make your apartment a pleasant place to live in, with things like comfortable living room furniture, art you like on the walls, or a pet to come home to, whatever makes you feel happy and at home. Try to keep work-related books and other materials in a confined area. If you’re going to spend some time not feeling “at work,” you need a space that is clearly not work to do it in, and it should be one you find pleasant.
  • Get to know people who aren’t in your department: As an undergraduate you can meet all your friends and romantic interests in class, but graduate students are better off branching out. It’s great to be friends with people in your department, but they can’t be your everything. People who don’t know anything about your field of research are the friend equivalents of parts of your home that don’t have textbooks all over them. They give you a social space to spend time in that is a break from work. And dating in the department works about as well as sleeping with someone in the office at any other job, with the added issue that it can sometimes be difficult for two people in the same field to get jobs close to each other, if the relationship does work out. Find people who share your hobbies, religion, or favorite exercise, or just join a local group that meets at the bar every Friday at happy hour. You are more than your passion for your work; call back to mind the other things you cared about and liked to do before grad school took up all your time, and find other people to do those things with.
  • Take care of your body: Exercise, get enough sleep, and eat good, nourishing food. A healthier body will make you happier and give you more energy to tackle your studies. Sometimes when you look at a busy schedule it’s tempting to cut down that big, empty, eight hour block allotted to sleep, but a person who has gotten enough sleep works significantly faster and better than an exhausted one. Exercise and food have similar effects. Cutting into time scheduled for these things to find more time to study is a false economy.
  • Take care of your mind: Much like your body, your mind needs rest and nourishment to work well. Pursue interests you have unrelated to your degree, meditate or attend church, listen to music, and read books for fun so you don’t forget you like reading after a few hours wading through dense academic jargon. Spend some time with those friends mentioned two bullet points back. Find time for your hobbies; they can be fantastic sources of stress relief, places for successes when you’re not having any at work, and a way to meet new people.
  • Schedule: Scheduling is critical for me. If I don’t schedule a time in the day to go out for a run, my run will forever be planned for “after I finish reading one more article.” All of these non-work things need a defined time slot on your calendar or you will never get around to them. Work also needs to be scheduled for a clear time in your day, lest it be shoved out of the way for your new non-work pursuits. This can help get more work done as well; when the whole day is allotted to work, it becomes easier to decide to read an article later and watch one more YouTube cat video first, which can lead you down a rabbit hole of procrastination. When you have to stop working in an hour because you’re meeting some friends for soccer afterward, now becomes the only possible time to finish that article.

Grad school can be an extremely difficult job, but it is still just a job. You can come home from it. Make a home to come to, make time for other things and people you love, and make time to take care of yourself. A balanced life makes you healthier, and when you’re healthier you work faster and better, and withstand the stresses of graduate school better. And aside from the benefits to your work, it improves your quality of life. Even when you’re a graduate student, you deserve to make your own happiness a priority.

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