Work-Life Balance in Grad School: How I Achieve and Maintain It

Let’s be honest – achieving work-life balance is probably the furthest thing from your mind when you start grad school. And even more so if you started grad school this year.

This past year has been anything but business as usual, and we’ve all had to adapt in one way or another. The summer was especially hectic after an academic year without many responsibilities. It made me wonder, as I’m sure most of us do, whether work-life balance was even achievable.

But I inevitably returned to the mindset that I had achieved before the pandemic hit and changed everything.

And that mindset is that there are more important things than academia.

Say it with me now: there are more important things.

There are more important things than:

  • Staying up all night to finish the readings for a class you don’t care about 
  • Answering emails from professors, students, and others that arrive outside of working hours
  • Saying yes to every “opportunity” to serve your department in ways that might look good on your CV
  • Spending an entire weekend trying to meet arbitrary deadlines that you set yourself

Sure, my circumstance might seem to apply only to those of you who have already achieved candidacy. But in reality I had always had this mindset; I’ve only pulled one all-nighter ever because they’ve never appealed to me more than my bed has. 

It just wasn’t until I had control over my own time that I realized that I wanted to make the most of it. It wasn’t until then that I realized that it was okay to have a life outside of school, and that it really wasn’t so hard to achieve work-life balance.

Here’s how I achieved (and maintain) work-life balance in grad school:

Manage your priorities by learning to say no

I am giving you permission to say no to the things that do not serve you. Or, the things that you just don’t have the energy to do.

In this excessively digital time, especially in academia, it’s easy to be tempted to sign up for every webinar and workshop that lands in your inbox. It’s also easy to feel guilty if you don’t attend something, especially if you feel obligated to (i.e. you know the person who’s putting on the workshop). 

But here’s the real deal: you are almost never obligated to do anything that is inherently optional.

Unless the words ‘mandatory’ or ‘required’ are included in the email, you have every right to pass. Whether it’s a webinar, workshop, signing up for a committee, or attending a (virtual) social engagement – protect your time and protect your energy.

You don’t owe anyone anything.

But what if I actually am interested in the event?

Congratulations, you have options!

1) If you want to attend the event but can’t, you can always ask around to see whether someone you know is attending and can share their notes, or

2) You can check to see if there will be a recording available after the session (the beauty of virtual events). 

Chances are one or the other will be your answer to protecting your energy and gaining the knowledge you desire.

Work-life balance means finding things you love to do outside of academia

One thing that has changed for me as a result of the pandemic has been that I have been embracing a lot of different hobbies. From playing board games to going for walks to reading more books to attempting to write a novel in 30 days, I have tried to intentionally carve out time in my day for the things that bring me joy.

Here are just a few examples of things you could be doing instead of doing work 24/7 (honestly, the real list is endless):

  • Knitting
  • Reading
  • Playing video games
  • Baking
  • Watching Youtube videos
  • Catching up on your favorite TV series

While your hobbies might be related to your work – like reading ancient literature you enjoy – they shouldn’t feel like work. If they do, well that would defeat their purpose. 

That purpose is to take your mind somewhere else, to allow you to take a step away from your work for a while and give your mind a rest. Sometimes your best work can come from taking a break and returning to your work later, once you’re more refreshed.

Setting and sticking to boundaries leads to balance

My schedule is roughly as follows: 

On weekdays I work approximately from 9 to 5 or 6. I rarely work past 6, and turning off my computer signals the end of my workday. On weekends I have tried to keep my days totally work-free.

Many people’s schedules are variations on this; how you set your boundaries depends on who you are as a person and what you value.

Some people work best in the evenings, so they try to guard their morning time. Others like to work for some or all of Saturday and take all of Sunday off. When I was in coursework, I would use a weekday when I had no classes as my day off.

There is no right or wrong way to give yourself a break. You should just be serious about setting and enforcing your boundaries. Shut off your computer at night, and set time limits on your phone for work-related apps. If your mind is overactive like mine, write down the things that you need to do the next day so you don’t dwell on them.

The only way that a work-life balance can work is if you take it seriously, but you should also remember that it’s not all or nothing. 

It’s okay to respond to an email or spend time fine-tuning a project on the weekend or in the evening if you feel like it. But don’t let it consume your entire time off. Try to spend time taking care of yourself, too. 

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