Achieving Life/Work Balance While Attending Graduate School

Posted in Work/Life Balance | September 8, 2010 |


Image by Keenahn

I have this little note tacked up above my desk – a place where I invariably find myself spending more time than I’d like:

“Be aware of wonder. Live a balanced life – learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work every day some.” – Robert Fulgham

It reminds me that we have this one, short, wonderful life to live. And as I embark on a professional journey, I need reminders that it isn’t all about work, it’s about play too. This is my first year in a doctoral program. Finding a healthy balance between my professional pursuits and personal wellbeing has been a challenge I’ve faced for years in school, but is especially important in the rigorous, high-stress environment in which I find myself now.

The underlying message I hear with some regularity is essentially: “the more/harder you work, the more successful you’ll be in this field.” I see some students take that to heart – they work 16 hours a day, never go to happy hour, don’t sleep enough, never take breaks, and lead very productive but unhappy lives.

I can’t be that person. I can work hard, but working too much means that what I create is strained – it’s lower quality, less interesting, and ultimately bad work. When I treat myself well (physically, mentally, and emotionally), I feel better and work better. I am more than just my work, and I remind myself of that by engaging in my hobbies, spending time with people I love, and exploring new things.

Below are some things that have helped me maintain balance in my life – learned by experience, and from my mom, dear friends, professional mentors, books, articles, songs, and lots more. Not every trick works for everyone, of course, and finding a formula that is successful for YOU is key – one person’s solution to a balanced life may be doing yoga, while another person’s is attending rock concerts. Ultimately, you decide what’s best for you, but this is my approach.

  • Closing my computer. Whenever I’m at home, if my computer is on, I feel obligated to be on it and working. So when I don’t need to work, I put it to sleep. It’s amazing how much calmer I feel when I can’t see that glow emanating from my desk.
  • Reading for pleasure. I read for school almost all day, but reading something that hasn’t been assigned is always a joy.
    Arts and crafts. Whether I’m crocheting, scrap-booking, card-making, taking photographs, or sewing, I find all creative pursuits both soothing and relaxing.
  • Exercise. It’s well known that keeping your body active is an essential part to overall health. Even getting a short bit of exercise in every day works as a great de-stressor.
  • Staying organized. It’s important as a graduate student that I stay on top of my homework, meetings, teaching responsibilities, appointments, assignments, essays, research agenda… the list goes on. Trying to keep everything I need to get done in my head is impossible – I keep a planner with dates and to-do lists with me at all times so I have everything I need to know all in one place.
  • Taking breaks. Whether I’m at school working or at home studying, I take breaks, even for five minutes. Taking a deep breath, turning away from my work, and focusing my attention on something else is always helpful.
  • Maintaining boundaries. I don’t do reading for school in bed; I don’t multitask while I eat meals; I don’t return school-related emails after a certain time every evening. Maintaining a separation from work and home with some boundaries is essential for me.
    Spending time with friends and family. This is the key to it all – remaining connected to the people I care about reminds me that I am part of a larger community, and that there’s more to life than just my schoolwork.

Kate McKenzie walks a tightrope: balancing grad school, guest blogging about career training for Pounding the Pavement, and writing trade school articles for Guide to Career Education.

Smart Thoughts (4)

  1. Helena says:

    I wish someone had told me this when I was in grad school. I had to learn the hard way. :)

  2. My formal school days are long behind me but there is great advice here for everyone. Taking breaks and staying organized are on my list for balanced living too. :)

  3. Wendy Irene says:

    Putting the computer to sleep is huge for me as well! I really love that one!

  4. Barb says:

    Ah, “reading for pleasure” — that’s one area that I need to work on. I read all the time as well — but my stack of fiction is getting so dusty.