Food for Thought: Work/Life Balance

By Pushpa Iyer

After teaching in graduate school for over twelve years, I feel summarizing some of what I have seen and heard from students on the goal of having work-life balance might be useful.

Graduate school should be the most exciting time of your life. It should also be a lovely bubble in which you spend time exercising your brain and building your capacities. However, the reality of what comprises the graduate school experience has changed over time. Today, it is still exciting, but it is also stressful and so much more complicated.  

Education is a costly commodity, and the expenses a student undertakes in order to come out as “qualified” make it difficult, if not impossible, to remain stress-free. When knowledge gets consistently valued against one’s ability to offset costs in the future, it has a few different kinds of impacts on the students: (a) take many varieties of classes (without doing justice to any), (b) hold many jobs (to add to the resume), and (c) make free time and socializing very sporadic. 

It is not a wonder that many students increasingly ask questions about work-life balance when it is something they should be worrying after school is over, and they are “into-the-world.” That said, it is never too early to start working on dividing time between your responsibilities, relationships, and having fun. 

We looked at some of the suggestions offered by others and came up with a list that you might find useful:

  • Time Management. Spend some time thinking about how you are going to manage your time. You will not regret the time you spent thinking about time management for each class, semester, or entire school life. Given that everyone needs to do so much to meet market requirements, it is all about time management. However, careful not to schedule every minute of your life or else you will miss spontaneity and flexibility – things that can bring joy and are needed in life. Also, don’t have the same schedule. Mix it up for fun.
  • Support Community. Build a good network of friends, colleagues, mentors, professors, and advisors. Each one has a different role to play in your life. The more balanced support community you have, the higher the likelihood of receiving multiple perspectives that will eventually balance out and help you get the most out of school and plan your future. 
  • Basic Human Needs. Attend to your basic human needs. Eat, sleep, drink. If basic needs are not met, life gets more stressful.
  • Accept Stress. No one ever has a stress free life. Accept that some amount of stress is inevitable and make accommodations for it in your schedule and your life. If you fight it all the time, you will be stressed all the time.
  • Know Yourself.  Reflect on what you want out of grad school and out of life in general. Keep these goals in mind always and at all times. It will help make decisions in school, and it will also teach you how to say ‘no’ to things that might divert your attention.
  • Assume Good Intentions. Unless you have concrete proof, assume that most people you meet in school mean well when they direct your learning experience. Students often spend way too much time assuming intentions and engaging in the blame game to find a source/s for their stress. Most often, people are only doing their jobs, and you should stay true to your responsibilities because that is all you can control. 
  • Communicate, Communicate, and Communicate. We cannot emphasize this much more. Unless you let the people around you know what you are struggling with or doing well, it is difficult for your support community to help or celebrate with you. Graduate school can sometimes end up being a very lonely experience, and you must make the effort to engage others. We also live in a culture where we are told it is professional to be stoic about hardships, but let’s create a culture where we are humans first and professionals later. 
  • Stress is Relative. As we ponder our work-life balance, do not forget to count your blessings and your privilege. Spare a thought for those who struggle to just survive in this world. This does not make your stress less real, but it certainly provides perspective.

One study shows that graduate students are six times more likely than the general population to suffer from depression and anxiety. This statistic is alarming, making it imperative that students spare some thought to work-life balance.

Ultimately, you are the best judge of what works best for you. Take care of yourself and do your best in school – in what will end up being the most valuable years of your life.