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The Graduate School Balancing Act

The other day on Instagram someone commented that they wanted to see a week in my life because they didn't understand how I travel so much and keep up with the work/responsibilities of graduate school. I'll be honest, most of the time I don't know how I manage to do it all - work on my dissertation, teach, grade, run my Etsy store, blog, and work as a study abroad coordinator. But, I promised myself when I became a full-time graduate student that I wouldn't sacrifice my quality of life or my other interests (hence the blogging).

Keeping that promise, however, isn't always easy. Blog post don't always happen when they should, and most nights I am up late trying to fill Etsy orders, edit photos, answer emails, and grade papers.

But, I maintain that having a full and rewarding life outside of graduate school is essential to maintaining your sanity, keeping you productive, and preventing burn out. I believe the myth that you need to do nothing but grad school - i.e. lock yourself in the library and obsess over your work - in order to succeed is unhealthy and actually counter-productive. 

A happy and balanced grad student can think clearly and thus more efficiently. A grad student whose life doesn't revolve around department politics or competing with their peers will be less susceptible to debilitating self-doubt and imposter syndrome. 

Taking the time to exercise, socialize, and maintain my creative hobbies forces me to use other parts of my mind and releases important chemicals that keep my brain in balance. And if your brain is the muscle you depend on most in grad school, it is important that you keep it as healthy and as highly functional as possible.

Now I am not saying I don't spend a lot of time working on my dissertation and reading, trust me I do. But, it isn't all I do. Thanks to my other pursuits, when I do set aside time to work, I am more productive and happy to do so. I also believe that you have to give yourself time to think about things. So even if I am traveling, working out, painting, or blogging, I am always thinking about my dissertation. I think we waste a lot of time being unproductive. It is important to remember that number of hours logged is not proportional to output.

Studies have shown that constant stress can actually damage brain structure and connectivity. With that in mind, I encourage those in the overly stressful and competitive environment of grad school to take the time to be happy, healthy, and pursue hobbies and activities outside of school. In moderation these will not take away from your productivity; instead, they will enhance it.

Ashley B
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  1. Hi, Ashley! Thank you for being so willing to share, as I have also wondered from time to time how you do it all! I'm a full-time staff member in a one-woman shop known as General Education at a regional comprehensive university in the Florida panhandle and I'm working on my masters in a fully online program (a difficult choice and certainly a story for another time). I struggle with feeling like I'm not moving through my program fast enough because I take one course per semester. I keep having to remind myself that I shouldn't focus on "keeping up with the Joneses" in this respect, but there are days that it's difficult to keep that monster quiet!

    1. Hi Denise, I can completely relate. It is hard balancing it all and there are definitely times I feel guilty for doing things other than my dissertation work. But, I have to remind myself that this is a marathon not a sprint. Those who don't pace themselves will burn out. I'd rather move a little slower and enjoy the process along the way. You are doing great!

  2. I think the fact that I have a family that includes a young child forces me not to lock myself up in the library, as it were, and do other things, but it's difficult. Balancing being a graduate student, being a wife and a mom, and a person with my own interests is intense, and the balance is precarious at times. I find time to do the things I enjoy outside of grad school work, but travel (my first love) is out of the question for now except for summer and winter break. I hope that once I am done with coursework and don't have mountains of work every week, I'll be able to get away more. I have had to put some hobbies on hold though. I love to sew, for example, but it is a time consuming hobby so it's on the back burner until I advance to candidacy. I am knitting more now because it's portable and I can pick up for a few minutes at a time and then drop it to get back to work. I've started running again to clear my head, but blogging is really sporadic. I'm doing the best I can and trying not to beat myself up, although sometimes it's inevitable that I do.

    1. Kudos to you. I am always amazed at the women who excel in graduate school while raising young children. You have the ultimate balancing act. I feel you on the sewing, I am excited to learn, but it is time-intensive and I have made little progress.

      Things do ease up when you reach candidacy. While I miss classes, having more (and flexible) time to work on your dissertation is amazing.

      I think over-achievers will always beat themselves up about something, but remind yourself to focus on your successes!

  3. I always really love hearing about your time and stress management techniques. The reason you are one of my favorite bloggers isn't just because you wear the cutest brightest clothes, but because you are such a person of substance and you can totally see that by reading your blog. I think having interests outside of your job or your studies is so important, like you said it keeps you balanced and manages stress. Way to go for doing it all girl!

  4. Well said! I'm still working on the grad school/life balance thing myself. (I keep telling myself it will get better after comps, but I know it will always be something!)

  5. Congrats!
    I just found your blog, and I'm so excited that I did!! I am currently about to finish my masters in history (concentration in public history/ early American studies) and while I am far from my Ph.D I can completely relate to some of your struggles.
    Also, I have to commend you on the excellent voice in your blog as whole. I personally do a lot of living history in my field, and work with education and interpretation. Many assume that it is impossible for me to still be a "girly girl" and are always surprised when I mention that I love shopping, fashion, and make-up alongside my history books and lattes. I have often wondered about starting my own blog for similar reasons you started yours! So job well done on proving to everyone that what we do is important, and we can still have a life and balance everything it can through at us while still wearing high heels ;)

  6. This is such a refreshing post - my graduate program (history MA) is only a year long and there is extreme pressure to sacrifice outside interests for the sake of the program. Now that my coursework is nearly completed, I've realized how difficult the transition back into "real life" will be - every time I do something fun or something that makes me happy, I feel guilty or worry about the work time I'm sacrificing. It makes me feel much better that other women in academia recognize and encourage a life outside of school.


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