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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work-Life Balance

4 Steps to Staying Sane as a Grad Student in the Real World

The joys of being a student: You wake up at 10 AM, have a nice long (healthy!) breakfast and finish up last night’s reading before strolling off to class.

Wait! Last night’s reading? Seventy-five more pages for your 3 PM seminar? How are you going to read, go to the gym, cook lunch, and go grocery shopping before 3 PM?

It’s tempting to think that going back to school will be a great release from the regimented schedule of the 9-to-5, Monday-to-Friday workweek. But although your schedule becomes infinitely more flexible, your hours may also seem to disappear—while your to-do list remains nearly untouched.

Being a student is a lot like being self-employed and working from home. Without a boss looking over your shoulder, you can focus on what matters most to you. And this means you have to be your own boss and exercise some self-discipline. Unlike college, you won’t be on a campus full of like-minded individuals with similar schedules and study habits. Instead, you’ll be surrounded by communities of young, working professionals whose schedules and lives will suddenly look drastically different from yours.

So here are four steps to help you stay sane as a student in the “real world:”

1. Compartmentalize your life

In your 9-to-5 job, you left work to go to happy hour, and you left the bar to go home, and you left home to go the gym. Already, you had four compartments—each with its privileged space and time.

These delineations become a lot more muddled when you’re a full-time student. For many students, part-time jobs, internships, and side projects are a normal part of life. Make an effort to clearly separate these activities, and allocate a specific amount of time (and maybe even a specific place) to each project. That way, at any one time, you only have one thing on your mind, and your day will feel less like one extended blur.

2. Prioritize the compartments and the tasks within them

I make lists of lists. I have a macro to-do list and micro daily to-do lists. While that might make me sound crazy, there is method in the madness. You see, my motto in college was, “procrastination is the greatest motivator.” And I eased my guilt by doing productive things to procrastinate: I’d clean my apartment instead of studying French.

Unfortunately, I can’t afford to procrastinate any more. There’s just too much.

So, I adopted this new organization system. Every week, I make a list of columns: school, teaching, work, Daily Muse, finances, and so on. Each column has very specific tasks that need to be done: drop off laundry, read pages 35-90 of Kant, write article outline. Then I make daily lists for myself, ordered by both urgency and variety. Once I finish a task, I get to cross it off my daily list and my master list—a ridiculously satisfying gesture.

3. Work through “lunch” and give yourself “evenings” and “weekends”

The truth is that, when you’re a student, there’s no such thing as lunch. If you have a 2 PM class, you’ll likely be doing the reading for it at 12 PM. Just like working through lunch on a busy day in the office, sometimes you have to study while you eat.

So read right through lunch—but give yourself evenings and weekends off. In grad school, there is no leaving work at work. There will always be more research that can be done, more articles that can be written, more books that can be read. I call it the black cloud of academic guilt, and it will follow you around making you miserable unless you banish it to academic hell.

It’s okay if it’s not a solid Friday-evening-to-Sunday-night that you take off. Allow yourself two hours on Monday morning to read a novel. Cook dinner for friends on Thursday. Take either Friday or Saturday (or both) evenings off from work entirely. Go to brunch with your BFF on Sunday afternoon. Unless you give your brain these breaks, you’ll be on the fast track to burn out.

4. Build your network outside of school

Your life can very easily become consumed with school—but it’s unhealthy to let any one aspect of your life dominate everything. If school becomes the one thing that defines you, your emotional well-being will take a hit with every disappointing meeting, conference rejection, or worse-than-hoped-for exam grade. Having a network of people and activities you value outside of school will help you keep perspective, and remind you that you have a lot more going for you than just school.

Invest in your relationships and friendships, get involved with a non-profit you’re passionate about, organize cultural outings with your friends, work out with a gym buddy, consider writing for a relevant but separate organization, join a knitting group, cooking class, or book group. Outside activities keep your life balanced and help you maintain sanity, especially when it feels like things in your academic life are getting discouraging.

The truth is that, as a grad student, you’ll sometimes just have to turn down your friends’ invitations. Sometimes your workload will just too be heavy, especially during finals. But keep a healthy regular social life and some alternative activities on your schedule, and you’ll manage graduate school with aplomb!

Photo courtesy of Alessandro Valli.