On Managing the Graduate Student Workload

My summer was pretty relaxed and now the semester is in full swing. I am currently taking three classes, editing a project for peer review, writing a conference paper, working with colleagues to (re)launch a graduate student journal, and teaching an undergraduate course. I also have personal obligations. Yet, by and large, I loved being a graduate student. Despite the feeling of being on call 24/7, I am very happy.

I worked for 5 years in between finishing my Masters and beginning a Ph.D. at Virginia Tech and I much prefer the graduate student schedule to a full time work schedule. When you work full time for, in my case, a non-profit organization (and I imagine it’s the same at a for profit business) your schedule is 9 to 5 or similar and it mostly doesn’t change. You wake up, go to work, work, and come home. If you are lucky you don’t have to take work home with you. I found the requirement to sit in an office 8 hours a day, 5 days a week to be much more stressful than the graduate student schedule. I also had very little control over what I got to work on. This is why I say if you are lucky you don’t take your work home with you; I didn’t find the work terribly intellectually engaging.

My workload is higher now but I have much more control over when I do my work, how I do my work, and what projects I take on. This is the first time as an adult that I have felt I have the intellectual and professional freedom to pursue my own interests and create and exercise my own internal structure rather than the external constraints of a 9 to 5 job. One of the major differences I have found between working full time and returning to the university is that I have control over how busy I choose to be. My hope is that upon finishing my Ph.D. I will find a position that allows me to keep some of this flexibility and freedom.

I signed up for the hard work of completing a Ph.D. and I try always to remember that fact. The fact that the work was chosen rather than forced upon me makes a big difference on how I relate to it. Opting into a project is much different than having to do work because you don’t have a choice. There are of course moments (and stretches) of stress and the feeling that I can’t possibly get everything done. But so far it has been worth it for the luxury of time to think, read, write, and explore what really engages my mind.

6 thoughts on “On Managing the Graduate Student Workload”

  1. I agree with you about enjoying the flexibility and the challenge of graduate school. I worked for 30 years as a high school teacher before becoming a full time grad student. As a teacher I had an odd mix of obligation and freedom. I had to be at school 7.5 hours per day, 5 days per week AND work as much as necessary outside those hours to get my job done. Defining what it meant to be “done”, however, was largely up to me. That meant that I could work evenings and weekends and never be done if I chose, or I could design my class so that I had little to do outside of the required hours. Grad school is similar except that more of my tasks are self-defined. And the pace is less frenetic!

    1. I have heard that about teaching at the primary or secondary level that what is advertised as an 8am to 3pm job is really much more than that. Lots of pep rallies, dances, clubs, etc. in addition to the academic workload. I wonder, relating that to our class discussions about the professoriate, are these extract components thought of as “service” in a similar way? Or are they less of a requirement?

  2. I can relate to your experience! I worked for seven years before I found myself back in academia, and while I would have to say that the workload is just as intellectually challenging and stimulating, I found more fulfillment being in the academe – both as a faculty member (a graduate degree is not necessary to become a faculty member back home) and as a graduate student. I just felt that my life was much more complete now than it was when I was working in industry; back then, I felt that there was not much space left in my day for anything else but work – that, really, all I had was a job. Now, I am still being pulled in several different directions, but there is always time to do things for me, and for family. And what I love the most is the thought that I am doing more than just contributing to the bottom line, as I interact with young students and (hopefully) touch their lives in meaningful ways. Now, I feel more like I have an actual CAREER – and not just a job to pay the bills. 🙂

    1. I agree completely with you. I too felt as though I simply didn’t have any time for anything but work when I was working 9am-5pm (or 8:30am to 6pm, 7pm, etc.). I wonder if more flexible schedules for full time jobs would alleviate some of that feeling.

      I also agree with the impact aspect. I have enjoyed thoroughly teaching and working with undergraduate students. I think it’s one of, if not the, best parts of my graduate school experience so far.

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