Work-Life Balance in Graduate School

Graduate students on research and teaching assistantships occupy a strange space somewhere in between employees and students. For many of us, being a graduate student is our full-time profession, and we rely on our stipends to pay living expenses and any tuition or fees not covered by our assistantships. Our schedules tend to be more flexible than those of a normal job, but this flexibility comes with the knowledge that the time and effort it takes to complete a graduate degree often exceeds the typical Monday-Friday 9-5 schedule. There are some weeks where I have worked 40 hours in just 3 days, balancing field work, lab work, and grading obligations. There are others where I have worked noticeably fewer than 40 hours, especially if you don’t count time spent in classes and completing coursework towards total working hours.

This ambiguity in expectations, combined with the general culture of academia that rewards hyperproductivity, can lead to very lopsided work-life balance among graduate students. While searching for relevant articles, I found this one from Inside Higher Ed, by Danielle Marias:

While the article shared some good tips for balancing research and other activities, I found some of the comments to be discouraging. For example, one commenter wrote:

“Personally, I cringe when I hear my graduate students talk about “balance.” You have a relatively short period of time to acquire the skills and knowledge necessary to become a scholar/researcher. Anything that pulls you away from these requirements jeopordizes your scholarly development. To be clear, I’m not saying there is no time for family or friends–there is. What I am saying is that there is no substitute for prolonged concentration, hard work, sacrifice.”

The same commenter clarified their stance later:

“My point is simple: Sacrifice your hobbies and extracurriculars while in graduate school and even during the years leading up to tenure. There will be time to play later.”

I worked in a lab for several years where this was the advisor’s mentality. I started out working ~60 hours a week in order to balance field work, lab work, grading, and my own course work. When that wasn’t enough, my labmates and advisor encouraged me to put in more hours and work harder, so I started pushing 70 and 80 hours weekly while taking a full course load. I regularly pulled all-nighters to finish coursework and meet grading deadlines. My grades dropped to the point where I had multiple professors express concern. My mental and physical health suffered. I even fell asleep at the wheel while driving between field sites. Luckily, it was so early in the morning that I was the only one on the road. No one was hurt, but I was terrified. Getting more sleep was not an option, so I started chugging coffee and caffeinated drinks during the long weekly drives. I shortened or skipped my regular workouts and stopped attending department seminars and social functions. It still wasn’t enough.

Near the end of my first quarter as a grad student, my advisor started a meeting by asking how I was doing. When I replied “Ok, how are you?”, he asked, “No, how are you really doing?” I held back tears as I explained that I felt like I was spread too thin in every direction, my coursework was suffering, and I felt physically and mentally exhausted. His response: “So, how is that manuscript coming along?”

I decided after that meeting to switch out of the PhD program, and ended up leaving with an M.S. degree after 2 more very difficult years. I still wonder whether I could have worked harder and done more, and whether his expectations were ever attainable to begin with.

For comparison, the advisor who I am currently finishing my PhD with is a strong advocate for work-life balance. She encourages us to take time off, and reminds us that it’s okay to be less than perfect. I am so much happier and productive now than I was during my M.S., even though I’m working far fewer hours each week. I’m active in departmental activities and outreach, and enjoy spending time engaging in several hobbies outside of my work. I still concentrate, work hard, and sacrifice, but it is overall a much more sustainable balance.



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