Rat Race: Grad Student Life–Have one!

Since my March Rat Race post was all about getting involved in every way you can while in grad school, I thought this one should be the flip side of the coin–Maintaining your personal life while being that busy with school-stuff.

When I started my Ph.D. program I was told upon one of my entrance meetings with a student services person to kiss my husband goodbye as I’d see him in 4 years. To that I said “forget it!” That’s ridiculous. Getting a graduate degree is like having a busy job with weird hours, and not everyone with a busy job forgoes their entire personal life. Some do, certainly some of my lawyer and doctor friends who also have nuts hours have struggled with time management. But that’s what it is, time management, and it’s worth trying to manage. Plus, for a lot of people with families, second jobs, and other commitments it simply isn’t an option to not balance.

Throughout my Masters and PhD (at different schools in different states) I’ve seen every end of the spectrum:

First, students who are so busy doing personal things they never get involved in school stuff. They do the bare minimum in the school/professional context, maybe show up for class, turn in a bland and short paper, and fly out the door making no impression. They never join societies, clubs, committees, apply for awards/grants, have assistantships, etc. Sure, I’ve then watched some of them get jobs they want, but mostly they are the ones I have witnessed sort of flounder post-grad. And the profs, other mentors, and peers aren’t singing their praises behind closed doors, even if they are perfectly lovely people. But, I totally understand that there are personal commitments that do overshadow schoolwork…

Second, there are students who spend every waking second with nothing else going on except grad school. It’s all they talk about. It’s often the only place they ever go. They eat all their meals there (urgh). They live next door. Consequently, they often do some the most boring research of anyone I know. Their work is consistently uninspired and frequently unrealistic as they’re not connected to the “real” (outside) world, and it often lacks objectivity as they never step away from academic perspectives. I totally get the notion of wanting to make the most of your money, wanting to be competitive, and trying to throw yourself into your profession, but if the result is that you’re a big lonely yawn and so is your work, then what was the point? Again, I’ve seen some of these people get jobs they wanted (admittedly more so than the first group), but it appears to me many of them maintain that same style once they get those jobs, and consequently things never get much better.

Third is a group I’d like to say I fit within. Or at least I really strive to. It’s the students who work very hard to balance both personal and professional lives. I was once told by a peer that from her point-of-view her classmates that were handling the pressures of our rigorous Ph.D. program best were those who also had lots going on in their personal lives. Her argument was that busy people become accustom to multi-tasking, prioritizing, etc., be it with time, energy, and passion.

Well I think I really agree with her. I’ve seen through my own and my peers’ experiences that in addition to the sometimes head-spinning multi-tasking, a 3-dimensional life gives insight into different facets of society. This wide-eyed view then seems to inform one’s research and makes for more ideas for topics, increased ability to see multiple sides of a story, and flexibility when working with others.

And seriously, having a life outside of school let’s you blow off steam! Steam that builds up from being very involved managing assistantships or other jobs, personal life, homework, class time, committees, etc. Trust me, I understand.

I’ve had graduate assistantships and often also part-tome jobs throughout my Master’s and Ph.D. programs. Two of those graduate assistantships were basically five days a week, on campus, meaning everything else was relegated to nights and weekends. This pushing of homework right into my otherwise personal time was a drag. I sometimes more so enjoyed the assistantships where the time table was more fluid and I could be on campus sometimes, and do prep work from home whenever. But the on-campus 9-5 world led to homework on the weekends and concerts/movies/nice dinners in the evening, after growing exhausted from basically a 7 day work week (5 at my GA, 2 on homework & related).

Last semester I worked a 5 day week at 8:30am while struggling thru 1st trimester morning sickness and hadn’t told anyone at school i was pregnant yet. Now that’s balancing the personal and professional! So this semester I opted to only work a 1/2 time assistantship for the 1st time since my Masters. I was offered full time, and the benefits are very tempting..tuition, health care, more time on campus mingling with faculty, etc. But when weighing it against being pregnant, trying to finish my dissertation, a recent move that took me from living 5 to 20 minutes away, WT, and the desire to live it up a little pre-baby….I turned down the (sort of) lucrative full time offer and went for the half-time. Balance, balance, balance. Although of course now it’s tougher to balance that check book, but, my diss is almost done and my mind isn’t really spinning too often. I’ll take that as a win!

Giving yourself a social life helps force you to end projects, not just drag them on forever; and generally you won’t procrastinate getting things started either as you want to finish to be able to get somewhere else. If you only have until 5pm to complete reading all those journal articles because you have a romantic dinner date, you’ll get it done! You’ll learn to skim and scan and search for the main points. Call a social life “motivation.” One peer said he rewarded himself with a special social activity for each school benchmark. Whatever works for you.

It is sometimes very tough to find middle ground. It’s hard when you move to a new town for school and then school is all you know since you haven’t met anyone yet or gotten familiar with your surroundings. But there is something to be said for enjoying the fruits of a new environment beyond the classroom walls. New food, new people, new sites can be stimulating, and get you to think clearer about that research project you’re stumbling with. It’s also hard when school is in your hometown and everything around you at times seems more pressing and and interesting than school. I’ve done both equations and found while both are a challenge, a few minutes away at a street fair can free up your mind to feel reinvigorated when you sit back down at the computer again.

That’s what happened with my dissertation. It’s been rough this semester as I’ve been pushing to finish and with my busy personal/work calendar I had to briefly institute a policy to work on it weekends afternoons only. When a deadline came up it took over weekdays as well. But not evenings. From dinner on I’m not doing schoolwork. That’s where I draw the line. However, earlier in the semester when it was relegated to weekends, I actually enjoyed doing it tremendously, because all week I hadn’t labored over it. I was refreshed each time I sat to work on it, and thus would get more flow with each visit to the file.

So the basic message here if you haven’t gotten it already is definitely be a workhorse when it comes to school and all the things you can to be involved in the related professional activities. But, don’t turn your back on a life separate from all of that. Sure for a surgeon maybe it’s easier to be at the movies and not have it overlap with her profession. For someone studying dress, we’re constantly analyzing the world around us, scoping for ideas etc. But sometimes you can just rock out at a good show for fun and nothing more. Don’t skip your yoga class, your favorite comedian, or your guilty pleasure TV show. That stack of books will still be there tomorrow.

Now of course I need to follow this advice and get back to working on my oral presentation for CSA since I don’t want to be working on it tonight when Lost is on! (this was written on Tuesday)

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  • EmilyKennedy April 22, 2010 09.43 am

    This is a really great post. I feel like many of us are in grad school and we’re just trudging along, not really being reflective about how or why we do things. But reflection is a good thing. It helps to see where you’re really at, and where you really need to be.

  • Gina Americana April 22, 2010 04.49 pm

    I totally agree with you. I remember those days. Thank God I’ve already finished my Ph.D.!

  • Liz of Scholar Style Guide April 24, 2010 08.59 pm

    Great post! I couldn’t agree more. Sometimes I wonder how successful I’d be as a graduate student if my husband didn’t do such a good job of grounding me in life outside the university. I’m prone to trying to do everything 100%, so I think that if I was single, I’d probably let my schoolwork consume my life. Since I want to spend time with him, though, I’m forced to maintain a balance. Plus, he’s a scientist and I work in the humanities, so having that balance in my house also keeps me see outside the narrow scope some of my classmates seem to occupy.

    I also agree that more responsibilities can actually lead to increased productivity. The busier I am, the harder I have to work to make sure everything gets done. During the summer, when I have less going on, I get less accomplished, as well. It’s too easy to lose track of a morning.

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