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    A Blog from GradHacker and MATRIX: The Center for Humane Arts, Letters and Social Sciences Online


Achieving Work-Life Balance

A key issue for grad students.

November 17, 2015

A quick Google search of “grad school work-life balance” yields over 1 million hits. The benefits of work-life balance in grad school (e.g. boosting creativity), the encouragement to aim for a balanced life, and tips on how to maintain personal, mental, social, and physical health and happiness are common themes throughout GradHacker posts.


Now in my 5th year of grad school, I know work-life balance is possible, can be challenging, and requires practice, but I’ve also learned that I need work-life balance to perform my best and succeed in both work and life. I am a grad student with many outdoor hobbies and I’ve learned that balancing my time writing and researching with my outdoor interests enables me to do my best: whether that is analyzing data, mountain biking a technical section of trail, editing a manuscript, or skiing a steep line.


I was inspired to explore this idea after listening to a Dirtbag Diaries podcast called “The Hourglass” where the narrator, who works in a city and but loves the outdoors, recharges and unwinds after a long work week in her office by heading to the mountains. By the time the trip is over, she is ready for the comforts of civilization—a bed, a shower, food other than Clif bars. And once again the hour glass turns and resets for the following work week until she is ready for another adventure.


This “weekend warrior” approach is one way that I maintain work-life balance in grad school and also how I perform best as a PhD student and as an outdoor enthusiast. After long days pipetting at the lab bench or hunched over a computer, I too am ready to have fun in the mountains. After a weekend of adventuring, I feel refreshed and revitalized to take on my PhD to-do list. I’ve found that my need to take a break from work and the motivation that I gain from taking a break to get back to work keeps me present, focused, and aware of the task at hand: whether that’s at the computer or lab bench, or on a river or trail. This mindfulness also helps to reduce stress (also see Take It Easy by GradHacker Madeleine Elfenbein) associated with wishing I were somewhere else, doing something else, or feeling like I should be working (i.e. grad student guilt).


Recently I’ve seen hashtags on social media such as #Find_Away and #EscapeNormal that inspire us to share how we reset, take a break, do something new, and break routine. These efforts are good reminders to sustain work-life balance and that even little breaks help maintain your personal health and happiness.

Reflecting on this, I was reminded that the extent of my grad school work-life balance greatly depends on what stage of my degree I’m in. The pressing task at hand (e.g. finishing a manuscript, orals/prelims, thesis defense, preparing for a conference) impacts my daily, weekly, and monthly work-life balance. For example, I generally aim to exercise daily, a good reminder to “treat yo self” on a daily basis and #EscapeNormal. However, sometimes I won’t see the sun until I finish a week of lab work, after which I apply my weekend warrior approach and reward my long lab work week with a fun trip. Similarly, I took a week off to tick some things off my outdoor bucket list after surviving 6 weeks of prelims/orals.

Because of our flexible schedules and recognizing that work-life balance ebbs and flows as a function of grad school milestones, work-life balance is at our discretion (despite it sometimes feeling as though our project, major, and advisor determine the extent of work-life balance we can achieve). To keep work-life balance in perspective, I try to remember these tips:

-Prioritize your time and say no.

-Mix up your routine to reset and recharge. Start small with mini goals and deadlines, as well as mini rewards and breaks. See #EscapeNormal.

-Surround yourself with people who also aim for a balanced life.

-Get outside. Exposure to nature can improve memory and attention, among numerous other health benefits of nature and being outside.

-Take more GradHacker advice! Be nice to yourself and take care of yourself.

-This is your life right now. Work-life balance is not only important to avoid burnout in grad school but also your future career(s). Practice makes perfect!


What tips do you have to maintain work-life balance in grad school? Share them in the comments and on Twitter with the hashtag #GHworklifebalance!

[Image from Flickr user woodleywonderworks used under Creative Commons license]


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