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Florianne Jimenez is a Ph.D. student in rhetoric and composition at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. You can find her on Twitter through @bopeepery.

I’m deep in the throes of my comprehensive exams right now, and so I’ve been spending less time on campus and more time at home. Or, I should say, I often pack up all my work and head to a coffee shop because I just can’t get any work done in my mess of a house. Home is not a great workspace for me as a graduate student right now and I’m currently trying to reframe my relationship with my living space. This article is about what I’ve learned about housing as a graduate student that cuts across all kinds of housing situations.

Wherever you live, make sure you keep it livable.

I’m currently overhauling my bedroom into a better living and working space and I wish I hadn’t put it off for so long. I am a clutter fiend, but just because I cause clutter doesn’t mean that I’m not affected by it. My approach to my room has been to interact with it as little as possible; I often stumble out of bed and head straight into getting ready for work or the gym and so my room is merely a bedroom/changing room rather than a place to relax. My office chair has become a place to hang clothes (and I know many people do this too!), and my desk is a repository of forgotten library books, handouts, and junk mail. Hence, I spend way too much time and money at coffee shops in order to escape my room, and then get home and wonder, Why is everything such a mess?!

The takeaway from my mess of a room is that you need to keep your place neat, because clutter can be exhausting background noise. The mental energy and little bits of time I’ve spent clearing a space on my desk to work, looking for my purse in the morning, or searching for that pesky charger become little frustrations in my day. They’re inconsequential in the moment, but if I add up all that time and energy, I could probably have been doing something else more fun or productive during those minutes. Take a step back, look at your room with real honesty, and ask yourself: Does just looking at all this mess make me tired? I’m trying to learn how to be a (relatively) neat person now and it’s definitely harder to learn it so late in the game.

Roommates and their ups and downs

I currently live with three roommates, and I’m lucky to have found three people who not only put in the work and the time to keep our common spaces livable, but are also just fun to cook, watch TV, or rant about my days with. It’s also a very cost-effective option: I get to save on rent by living with roommates. While I think I found this configuration through pure luck and happenstance, there are also things you can do to live with roommates and keep the drama to a minimum.

One thing I’ve learned living with roommates is to not hold things in. If your roommate does a tiny thing that annoys you (e.g. leaves a single fork in the sink, or constantly leaves the door unlocked), it’s much easier to just communicate that to them rather than to hold onto it forever. Don’t agonize too much over how to make a roommate request – just ask them. As long as you’re not being overly antagonistic or mean about it, it’s probably going to be fine.

Another thing that’s helped a lot is to figure out concrete channels of communication. Roommates can have different sleep and work schedules, and it can be hard to get everybody in one place to discuss something. For little things like bill reminders, rent checks, or asking if friends can stay over the weekend, agree to use a text or email thread. This takes a little bit of pressure off of roommate requests, and also lets your household get decisions made quickly and easily. Of course, for more serious matters, in-person communication is always best.

Think about what your home is - and what you want it to be

Every year when lease renewal rolls around, it’s helpful to think about whether your home is serving you well. This is ultimately a matter of individual preference and depends a lot on how you were raised, how extroverted or introverted you are, and what you want to achieve in a particular semester or year. Earlier in graduate school, when I was  feverishly making friends and attending social events, the clutter of my home didn’t bother me too much. It was what I wanted it to be: a roof over my head, a small kitchen, and a place to sleep. But now that I’m out of coursework and in need of a more settled workspace, I want to actually enjoy my home. Accepting these changes has helped me begin to make decisions about my housing, such as rearranging my bedroom into a half-bedroom and mini-office (inspired by this Gradhacker piece!), clearing off shelves, and tossing clothes and shoes that I don’t wear anymore to minimize clutter. My long-term goal is to eventually live alone but while I can’t afford it, my vision for my living space is helping me work with what I have.

As I clean up and work toward getting the living situation I want, I’ve been thinking a lot about why I let this slide for so long and regretting that I didn’t have a conscious habit of home maintenance in the past. Housing is always complicated and it is too intimate an aspect of our lives to allow to fall by the wayside during graduate school. While your work should be a priority during grad school, where you are when you’re not working can shape the quality of your work a lot.

How does your living space influence your life as a graduate student? Tell us in the comments!

[Image by Flickr user Alan Levine and used under Creative Commons licensing.]

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