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Photo of person in kayak leaving caveKatie Irwin is a guest author and doctoral student in the Department of Communication at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Her research focuses on rhetoric, gender, and rural reform during the early 20th century. You can find her on Twitter @katieirwin.   

I am someone who does the “grad school thing” pretty well. While my time as a grad student over the past four years has certainly been sprinkled with disappointments, my overall experience has been a positive one. I’ve cultivated invaluable relationships with fellow grad students, professors, and mentors; I’ve had opportunities to present my research at professional venues and network with scholars from other institutions; I’ve taught a handful of different undergraduate courses and garnered numerous lessons about how to be a fair and engaged educator. On paper, it all looks pretty good.

But, see, that’s just the thing—on paper, everything appears positive. It’s the other aspects of my life that I wouldn’t necessarily wish to be part of a public document.

Up until recently, I was that person who put grad school ahead of everything else. I thought I could do it all – coursework, research, teaching, service, extracurriculars – and, unsurprisingly, grad school consequently monopolized my time, energy, and identity. My CV told me I was doing great things, but I had allowed grad school to hijack my life, and for what? A few pages filled with lines that are somehow meant to be a measure of my intellectual worth and personal value? This was a debatable perspective upon which to build a life, and about a year ago, something shifted. I could no longer maintain the all-or-nothing approach; I needed to remember that I am a person first and a graduate student second (or third, or fourth). I stopped blaming grad school, exercised my agency, and adopted a new outlook.

Here are some tips for achieving a life that is not controlled, but complemented, by graduate school:

1)      Cultivate and pursue hobbies: Being a grad student means you most likely have access to campus resources—organizations, recreational facilities, artistic and cultural centers, and the like. Peruse the websites of these resources. If something sounds neat, great, go check it out! Even better, take friends with you! If you’d prefer something off-campus, I’d suggest brainstorming a short list of things you would like to learn how to do (two things on my current list are kayaking and playing the guitar). Choose one thing from that list, and allow that to be your “side project,” or the thing that you reward yourself with when you’ve put in enough time on the grad school front.

2)      Embrace your community: It may feel as if your time is mostly spent on campus, and perhaps that’s your reality. Still, remember that in addition to being a part of the academic community, you are also situated in a local community that extends beyond the physical campus. Be a citizen of your community! Attend festivals, go to the farmer’s market, volunteer for a few hours every other week at a local nonprofit, join a running club and bond with your neighbors as you train for a half marathon during winter (true story). In short, pay attention to what’s around you and take advantage of those events and opportunities.

3)      Protect your time: Being able to do the above means also being able to manage your time. Know when to say no to additional projects; know when to say no to social events. Take care to take care of what you need to do to maintain good standing in your graduate program. If you can designate certain hours or days as strictly for work, you will ideally create time to pursue your other interests.

4)      Know when you’ve hit your limitExhaustion happens. We’ve all hit the wall before and felt like we can’t go on any longer. If you run, you know that the only way to get past the wall is to run through it. I’d actually offer the opposite advice when it comes to grad school: don’t try to push through the exhaustion. Taking breaks to recharge is a sign of strength, not weakness.

5)      Remember those who knew you before graduate school: This one is really important to me. The relationships I have with people who know me as something other than a grad student—a daughter, a granddaughter, a sister, a high school friend—are crucial. They help to keep me grounded and offer me a sanctuary from academia. Maintain these relationships however you can. (My grandmother and I, for instance, write letters to each other.) In a hectic life that is often experienced through tunnel vision, don’t forget to turn to those outside of graduate school who can remind you of all of your good qualities that exist beyond the academic context.

All of this may read as too idealistic or utopian for the rigorous reality that is graduate school. Nevertheless, the above approaches have enabled me to cultivate a more enjoyable grad school experience than the one I was previously living without negatively affecting my performance as a student, scholar-in-training, and teacher. Minor tweaks can have a major influence on your ability to maintain a healthy balance between graduate school and the other aspects of your life.

What attempts have you made to have a well-rounded life as a graduate student? What advice would you offer to other grad students?

[Image by Flickr user daveog used under creative commons licensing.]

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