Finding Work/School/Life Balance

By Jill Chiasson – MA in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages, American University

Jill ChiassonIf I had to select one word to best describe my life as a graduate student, it would be “busy.” I am perpetually busy, and there never seems to be enough hours in a day. In a perfect world, as graduate students, we would all be able to dedicate ourselves to studying full-time, with no other demands on our time.  The reality, however, is that many graduate students also juggle jobs (full or part-time) and family. The trick is learning how to balance all these elements in order to maintain your focus—and your sanity.

I began my graduate degree program as a full-time student with two part-time jobs (a total of 25 hours a week). That first semester, my life felt a bit like a whirlwind.  The only way I got through it was by learning how to use “the spaces in between”— those small windows of opportunity between jobs or between work and class. It was a crash-course in learning how to work incrementally, seamlessly (and sometimes not-so-seamlessly), picking up where I left off from one mini work session to the next. I also had to block out large chunks of time on the weekends, which meant giving up time I would have rather spent relaxing or socializing.

After my first semester, I took a full-time job. Because I (thankfully) recognized that it would be difficult to balance working 40 hours a week with a full course load, I took only two classes my second semester. This proved to be a smart decision as I found managing a full-time job with just two classes incredibly challenging. Life took another turn when I had a baby, and suddenly became a full-time mom and part-time graduate student. In some respects, working full-time and going to school part-time was easier than being a full-time mom and part-time student.  Because of the unpredictability of an infant’s schedule, I’ve had to be even more diligent about time management, using each of my son’s naps as a short opportunity to accomplish some school work.

Carving out quality time to spend with my husband, son and friends has been an important counter-balance to the demands of graduate school, and has helped me maintain balance in my life. I have to admit, though, that there are some times when I just barely manage to get it all done!  Balancing the demands of school and work, or school and family can seem an overwhelming prospect, but it’s not insurmountable! In order to help encourage you to find balance as you embark on your graduate journey, here are some humble words of advice.

  • Check your expectations
    If you plan to be a full-time student, it is probably not realistic to expect to work full-time. While there are some (amazing) students who manage this, it cannot be easy, and requires very careful time management. Burnout is a real possibility in this scenario. Maybe it is best to seek out part-time employment, particularly as you first begin your degree program. Once you have a better understanding of your academic demands, you can then reevaluate whether you have the time to work more hours at your job. There are many part-time employment opportunities to explore on campus, if you are looking for part-time employment. If you already have a full-time job, do your best to leave your work at work. If taking work home is an issue (and even an expectation) at your job, you may want to have a conversation with your supervisor about your workload.
  • Time management
    Don’t underestimate the amount of time that graduate school demands. Most graduate classes only meet once a week, but expect to spend a significant amount of time outside of class reading, doing homework, writing papers, participating in group projects, or doing research. Professors have high expectations, in terms of quantity (of reading/work) and quality (of your work). Time management is especially crucial if you’re working, as you have even less free time. Create a schedule, and then stick to it! One thing that helped me was a marathon cooking session  on Sunday, which left me with enough food to eat the rest of the week. Find the “life hacks” that work for you.
  • Remember to take a step back once in awhile
    Remember that you have a life (and self) outside of work and school! Everyone needs some downtime, so schedule some time for yourself to do something enjoyable, whether that’s taking a nap or spending some quality time with friends or family. Sometimes doing nothing can work wonders for your productivity— it refreshes your mind and allows you to return to your studies with renewed vigor and purpose.

If you strive for balance in your work and school life, you CAN do it all, and remain (mostly) sane.