Photo by Luis Villasmil on Unsplash

This might seem like a strange topic to spend time on – after all, if you don’t have at least one mental breakdown a semester, are you even in graduate school? Well, maybe you shouldn’t be; or at least, if you do stick with it, some changes need to be made. Multiple breakdowns a semester is not sustainable for anyone, and it’s not how life should be. So we are going to talk to several graduate students over the next few weeks to hear how they maintain healthy boundaries in their life.

A few weeks ago, I was asked to speak to a group of new graduate students in my department about how to build good writing habits and achieve work/life balance during their time here. I surprised a few of them by informing the group that I refuse to allow graduate school to be more than ~33% of my life. I’m not sure any of them believed me, and to be fair, it doesn’t always look that way. I do a lot of things beyond my coursework: I’m in GSA leadership, I coordinate the Graduate Writing Center, I help facilitate all of the Graduate School’s professional development workshops, I show up at events, I mentor new teachers of record, and I’m sure there’s more, but I don’t want to give myself or anyone else a panic attack. I’m hardly unique in this – most graduate students are over-achievers in some way or another, and we’re all, to be sure, pretty neurotic.

But even though I do a lot of things, I still keep pretty strict boundaries on the different areas of my life. If I think about my life holistically, about all the components that make up the 100% that is my life, I try to let things fall into thirds. Sleep is a massive priority for me. If I don’t sleep, I am not a nice person. Like, the Holy Spirit is unable to indwell my heart if I do not sleep. So if there are 24 hours in a day, a third of them go to sleeping. I always get 8-9 hours of sleep, non-negotiable. Now, I realize these priorities and divisions will look different for different people and depend heavily on life stages. My colleague who just had a baby may value getting 8 hours of sleep, but she is definitely not getting it right now. So we flex; don’t think too rigidly, just think about what matters to you. She’s willing to sacrifice sleep because of her baby. I don’t have a baby, and I don’t consider my coursework or my job deserves loss of sleep, so I prioritize sleep. You’ll figure out what this looks like for you.

So if sleep takes up a third of my life, what am I doing with the other two-thirds? Some graduate students you meet clearly give up most if not all of those remaining two thirds to their work and studies. That is absolutely a choice you can make. I don’t know that it’s going to help us maintain sanity, however. And if our goal is staying sane and being a hireable human being on the other side of this, graduate school can’t be the rest of your daily life. We’ve all met people at events, birthdays, church, etc, who only know how to talk about their research. And if you haven’t met one of those graduate students, congrats! You ARE that graduate student! But jokes aside, you need to cultivate a life outside of graduate school. Many of you have spouses or partners, kids, friends, pets, spiritual communities you are invested in, homes or apartments that require maintenance, family to visit or check in on, clubs or sports that matter to you, and so much more! Let those things take up space in your life.

I’m married, have a dog, own a house, love to garden, have good friends, have a wonderful church, and love British mystery shows. Those things take up space in my life. And it is richer for it. I’m able to work better, study harder, and complete my studies more effectively because they are not my whole life. I don’t rely on my work and my research to fulfill me and complete my identity. I do find my work fulfilling and my studies an integral part of who I am, but I’m able to be more gracious with myself and others when graduate school gets tough or I get an article rejected or I fall behind on work because I don’t have my whole self riding on it. You can say “no” to finishing an assignment and go to a friend’s concert or go to bed at a reasonable hour if your identity doesn’t rest on being the best graduate student you can be. Go to bed, go get a drink with friends, and then get up in the morning and finish your work. This isn’t advocating for laziness, just for reasonable expectations of yourself. Get sleep, love your family, invest in your community, and work your graduate studies like they are a 9-5 job. Give them 8 hours of your day, sleep for another 8, and use the remaining 8 to make your life rich in relationships. Not everything is or should be a CV line.

Please join us again next week as we chat with other graduate students about how they maintain balance in the midst of graduate school. Drop questions below – we’d love to hear how you put boundaries on your graduate studies for your own well-being!

Anna E. Beaudry is a third-year English PhD student studying 19th-century American literature. Her primary area of research focuses on female writers in the New England regionalist movement and material feminisms. She earned her Master’s at Baylor University in May 2020. Anna is Baylor’s Graduate Writing Center coordinator and executive vice-president of the Graduate Student Association. She is also BearTracks blog editor for the Graduate School.