To continue our new series on how to have healthy boundaries in Graduate School, I sat down with Brooke Morris, a PhD candidate in Biology, who also works in the Graduate School as a Doctoral Administrative Fellow. As a non-traditional student, Brooke has unique insights and perspectives on how to balance graduate school and life outside of academia.

BearTracks: Brooke, I know you, but the people don’t know you. Tell the people what you’d like them to know about you!

Brooke Morris: So I am a fifth year PhD student. I am a non-traditional student. I started my second academic journey at thirty-three years old, going back to undergrad, and then starting graduate school in my 40s, which was exciting. I’m a full time mom and full time graduate student, and I am also a graduate school administrative fellow. In my department I study a disease which I suffer from called pernicious anemia. It’s an autoimmune disease that affects mostly affects women. It causes you to become very deficient in vitamin B12, but there is not a lot known about the genetics of the disease.

BearTracks: Great, thanks for sharing! So tell me what sort of boundaries you have put on your life while you’ve been in grad school?

Brooke Morris: I’ll start with my TA duties. I never answer emails after 5pm I think it’s really important to have a timeframe you can dedicate to answering emails, but after a certain time, I shut it down. Nothing is that important that you have to answer it at nine o’clock at night, right? Now, I do have kind of a different philosophy with my graduate administrative job, because I set that aside as my evening work. So after we have family time, I’ll set aside a couple of hours in the evening. That’s where I do my graduate administrative work, but I set boundaries so that I am not overlapping things.

BearTracks: Well, if you’re comfortable sharing, what led you to start putting boundaries on your time?

Brooke Morris: I think mainly it has to do with life-balancing, because I lead a very full life at home. I still have one child in high school, and he has special needs. And I have my mother living with me; she has vascular dementia. I have a lot of responsibilities outside of my graduate work, so I have to be really intentional about where I invest my time. And this has brought me to a place where I think about time differently. Because I want to be 100% in everything. When I’m with my family, I really want to be present. When I’m doing my graduate work, I really need to give it 110% of my brain. So I would say that it was kind of forced upon me. But it definitely makes you think differently about how you spend your time when you have other things outside of graduate school work.

BearTracks: Definitely! Where would you say your growth areas have been and where would you still like to grow in areas of work/life balance?

Brooke Morris: It’s really hard for me to say “no” – for me to stop working. That is something I really want to work on. But I’ll also say that that’s my area of growth. Because it’s something I’m constantly investing time into – how to better manage my time. It’s not like you just become a better time manager. You really have to pay attention to your time and be intentional about it. And it’s not something that you ever stop being intentional about or growing in. I’m always reevaluating where my time is going. Every week, I reevaluate that. I think that’s because I always thought, there’s people who are just really good at this. And I’ve realized that’s not the case. People are not magically good at something.

BearTracks: I am totally the sort of person who’s always looking for the silver bullet. And I’m never going to find a silver bullet for this.

Brooke Morris: There’s light bulb moment when you realize, Wait, this is not something you’re just going to wake up one day and be good at doing. Nobody is.

BearTracks: So what’s the best advice you’ve gotten about boundaries or best tool you’ve used for kind of starting to establish those? Like, I know, some people use Pomodoro timers? So best advice or best tool, go!

Brooke Morris: So I have three things I want to share on that. My first one best advice is from one of my advisors, Austin Reynolds. He said, “At some point you have to stop being a grad student that’s on 24/7. You need to make sure you’re setting boundaries where you go home and you reset at the end of the day.” To hear that from a mentor was really important.

BearTracks: It gives you permission!

Brooke Morris: Yes, right. You don’t feel that guilt of “I should be working late into the night, all weekend!” I was given permission to have that. The second thing is setting up a writing group. I actually have two main writing groups that I participate in. One of them is over Zoom with people from all over the world! And that creates structured time where I’m there to write. And then the third thing is using my calendar to block off time for writing or for working, and not disturbing that time with a meeting that comes up. I say I’m busy during that time. You don’t even have to say what you’re doing. You’re busy! Keep that clear, distinct time by blocking it off on your calendar.

BearTracks: So good. What has the creation of boundaries allowed to flourish in your life?

Brooke Morris: Progress. Progress in writing, progress in analyzing data, and progress in thinking. We spend a lot of time as PhD students thinking through data, but you don’t allow yourself time to rest.

BearTracks: You have to have unscheduled, pointless time for certain parts of your brain that only start to activate when clutter is cleared out of the way. That’s why great ideas come in the shower. We have to have time when we’re not working for good things to happen.

Brooke Morris: Yes, absolutely. I have that time kind of scheduled where I sit down with a cup of tea, I don’t have anything where I’m doing, I have a special chair I sit in, I sip my tea, cuddle with my dogs. It’s just a moment of downtime where I don’t feel guilty for stepping away. And I think that’s probably the most treasured time.

BearTracks: Definitely. Last question: how do you see these sorts of practices as an investment in your future?

Brooke Morris: I mean, I see it exactly like investing in a 401k or a Roth IRA or a financial investment. This is truly time where you are investing in you, because the more you invest in you, the faster you progress towards your goals of getting a job in whatever industry or academic setting you’re shooting for. The more you invest in you, the faster you’re going to get there.