What I Wish I’d Known: Balancing Life and Graduate School

Graduate School Blues by ChilLX1 via Flickr - a U. Chicago student simultaneously writing finals and reading for next term...during Christmas "break"

Graduate School Blues by ChilLX1 via Flickr – a U. Chicago student simultaneously writing finals and reading for next term…during Christmas “break”

Before joining ESN staff as a writer/editor in 2014, Hannah Eagleson wrote her series What I Wish I’d Known About Graduate School just after finishing her PhD in 2011. 

As promised in my last post, here I’m talking about some things I wish I’d known (or just done!) early on to balance my life and my graduate work.

1. Make worship central

Graduate school can feel exhausting and terrifying. The pressure of continuing to produce and trying to impress professors and colleagues can make school seem like the defining aspect of one’s existence. I desperately needed to engage in corporate and individual worship as a reminder that my life and work are defined by God’s Kingdom. In the wake of burnout, it helped so much to recognize that any good thing that happened in my academic career was a result of God’s grace. That’s not to minimize the importance of hard work, but to say that it needs to take place in the context of seeking God’s Kingdom and recognizing who He is.

2. Engage with community

Graduate school can also be a very lonely environment, especially for those who came from small liberal arts colleges. The larger research university offers wonderful opportunities, but it can be harder to find the mentors and friends you need in the larger setting. The time pressures can also discourage people from finding supportive communities outside the academic setting. While I did find great friends and mentors over the long haul, I really wish I’d put more time into cultivating community earlier on. If your Department has ongoing discussion groups or colloquia, see if there’s any way to fit one of them into your schedule. Not only is this good for career reasons, it’s a way to find some ongoing shared experiences and conversations with other grad students, and may be a starting point for great friendships. Some universities also have excellent interdisciplinary colloquia, and attending can be a way to meet interesting people who wouldn’t otherwise cross your path. I also wish I’d gotten more fully involved with a small group of other Christians, either on campus or in a local church. At first, it felt too exhausting to keep visiting groups until I found one that clicked, but later I really wished that I had worked at it sooner. Wonderful as a worship service is, I also needed a smaller group of other believers, and I didn’t really have one for a long time. [Ed. note: you can find InterVarsity Graduate & Faculty Ministry communities through our national chapter directory.]

3. Find an accountability partner (or group)

Similarly, I needed an accountability partner who could remind me to put God first in my academic work and to do that work to the very best of my ability. Though I had really good friends in my department, there wasn’t anyone who wanted to be in this particular role, so for a long time I ignored the fact that I needed and wanted an accountability partner. Eventually, I found an accountability relationship with someone who was in graduate school for pharmacology. Seventeenth-century English literature and HIV research might seem a million miles apart, but it turned out that many aspects of our graduate school experience were similar. I wish I’d looked harder for an accountability partner sooner, and recognized the potential for a good accountability relationship with someone outside my immediate field. If you can find enough people to have an accountability group, that’s great as well.

4. Rest

When you have a graduate report due tomorrow, 40 essays to grade, and your own final papers looming, it seems impossible to rest. I remember that in one particularly intense semester, 4 hours of sleep was starting to seem normal. I wandered around in a fog of exhaustion. That experience set me up for complete burnout in the next semester. I realized afterward that rest was non-optional. I found that it was crucial for me to sleep more than that, and to take Sundays off.

5. Have fun

I made the mistake of thinking I could do without fun for a long time. Instead of planning some enjoyable activities in my schedule, I would work intensely for a long time and then have an unplanned binge involving some activity that didn’t really relax me, like hours of unfocused internet surfing. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying the occasional webcomic or online video, and obviously I’m not against blogs. But I needed to plan some activities that I found more fully relaxing, like the occasional hike or concert. My university even offered grad students inexpensive tickets to campus concerts or drama productions. It was easy to see a Celtic concert or a comedy by Moliere for about the price of a movie ticket, and I wish I’d taken more advantage of those opportunities. On top of that, I discovered after I moved out of the area that my graduate apartment was 15 minutes from an amazing local ice cream shop – talk about missed opportunities!

All of these things would have helped me a lot early on in coursework, but there is a snag: early in coursework it just feels impossible to do them. When people gave me good advice about balancing my life in my first year of grad school, I thought they were right; but I had no idea how to make enough time to eat dinner, let alone attend a play. To some degree, life in coursework will be kind of hectic. However, I did eventually find a few ways of making life more manageable. My next post will address some strategies for managing the challenges of coursework, and the one after that will tackle more general strategies for making enough time to have a life.

Next week: What I Wish I’d Known: Surviving the Workload 

From Mike: If you’ve been through a doctoral program, what are your thoughts about Hannah’s advice? What advice on balancing life and graduate school do you have to contribute? 

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Hannah Eagleson

Hannah Eagleson is Interim Associate Director of InterVarsity’s Emerging Scholars Network (ESN). She launched and still edits ESN's collaboratively written devotional for academics, Scholar's Compass. Hannah also crafts other community-building events and materials for ESN. She holds a PhD in English literature from the University of Delaware, and an MA from St. John's College in Annapolis, MD. she’s working on a novel about a dragon who gave up fending off knights to become a tea importer in eighteenth-century England.

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  • Katelin108@gmail.com'
    Katelin commented on August 16, 2011 Reply

    hmmmm…all of it makes sense, but is all easier said than done, it seems.

  • hannaheag@comcast.net'
    Hannah commented on August 16, 2011 Reply

    It’s absolutely true that it’s easier said than done, and I would be the first to admit that I didn’t do these things nearly as well as I should have.

    In the next few posts, I will try to give some more practical tips for making it happen, but I’d love to hear other thoughts on what helps.

  • jonathan.lew@cgu.edu'
    Jonathan commented on December 4, 2011 Reply

    Hannah, thanks for your thoughts/ reflections/ recommendations! I’ve learned some of those lessons the hard way in my Ph.D. program (though I thought I knew better when I started!). One thing I wished you had addressed in this blog post and the others you wrote–how do some of these things change (or need to change) for doctoral students when we reach the dissertation stage? (which is where I’m at now) For example, I think all 5 of these areas needed to maintain balance continue to be important in the dissertation stage, but I also think most of us have to pull back some on #2 and #5 in order to really take the dissertation seriously and devote the kind of time and attention to it that we should (but probably don’t naturally want to).

  • hannaheag@comcast.net'
    Hannah commented on December 4, 2011 Reply

    Hi Jonathan,

    That’s a great point. Having just finished my dissertation this spring, I’d definitely agree that the writing phase requires a somewhat different set of expectations and modes of engagement.

    I’d say one thing that became even more important during the dissertation was having a steady work routine. It was hard to pin down exact routines during coursework because class schedules and so forth changed so often. While writing, I found myself even more centered on finding a routine that helped me accomplish the work over the long haul.

    If you’d like to email me, I’d be happy to talk more offline about how things change at the dissertation phase: hannaheag@comcast.net.

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