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The Importance of Finding Balance as a Graduate Student

Grad school is no walk in the park. Here's some sage advice on finding a good work-life balance as a busy graduate student from someone who's been there.

I’m a graduate student, a professional, a partner, a daughter, and a friend. I’m probably not unlike yourself: a busy person leading a full life—a life that requires balance. Ironically, when given the opportunity to write this article, I found myself being pulled in a number of different directions and feeling overwhelmed. One day I’d feel like I did too much, and the next it would seem like it wasn’t enough. Before I knew it, weeks had turned into months, and I was feeling completely out of control. That tracks, since the challenges I was experiencing were, in fact, out of my control. I found myself relying on the mantra of “control the controllables” in order to find and maintain balance in my own life. To help you find balance in your own life, we’ll explore this motto and other methods of decision-making that can help you organize your own priorities. 

What does “control the controllables” mean?

Control the controllables is something I picked up from Garret Fisher (shout-out to him and his hair in 2013—YouTube it). Garret says you’ll face situations in life that are just out of your hands. Spoiler: he’s right. Over time, I’ve come to realize that “control the controllables” is less of a motto and more of a mindset that requires a three-step approach:

  1. Identify what in your life is truly not up to you. For example, your graduate advisor jumps ship mid-semester, the demands of your job increase, or tragedy strikes you or a person you love.
  2. Aim to simplify your issues. As they arise, determine how you can take charge of situations that are controllable. Make a decision, set yourself up to win, and strengthen your commitment to others.
  3. Understand the difference between a reaction and a response. Reactions are emotional, in the moment, and often regrettable. Responses are thoughtful, planned out, and executed deliberately and with purpose.

Balance is attained when all three steps are completed in this particular order. Graduate studies are mentally, physically, and emotionally demanding on their own, and it’s not the only thing you’ll be taking on. Consider the stressors you encounter every day. Balance is important in everything we do, and our goal in achieving it will not only benefit you as a graduate student but can help you face challenges in any area of your life.

Related: How to Make Your Semester More Mindful

Making decisions

In the middle of the semester, I became aware that my graduate advisor, the person I’d intended to have serve as Chair of my dissertation, was leaving the school. In preparation for their departure, I needed to make decisions in order to keep moving forward in my studies and build a dissertation committee that I trusted. A delay in taking action on this important issue would have had only negative consequences down the line.

My response was to arm myself with knowledge of institutional policies and be aware of all available resources on campus. I also needed to identify someone I believed would be both my advocate and an ally; this person came in the form of a colleague I already knew wouldn’t fit the program’s criteria for Chair. I kept studying institution and department policies, relied on classmates for feedback and support, and initiated the process of petitioning for an exception. By making decisions and taking the necessary steps toward carrying them out, you’ll give yourself the best opportunities to move forward in a positive direction.

Related: Undergraduate vs. Graduate School: What to Expect

Setting yourself up to win

Like so many other contemporary graduate students, I’m not exclusively defined by my studies. With the explosion of part-time, weekend, and online graduate program options,* more people are exercising the ability to pursue advanced studies while concurrently progressing in their profession. I have a rewarding career that’s challenging and intense. As the demands of my job increased, there was a point this spring when I asked myself, “How is this all possible? Because there aren’t enough hours in the day.” I could have easily let myself get pulled under by overwhelming feelings and tried to do more with less time. Instead, I had my office painted bright yellow to help me feel happier and more inspired, I delegated tasks to trusted colleagues, and I switched up my routine so I could run very early in the morning. Today, I’m feeling better and more productive even though there’s actually more to do. You don’t need Sherwin Williams swatches (#SW6905), a dedicated staff, or to be training for anything to employ these types of strategies. The smallest adjustments can make an enormous difference in your ability to give your best effort.

* Side note: While there are many “non-traditional” graduate programs offered, you’re still responsible for doing your due diligence. Take the time to extensively research the program you’re interested in to make sure it’s legitimate, aligns with your goals and objectives, and has a demonstrated commitment to serving students who are leading multifaceted lives.

Related: Choosing the Right Graduate Degree for Your Goals

Strengthening your commitment to others

Last spring, my partner suffered the loss of his beloved grandmother after months of health complications. On the same day we were leaving for the services, I received my own major personal setback. My initial reaction? I felt like my problems were burdensome, unimportant in the grand scheme—"How dare I even feel sad right now?”—and I was devastated that all these things were happening concurrently. 

For a moment, I was unable to acknowledge what was out of my control. I was effectively stuck at the first step of balance, and as I channeled my efforts toward supporting someone else, I actively turned on myself. Rationally, I knew I couldn’t change when things happened to either one of us. Illogically, I couldn’t kick the self-blame. Not only did this make me feel worse, but it left my partner feeling helpless to comfort me. Over time and with patience, I was able to accept his support and slowly let go of the nagging feelings of guilt. Strengthening your commitment to others requires extending the same kindness and forgiveness to yourself that you do to the people in your life who mean the most. It’s no coincidence that by letting other people help you, you’ll be better able to help others.

Related: Alleviating Stress and Anxiety: The Best Advice From Real Students

We are all complete people with multifaceted lives, and each day can be so unpredictable (as if you didn’t know this already). Being a graduate student will only reinforce this reality for you. You have no say in external glitches in the plan, the pressures imposed by others, or the timing of tragic events. But you do have a say in how you choose to face inevitable challenges no matter what area of life they’re in. By acknowledging what is out of our control, strategically deciding how to resolve the issues, and responding appropriately in the face of adversity, you’ll put yourself in the best position to succeed.

Ready to start your graduate school journey? Use our Grad School Search tool to find the right program for your goals.

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