Sunday, April 26, 2009

CRA-W Grad Cohort: Balancing Graduate School and Life

Balancing school with life. This is a topic that comes up all the time for women in science and engineering - it seems to be something we all struggle with. I guess that's why it was the focus of one of the last keynote talks at the CRA-W Grad Cohort. Here's my summary of the useful advice given to us by two wonderful women with different ways of working toward that seemingly elusive balance we all seek.

The first suggestion is to prioritize your work and your responsibilities. If you have to work to earn a living while going for your PhD part time, for example, you should never let school get in the way of your employment! Having said that, it doesn't hurt to work harder than you have ever worked before, because it won't last forever and it will be so worth it.

You should try to set yourself short, deliverable goals. I've learned that this isn't easy from own experience - I wanted to make milestones during my Masters, but never nailed them down. It can sometimes help to ask yourself not just what your goals are, but why you have them. Did you set your goals for yourself? Or do you just want others to think highly of you? This might help evaluate the priority of each goal. Also remember to celebrate when you achieve any goal, big or small, be it a dinner out or a few hours of soaps.

Don't be afraid to ask questions when it gets hard (you'll be worse off not having a good answer, even if you embarass yourself asking). Find mentors among your colleagues and friends, since you might feel more comfortable asking them for help. And try not to panic - there is always a solution!

An interesting idea is to sign a contract with your significant other, should you have one, before you get going on your Masters or PhD. This way they know what to expect and how hard things will be. You may also agree on what kind of chores or childcare duties will become very hard for you to take care of, and what things you promise to try to do.

Remember that nobody can maintain an insane pace forever. Sure, we can do it in bursts, but we need breaks, or else we'll burn out! I always tell new students to make sure they take breaks to go for a walk, talk with friends, hang out outside... anything to get your eyes off a screen. It can be really hard to shake the guilt that you aren't working on your research, but let's face it - the time spent recharging your mind will be paid back tenfold in the newfound productivity when you get back to work.

We all have insecurities, and the darned things can really get in the way of accomplishing our goals! The best thing to do is be honest with yourself so you can move past them. Setting up a positive feedback file, where you keep all the nice notes and emails people have sent you over the years, can give you a happy place to spend a few minutes when you're feeling down.

A few parting tips given to us:
  • Remember to schedule in play time.
  • Remember to take care of yourself (exercise, sleep well, eat well).
  • Apply extra money to buy housekeeping, babysitting, etc if possible.
  • Maintain your friendships and don't isolate yourself!
  • Getting a PhD is work - but you have to work on your life too!
Take these basics, and work on your time management skills, and you should be well on your way to a happy, healthy, and well-balanced life, even during your PhD!


mmwebster said...

This is relevant at *any* level, not just for one's PhD. As an non-traditional undergrad, I find myself juggling work, school, and the extra-curricular projects that sometimes see necessary to further both.

Here's a couple of additional things I've added to my list that help:

* Adding friends to speed dial who can rescue the kid if I've got a meeting/appt/lab

* Letting calls go to voice mail so I can focus and get stuff done. (Folks know I'm busy but will get back to 'em when I can.)

* Spoiling my SO once in awhile so there's some balance on the home front.

* Going some place different to study once in awhile so I can focus without the usual household distractions

Just a few things that have helped me get through the last year! (One more to go!)

Thanks for posting such helpful information!

-- ubergeeke

Gail Carmichael said...

I definitely agree - and we can extend that to include working women, as well.

Love your additions to the list, too! Thanks for sharing, and best of luck with your final year! :)

This blog post from our school's WISE group may also be of interest.

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