Monday, July 14, 2014

Finding Your Balance in Graduate School

Just as is the case with life in general, it's important to understand how to balance your priorities and time in graduate school. Early in the PhD program is a great time to learn when to accept and turn down opportunities in order to avoid burnout.

There are so many opportunities and goals to accomplish as a graduate student. Shaping your career and research expertise at this time is such an exciting experience. There can be many, many goals including publications, gaining teaching experience, and applying for research funding, while attempting to complete coursework within a decent timeframe.

Although I work part time,  I work (and think) harder now than I did when I was a full time employee. There is always a new homework assignment, research project, or professional study/certificate aspiration. Meanwhile I'm constantly thinking about what I should be doing today, what the next deadlines are, and what the future career prospects look like in my field. I feel like there isn't enough time, and that there is so much that I need to learn.... And, as a result, last semester I overloaded my schedule.

Finding balance as a graduate student is a challenge, but it is an important one.

1. Prioritize 
Although the list of what you want to do might be long, it is important to determine what is most important to do now. In my first year, I had a semester with four classes, meanwhile attempted to write for a federal grant and accepted a teaching position. While working a separate part time job.  All of these activities are wonderful, but the truth is, getting the coursework out of the way and getting good grades really was a top priority, while working to cover some basic costs.  The other activities really may have needed to wait.  It's important to consider all of this combined with family commitments (which should also be a priority of course!).

2. Be Aware of Timeframes
There are two aspects of time I want to address here. It is important to learn time management skills and to set a schedule for activities. This can help to remove that constant nagging feeling that there is always work you should be doing! In writing and conducting research, for example, scheduling dedicated time through a weekly template will reduce stress and show significant progress in a short amount of time.

Also, in terms of activities you have selected it is important to schedule and plan accordingly. If you are applying for a teaching job, be clear on how much time you will need to commit through the semester/quarter to the research, preparation, and meetings with others in coordinating the class. When considering a research project be aware of the number of years required to participate and how much time you will need to commit. This can affect your available time and possible future options two, three or four years down the road.

3. Be Aware of the Details
In my opinion, this is the toughest skill to learn - working with unknowns. How is it possible to be aware of what you don't know?  How do you know what you don't know what to ask about? I have committed to many opportunities where never-before-mentioned tasks began to expand greatly, and almost become greater than what I had agreed to commit to.   Before you agree to commit to a project, seriously consider the time commitment and the types of expectations there will be. For example, in teaching a course, you will need to know the number of students expected in the class (min and max), and what your responsibilities will be.  Teaching can involve course preparation, lesson planning, arranging small group meetings, meeting with other faculty, setting up and arranging offsite activities, communicating with community groups, grading, and more.  Within all of these, there are small details that you may be responsible for (meeting smaller deadlines, preparing and providing documentation, etc.).

When considering a project or opportunity, ask as many questions as possible. There can not be too many questions. What is expected of me? What will I need to do to accomplish this project? Will there be assistance? What are the resources available to me? Is there anything else I will need to do aside from the tasks I am anticipating? Is there anything else I should know?

Finally, consider your schedule and set parameters of what you will and will not be able to do.

4. Learn When to Say No
Sometimes a great opportunity comes at an inopportune time. Accepting this offer might disrupt everything else you are doing and turn out to be a poor decision in the end. It's important to learn when to say no, and to be hopeful that a better opportunity will return at the right time.  Overstretching your schedule of tasks can affect your overall productivity and health.  It's important to learn how to find balance.

Sometimes we just learn the hard way.  I am now trying to learn from the scheduling mistakes I made last semester. I expect that it will be a continual process.