Graduate student work-life balance

Current graduate students offer tips and resources for taking care of yourself in graduate school, having a life outside of your research, and doing well at the human aspects of being a scientist, too.

One size does not fit all. There will be times in graduate school where you’ll feel like you should emulate that brain on a stick. But everything that makes you a complex, complete human being also makes you a better scientist. Being human isn’t a “distraction,” it’s one of your key assets.

Here are some tips and resources for taking care of yourself in graduate school, for having a life outside of your research, and for doing well at the human aspects of being a scientist, too.

1)  Find - or create - support networks. Not only can support come in many shapes and sizes it can be found in unexpected places. Your fellow grad students are a great place to start (they actually do understand what you’re going through!). There will be plenty of times when you will need someone else to remind you which end is up. The U of M is a huge place and there’s likely to be a network that fits your needs. Look into things with the “diversity” label -- this is a great way to find people who care about supporting the community of scientists. Some of it is identity-specific, but some of it is for everyone.

Here are a few of our science-specific favorites:

  • Association of Multicultural Scientists specifically focuses on grad students in the biological sciences, no less. They host a series of incredible workshops (open to all, regardless of race), with topics ranging from networking skills, to starting a lab, to non-academic career options. If you only join one mailing list, this is the one!

  • Graduate Women in Science - Xi Chapter is an interdisciplinary society of scientists who encourage and support women to enter and achieve success in science through full participation in their scientific research and its applications; in the development and advancement of women; in the integration careers, personal goals, and society's needs; and by professional networking and mutual inspiration. They have monthly seminars and networking opportunities.

  • Minnesota Queer Science is primarily for GLBTQ scientists, engineers, and other STEM folks. QSci hosts brown-bag social lunches and other events throughout the school year to build community and visibility. Members have also organized panel discussions on campus, and done outreach (with demos!) to local high schools.

  • Student Counseling Services hosts thesis-writing groups and grad-student-specific groups, as well as the typical individual consultations.

A listing of more graduate-student community organizations and resources can be found online.

2)  Find mentors in addition to your research advisor. There are a lot of aspects to being a professional scientist, and a lot of different good ways to go about it. Get up the nerve to talk with faculty about things besides research. Job hunt? Public outreach? Being a scientist with kids? Being out as a GLBTQ scientist? Navigating big conferences? Starting up a lab? Being a mentor yourself? The list is endless ... Having multiple mentors is a great safety net.

3)  Expect to have some struggles in grad school -- you’re in good company. Some days it will seems like graduate school is designed to be rough on you, and your choice to attend school is a crazy one. You are asking questions and doing things that nobody’s ever thought possible. It won’t always be easy. It’s normal to feel that you don’t belong here sometimes, but the things that make you different also help you do science in a way that hasn’t been done before (and that’s the whole point, right?). Remember that you’re not alone; fellow graduate students and professors have had these feelings, too.

In addition to your fellow graduate students, there are some good web resources for insights on graduate school and science. Ph.D. Comics is a sanity-saver! For more in-depth discussions, check out the blogs at Scientopia -- “Prof-Like Substance” is a biology prof and a great writer, for example. There’s also a very insighful blog carnival with many different takes on “impostor syndrome,” that all-too-common feeling that you’re just not good enough to be doing science:

4)  Get out and do something different. Take a look at some of your role models and other scientists in your departments. Most of them maintain hobbies and interests outside of research that renew and recharge them and allow them to be great scientists. Athletic pursuits and the arts are common pastimes, but the sky’s the limit! Especially good are things that give you mental downtime and/or a change of scenery. For example, if your work is primarily in the lab, getting out into nature can give you a whole new perspective.

5)  Schedule Sleep!!!! How much sleep do you need to feel good? Some individuals work well with four hours while others need nine. Naturally in graduate school there will be times when you will be short on sleep because of a project or experiment. Get the sleep you need when you can. Not only will you feel refreshed and ready to do research but your body can fight off illnesses easier. You can get more work done in forty well-rested hours than sixty bleary-eyed ones.

6)  Communicate clearly, early, and often. Talk to your advisor about how you plan to make graduate school life and your personal life work together. Graduate work is not like undergraduate work. You will be expected to be more proactive and independent. This transition is difficult for some students and advisors worry about the adjustment. Ease their fears by being up front about issues like work hours and time off. Be well, do amazing work, and remember to have fun!

Written by Jo Heuschele (