6 Ways To Survive Grad School and Achieve Work-Life Balance

Most people don’t want to admit the struggles they went through in grad school or even relive those memories. Working weekends and late nights are just one example. What I want to share with you are things that people take for granted. The things that get you through the Daily Grind of Grad School (all the way to the end) and working in a lab. Thinking about dropping out of grad school? Keep reading.

So how do you get through the daily grind for say 5-7 years? Most people laugh when I tell them this.

1) Your iPod.

Music can do wonders for your graduate school experience. I am able to listen to music while writing. More importantly, I listen to music while doing my experiments. Although this isn’t 24/7, I can testify that music has helped get me through graduate school because of its positive effect on your mental state.

You need to take everything in grad school that is at your disadvantage and make it your advantage. What I mean by this is that in most cases, you are a lone ranger in lab. You don’t really work in a team as you would in industry. Your project is your own and no one really cares about your work except you and your PI. If you experiment doesn’t work, you haven’t let down an entire team that is relying on you.

So with that said, you can ‘get away with listening to your iPod” since you aren’t spending a lot of your day in business meetings (if you went into business), or interacting with patients (if you went into the medical field). Plus you aren’t really talking to people in your lab the entire day (this can vary).

You are at a ‘disadvantage’ since working in a team is better IMO than working on something in solitude. So you can turn around, make the most of your situation and turn it into a positive. The ‘lone ranger’ scenario is also a disadvantage I think for someone who is a social person (like myself) and enjoys working with others.

But, if you love music like I do, pop in your headphones and you will see just how quickly your day goes by. Rough day or bad data? Crank up the heavy stuff. I let it go almost the entire day depending on my mood. I still keep the volume low enough so I can hear if someone needs to talk to me. And you know what? It calms my mood, motivates me, and takes my mind off the repetition and mundane routine. Not a big music listener? That might change.

2) Do not let your physical and mental health slip.

I noticed a lot of this has to do with not eating right or working out. I cannot tell you how many grad students skip lunch or dinner, or don’t eat breakfast (I am guilty of this). It is not wise. What happens is it throws your whole metabolism out of whack. It can also change your sleep patterns. You need to stay in a constant routine and STICK to it.

Stemming from this, you need to hit the gym. You need to go running, swimming, weightlifting, biking. It sounds so obvious. If it was so obvious then why don’t people find time to do it? Why do all the people who work in a lab seem so out of shape? You know deep down they care. They have to care. Or they live in denial. They claim they are so busy with their work lives that there is no time to exercise. If you aren’t exercising the excuse then becomes, “Well then I don’t need to eat right either.” That is where the poor attitude sets it. You become lethargic and may not even realize it.

You cannot tell me that poor diet and lack of exercise doesn’t affect your work. It does. It affects your mood, how you think, and how much energy you have throughout the day. I find time to hit the gym 2-3 times a week no matter what. This is almost as important as the actual thesis work you are doing. If you neglect yourself.. Your self-esteem will suffer. It can have permanent consequences if you spread this out over 5-7 years. Exercise is also a great way to release and lower stress levels. And guess what? Lack of exercise/poor diet is one of the reasons why the depression rate is so high in grad school. Which brings me to my next point.

3) Make an effort to hit up your friends and be social.

That means plan ahead. That also means during the week you should ask your friends to go to lunch or at least meet up. Does this sound lame? Well it’s not. I can’t tell you how many grad students eat lunch in lab EVERY day by themselves. You need to get outside and get some fresh air. Seriously put the can of soup down, get out there and God forbid spend 5 bucks on a lunch.

You need socialization to keep your sanity. So your daily grind includes lunch with your fellow grad students or friends. When the weekend hits it’s a whole different story.

The first couple years of grad school people tend to hang out more, that is also obvious. Why? Even though they are taking classes and are busy, it isn’t as bad as writing your thesis or busting your butt trying to finish up your last set of experiments. Plus everything is new, you’re getting settled in and you haven’t shaken off your undergrad years. When you get older (26+), people tend to go out less, have significant others, be annoyed by undergrads who stay the same age (you are the only one who gets older in this case), be more focused on their work, and just be less social overall. It fades out.

So what I’m saying is you need to find something you love and hold onto it. For me it was hitting up rock concerts. I have a group of friends who like rock music. I joined a softball team. I joined a rock band. I kept the ball rolling. I made an effort every weekend to call my friends and make plans. Find someone who has a pool, gas grills, likes to slam a few beers and you’re golden. Whatever it is, you know you have an interest with someone in your grad program.. Or you have an interest/activity.

You want to be in a Dance club? Do it. Cuz once you get out of grad school everything will change. The real world will set in. You need to enjoy these years of your life the best you can. You need to have as much fun as you can during some of the hardest years of your life. Keep the balance and everything will be OK. If you let the balance tip to ALL grad school, then you are in trouble. And that is why some people’s mental and physical health suffers so much. You need to vent frustration and relieve stress.

You also need good friends and family to get you through it. Let’s face it. Research is frustrating. 90% of it doesn’t work. My first few years I had to learn to accept this as normal. And realize that I am not a failure. Sometimes experiments fail for no and unforeseen reason. But to get through these frustrations took time on my part to keep the balance in check and have friends to help me along the way.

4) Find that ‘fun’ activity and hold onto it no matter what.

Some grad students have told me, “You know what got me through grad school? Lots and lots of beer.” I wouldn’t recommend this lol, but a lot of people just unleash on the weekends (especially first or second year grad students). I guess everyone has their own way of dealing with the stress.

My recommendation over beer is find that one activity that you absolutely love, similar to #3. Play guitar.. And if you have the money, take a vacation. You cannot be thinking about research 24/7 or you will go crazy. That is what professors want you to believe. To be completely submerged in your research.

Well guess what? A lot of great scientific discoveries were made when they weren’t doing what they were supposed to be doing. The point here being that a lot of great ideas or innovations can come at random times or even by accident, instead of being forced. So that means by you doing that one thing that you love so much.. Is a good thing.

If you let it slip away it can lead to grad school blues or depression. I have a friend that loves to fish. I know someone who joined a book club. Another friend of mind travels a lot. Another goes boating/waterskiing in the summer and snowboarding in the winter (more along the lines of what I like). Anyways, don’t use alcohol as a ‘cop-out’ way of dealing with the stress of grad school. You’ll wake up sober the next day and you’re back to reality. So if you have something real and concrete to back it up and fall back on, so you won’t have to worry about tomorrow.

5) Don’t constantly obsess about your future.

Did you catch that? Don’t constantly obsess or worry about your future. Many times however, grad students delay the inevitable until it is too late. So what can you do? Start networking. NOW. It is never TOO early to start! This can tie in #3 above.

I see a lot of grad students who have NO clue what they want to do when they get out of grad school. Ok so why not plan ahead? Figure it out now! Why wait till you graduate, do a post-doc then decide?  That is a complete waste of time. Get on LinkedIn, find people in your field and start doing informational interviews.

Why do informational interviews? You learn about how others made their transition. You learn from their mistakes. You learn about the job market. You learn about what positions might fit you and what you might be interested in/good at. You learn about how you can have your ‘leg up’ over other applicants. You build a relationship with that person. They aren’t just a network contact. They are someone you can have lunch or coffee with for an hour and they’ll fill you in on whatever you want to know.

I think if grad students weren’t so lazy and did this prior to graduating, we would have a lot less post-docs and/or unemployed PhDs. A post-doc is only a continuation of grad school. Almost seems like the only thing you gain is slightly higher pay over your already very low graduate school stipend (if you are in the sciences), but it is a ‘cop out’ for those who still haven’t figured out what they want to do.

If you want to become a Professor than great-by all means do a post-doc and see if you can beat the odds. But I can tell you there are a handful of Post-docs that I know that say, “I’ll figure it out later.” Wrong attitude. Why are you doing the Post-doc without having a reason? You love research. Great. That doesn’t mean you spend the next 5 years of your life as a Post-doc. You’re only burning up more time and delaying the start of your life. So my advice is:

1) Don’t worry about your future (unless you haven’t spent any time finding about what to do with your PhD)

2) Start networking now so you don’t have to have a need to worry

3) Land a summer internship if you can leverage it via networking and come out with real world experience

Further Reading:

A Graduate Student Guide to Developing Your Professional Profile—Part 3: For Professional Careers in Industry, Nonprofits, and Other Fields

6) Don’t live with regret (to finish or not to finish).

A lot of grad students bicker and complain about the poor job market, being stuck as a post-doc, or low pay. You have two options: Accept your fate or make a change. If you don’t like where you are now then get out with a Master’s degree and do something else. There is NOTHING wrong with coming to a point of self-realization and quitting something because it doesn’t make sense to continue further. That is very self-empowering actually.

What doesn’t make sense is if you continued on knowing it really isn’t something you want to do, or you don’t really need the degree to get to where you want to be. The farther you string the PhD along the harder it is to quit. If you get to your 4th or even 5th year you are probably going to finish it. Why?

The more time you invest, the more you will justify the need to finish the PhD. If you don’t you will live with regret. So decide now if you are at this point. If you are a dissertator and in your later years (like me) and are doing all the things above #1-5 you should be fine. You will finish. Believe in yourself. You made it this far to the point where they [your professors] expect you to quit or when others would quit. But you pushed through. You didn’t do it for anyone else. You did it for yourself. So that someday you can look back and be proud. And know that all that suffering/hardship was not in vain.

If only you could see where you will end up 5-10 years from now… Only time and your work ethic will tell.  The PhD says something in itself. Some people will justify the need to finish a PhD with what’s called ‘Sunk Cost Fallacy’ (if you invest X amount of years this justifies the need to invest Y more years to finish), but deep down it comes down to what you truly want.

Not what other people try to explain or convince you of. You are the only person who knows what is truly right for you.. Sound cliche? Well think about it and put the family and peer pressure to the side. What do you ultimately want to do? Where do you truly see yourself 5 years from now? Do you need the PhD to get you there? If the answer is ‘Yes’ then focus on the now. The only thing that I will say… 5 or more years in a PhD program is a long time.

My best advice is to take each day one step at a time. You’ve heard this before. If you think about all the data and bad or future experiments that you are faced with on a normal basis, you can become overwhelmed. Break it down into little chunks, treat each day as its own. Watch yourself get that PhD. This is what worked for me over the past 4 years and helped keep my stress levels down. “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” ~Mathew 6:34

Find what works for you, stick with it, and never look back.

Further Reading:



Should you quit your PhD?

Living in social isolation in grad school and what to do about it