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Live a Balanced Life While Thriving In Your Graduate Program

By Denise Dempsey

I spent 15 years working as a health educator, helping individuals find balance and resilience in daily life. My professional knowledge served me well as I ventured into the world of being an online grad student. And after graduation, all that hard work — and gained resilience — paid off. I happily expanded my career beyond healthcare and into instructing at UC Davis and working as a government contractor, teaching for the Veteran’s Administration. That’s why I feel so strongly about helping other prospective and current graduate students live a balanced life, while thriving in graduate school. It is so doable, and so important.

So if you’re in pursuit of a graduate degree right now and the endeavor is challenging your inner and outer resources, and you’re interested in coping strategies for maintaining resilience, these are some key areas that made a difference for me.

Maintaining Perspective

How does maintaining perspective contribute to resilience? Look at it this way: when you first take a look at a syllabus, you’ll probably have a good idea of what will be asked of you academically. Perspective comes when you then take a look at what life is asking of you at this time (family, work, school, hobbies, friends, etc.) and decide how you will find balance. Balance is the key word here — not perfection. Gaining mastery in any area of our life does not necessarily rest on any one project or assignment; it is the day-in, day-out commitment we make to doing our best, with the resources we have at the time, that contributes the most value.

Time Management and Prioritizing

The skills of time management and prioritization can significantly add to our enjoyment of grad school. They contribute to our long-term stamina, the way we pace our mental and physical energy, and ultimately to our resilience in many areas of our life, both personal and academic. There are planners and calendars, on paper and through apps, that can help with planning and prioritizing. Just remember to keep a healthy perspective as you make your lists.

Communication: Both Personal and Academic

On a general level, communication helps us connect, but resilience comes from the satisfaction of doing it well and achieving our objectives, whatever they may be. Scholarly writing is designed for communicating ideas and information effectively and with academic integrity.

There are great commonalities between communication in our personal lives and academic lives. The following three questions can help lead to greater satisfaction as a written or oral communicator:

  1. Know what your intent or purpose is. What end result do you want?
  2. Check in with yourself. What are your needs right now and how might they influence your communication exchange?
  3. Is the timing right for this communication? If not, when would be a better time? Conditions are not always ideal for communication, and we do the best we can.

Being able to review our communication experiences can add to future satisfaction. It’s never too late to tell someone, “You know, I could have said that more skillfully.” Academically, you could fill your instructor in on how your current circumstances may have influenced your written performance or find help on specifics related to scholarly writing.

Maintaining and Nurturing Social Bonds

Being a grad student involves harnessing an immense degree of focus and intentionality for specific goals. That said, “ain’t nobody happy” when there aren’t friends, social activities, family, and group bonds that bring added perspective, fun, and the reminder that there is life outside of class.

Within school, getting to know fellow students can enrich your resilience. It’s helpful to have someone to talk with about course content, as well as the types of things written about in this article. In each class you take, see if you can form a new connection with a fellow student. This can start with the initial introductions phase. Note where you have areas in common and keep that in mind as you go about the academics.

Balanced Attention to Self-Care

So much can be said about this. We all know we’re supposed to exercise and eat well. Some of us have established routines and health habits that will serve us well during grad school. For others among us, this is much more challenging. I myself found it easy to stay up too late focusing on academics and not leaving myself a healthy amount of wind-down time before sleep. Over time, I was able to make changes, including trying to stay ahead of the curve (time management) with assignments so that there wasn’t a big push at the end.

If personal care is challenging for you, keep learning about yourself and what helps you feel like your best self. Making small changes — like taking a five-minute walk to break up blocks of study time — can make a big difference. This goes along with the “Maintaining Perspective” section above. Perspective is everything when it comes to self-care, along with time management. Planning meals ahead of time, (or just making sure I had a stack of ready-made salads from Trader Joe’s) made a big difference for me, along with having a walking buddy to get me outside on most days.

In Closing…

The things we learn in grad school generally continue to serve us long beyond the time we spend integrating academics into our busy lives. Learning how to care for our own resilience during school is something that can add to our sense of satisfaction while we are students and then appreciate for the rest of our lives. I hope this article may make a difference to you as you continue, or embark on, pursuing your degree.

Denise Dempsey is currently an Education Consultant and Mindfulness Education Specialist.

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