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6 Tips for Finding Balance During Your PhD

Find helpful tips for keeping your work and life balanced during the stress of a PhD or other advanced degree.

Do you sometimes feel like a human stress ball, getting squeezed by the commitments of lab, family, and classes? You're not alone. One 2014 study showed that nearly half of Ph.D. students at UC Berkeley showed signs of depression, and similar results have been observed across the nation.

We know it's a challenge, but taking a few simple steps to improve your work-life balance while undertaking a Ph.D. or other advanced training can pay major dividends down the road. With a little focus, you can graduate with your sanity intact, ready and motivated to take on whatever life throws at you next.

Here are six suggestions for improving your quality of life and maintaining balance during graduate school:

Schedule regular meetings with your supervisor

Maybe you had a meeting scheduled for the first few months in the lab. Maybe your supervisor left town for a month, and you never got back on schedule. Maybe you’ve just been avoiding having to discuss that Western blot that failed for the tenth time. No matter the reason, there’s no excuse for not having weekly (or at the very least bi-weekly) meetings with your supervisor or PI. They yield enormous influence over when you’ll be able to graduate (Is that five years looking a bit more like seven?), so shrinking into the background for a few months isn’t doing you any favors. Get into their office and have a conversation!

Define boundaries

The temptation in graduate school, especially in competitive research areas, will be to work until you drop. Students may even complain (read: brag) about spending 72 hours straight in the lab with no food, water, sleep, or human contact. While this may make for a good story, it’s not a sustainable path for your future career (Yes, that’s what you’re starting now). It’s important to cut yourself off from work at a reasonable interval, be that 8, 10, or 12 hours, to allow yourself to recover and remain productive over the years of lab work. Conversely, late in your program, there may be a temptation to drag your feet. Getting to work at noon and leaving for Happy Hour won’t make your PI happy. It’ll only extend an already lengthy degree.

Enjoy the campus outside of lab

I hate to break it to you, but you may not always have access to free gyms, museums, performances, and social events. While you still have the ability, take advantage of as many perks of being on campus as possible. You’ll miss them once you’re in the “real world.” This has the added benefit of getting your mind off work for at least a little while and encouraging social engagement outside of the lab, a necessary skill to maintain for job interviews down the road. 

Remember the three ‘P’s when things go wrong

In her book Option B, Sheryl Sandberg writes that many people, when faced with adversity in life, will adopt the three ‘P’s: Personalization, Pervasiveness, Permanence. Everything is my fault. Everything in life is horrible. And nothing is ever going to change. The key to building resilience to get through the hard times is to recognize these misconceptions. When you face a significant obstacle in your work or life, remind yourself that not everything is your fault, that this one event doesn’t change your entire life, and that things will eventually change and get better.

Keep your finances in check

Simple but important: You may be doing what you love and pursuing a noble profession, but you still need to pay the bills and get through your education without putting yourself in financial ruin. Be disciplined with stipends and student loans from the first day of school! Don’t wait until things go wrong to finally open the bank statements. (Side note: the added stress of dealing with financial concerns can hinder your academic performance. If you want to do set yourself up for success in the classroom and lab, get your finances figured out.)

Print and hang the Eisenhower box at your workspace

We all know how quickly a “crisis” can arise in the average lab. The microscope suddenly won’t focus. The freezer needs de-icing. The lab inventory is a mess. All of these things are important, but they aren’t getting you closer to your eventual goal: graduation. President Dwight Eisenhower once said, “What is important is seldom urgent, and what is urgent is seldom important.” For the visually inclined, this motto has been transformed into a tool to help you stay productive in your daily tasks. Print out a copy and use it whenever you start to see the tasks stacking up.

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