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Putting the “Life” Back Into Work–Life Balance for Graduate Students

Aimee E. King and Kelsey C. Herb
The University of Akron
Finding a balance between work and play has been a topic of interest to I-O researchers for many years now (e.g., Fritz, Sonnentag, Spector, & McInroe, 2010). Despite how research has expanded our knowledge on this topic, we often fail to apply the principles that have been discovered to our own lives. As graduate students, we often tell ourselves that “real life” will begin upon completion of our degree. However, these few years in graduate school should not be regarded as an abyss of social interaction and personal growth. Finding a healthy balance of work and personal well-being is increasingly important in the demanding environment of graduate school. This edition of TIP-TOPics addresses ways in which graduate students can experience life outside the department while also maintaining their teaching, research, applied experience, and coursework. Specifically, we will discuss the value and feasibility of incorporating break times and rewards, as well as opportunities to nurture physical and social well-being.  
Planning Daily Break-Times and Rewards
Graduate school is a highly stressful and demanding time. As such, students should take care to integrate break times into their daily lives. There is an established link between workday breaks and positive affect, suggesting that individuals who intersperse respite periods in their daily schedule experience more positive emotional well-being (Trougakos, Beal, Green, & Weiss, 2008).
Slotting certain “off times” from school work is one way in which graduate students can maintain a balance between their work- and home-life roles. Building downtime into our schedules can allow us to enjoy time with our friends and family, work on our personal hobbies, and recharge. For example, some students choose a time in the evening when they will stop working on any research or class activities. During this time, they refrain from checking university e-mail, creating class lectures, perusing articles for class, and browsing Google Scholar. Sonnentag, Binnewies, and Mozja (2010) refer to this disengagement as psychological detachment, noting that it can buffer the negative effect of high work demands. Although it may take some time to get used to this approach, we believe that it will ultimately create a time period when graduate students can enjoy their own personal lives guilt-free.
One great way to stay motivated and relaxed is to make guilt-free breaks and socializing a reward for productivity. It is easy to get bogged down in a mile-long to-do list and suddenly find that you have spent a whole day at your desk without taking any time out for yourself. Instead, try taking this approach: The next time you are planning your workday or workweek, integrate a handful of rewards to keep yourself motivated as you progress through your work. When selecting your rewards, pick activities you enjoy and that are good for your physical and mental health. For example, tell yourself that for every hour you spend studying for an upcoming midterm, you will reward yourself with 15 minutes out with your friends. I (Kelsey) like to use this technique with pleasure reading. For every hour I spend on academic reading, I allow myself 15 minutes with that new sci-fi novel I have been dying to read. This is an excellent method for keeping you motivated. It also gives you justification to enjoy your free time without feeling guilty that your thesis data are sitting untouched on your desk for an hour or two.
Another approach that also involves creating boundaries between work and school is to select certain home locations that are off limits to article reading, research, and grading. These could be certain areas (e.g. dining table, bed, etc.) or entire rooms. For example, I (Aimee) maintain separate “reading nooks” for class reading and pleasure reading. Doing so allows me to get down to business with a highlighter and pen without the comfy chair and blanket that are usually present during my pleasure reading. Taking the idea of separation of work and play to the extreme, some students within our program will not do work from home. They complete graduate work solely from campus offices or coffee shops, allowing them a well-warranted sigh of relief when they walk in their homes for the evening. In the I-O world, we refer to this separation of work and home as segmentation (Rothbard, Phillips, & Dumas, 2005). Whatever the approach, we believe maintaining a healthy balance involves a bit of separation.
Make Physical and Social Health a Priority
The nature of graduate school makes it difficult for students to establish boundaries that distinguish their academic life from other life facets. Even the word “homework” indicates the expectation that academic demands will spill over into students’ home lives. However, it is critical that students give themselves the opportunity to focus on their physical and social health as well. As demonstrated by Sonnentag (2001), individuals experience greater well-being when they end their day with social, physical, or low-effort activities rather than work-related functions. Engaging in pleasurable activities at the end of every day may be a great remedy to recover from a stressful workday.
While in graduate school, it is easy to concentrate on strengthening our minds with the unintended effect of neglecting our bodies. There are many days when the only form of exercise our bodies experience is running to the computer lab. However, keeping our bodies active is an essential component of both mental and physical well-being. Taking a half hour to hit the university recreational center can be a great midday energizer and destressor.
On the social side of graduate school, if your graduate program is like ours, students spend a lot of time together, both in and out of class. Whether it is happy hours, game nights, or just running errands, we have a lot of interaction with one another. During these times, it is reasonable to discuss the one thing that brought us all together: graduate school. It is easy to spend a whole evening with other graduate students chatting about research articles, classes, or tales from the teaching front. However, we encourage you to try to avoid these topics. Instead, get to know each other. Graduate school brings together individuals from a variety of locales and cultures. Take advantage of the chance to learn each others’ backgrounds, hobbies, and future plans. It will enrich your current relationships and create bonds that are likely to last beyond completion of your degree. 
Get Immersed in Your Community
Sometimes being in graduate school can feel like living in a bubble. We see the same people every day at school. Often, these are also the people we select as roommates and the people with whom we share that Thursday evening happy hour. This continuous off-campus contact with our “work group” can make it difficult to wind down and allow ourselves to switch gears from the academic to the everyday. Convenience and solidarity may lead to frequenting the same places, socializing with the same people, and even eating the same foods day after day. This provides stability and camaraderie, but it can also keep us from leading a truly balanced life. One way to break out of this bubble is to get involved with your community. For students in our own program, this includes anything from getting involved in community service to taking an art class to joining a local running club. Although sometimes it is hard to believe, there is a world outside of graduate school, and it is full of interesting people and exciting experiences. A challenge we often see with this suggestion is that students may not feel committed to the community in which their graduate school is located, as they expect to re-locate after completing their degree. Thus, many question the value of building up networks and relationships that could only last a few years and not transfer. However, we believe that community involvement helps promote well-being and beneficial skills that can be transferred to a new environment. We encourage you to get involved and become active in your community.
Creating local ties can also have the unexpected benefit of helping with graduate school coursework and activities. For example, while volunteering at a local high school over the past 3 years, I (Aimee) have made connections with parents and administrators that have helped secure internships, research data, and speakers for our weekly Brown Bag series. In some situations, doing good can have both personal and academic benefits.
Another community-oriented technique for finding balance between work and life is to take advantage of local attractions. After all, it would be a shame to finish graduate school having only taken in the view of the psychology department. UA students do this by planning group outings such as going to the local art museum, attending concerts and sporting-events around the area, and occasionally taking in a comedy or theatrical show. These activities are great for getting your mind off of graduate work, but many students may avoid them due to expenses. Oftentimes, specials and group discounts can be found by keeping up with local newspapers and Web sites. One of the most beneficial pieces of advice we have received in graduate school is to be proactive and start reading the local paper. A more experienced student told me (Kelsey) this on my first visit to UA, and it has proved an invaluable method for finding local events that are fun and budget friendly. Web sites such as LivingSocial.com and Groupon.com provide additional ways to learn about new and affordable activities.
Graduate School and Beyond
Many readers will find it difficult to temporarily disengage from the demands of graduate school enough to maintain balance between their academic role and other roles necessary for living a full and healthy life outside of school. However, making a conscious effort to employ a few of the just-mentioned techniques should help to facilitate a balanced and healthy lifestyle. Eventually, integrating time for breaks and exercise into your busy schedule should become automatic and guiltless as you develop a solid routine for doing so.
We do not suggest that students neglect work-related responsibilities in order to spend more time in other roles. Rather, we suggest readers follow the recommendation of Greenhaus, Collins, and Shaw (2003) that each life role should be pursued with positive commitment. It is also important to remember that adopting such a mindset and developing a strategy for maintaining work–life balance is something that will serve you well long after you leave graduate school. Finding a balance between work and other life roles will be just as important when school is finished and it is time to start a career.
Our Next TIP-TOPics Column
The next edition of TIP-TOPics will be about money matters in graduate school. Finances can be tight as a graduate student, but there are ways to successfully navigate this challenging situation. We intend to survey graduate students from multiple departments about living expenses, sources of income, and tips for how to make the most of what is available. As an extension, we intend on asking our faculty for advice on how to navigate a successful financial offer postgraduation. As always, comments and ideas can be sent to our TIP-TOPics team at akrontiptopics@gmail.com.
Aimee King holds a BA in psychology from the University of Arkansas and a MA in industrial-organizational psychology from the University of Akron. She is currently a fourth-year student working towards her PhD in industrial-organizational psychology. Aimee works with Drs. Rosalie Hall and Paul Levy on research related to perceptions of politics and occupational stress.
Kelsey Herb received a BA in psychology from Willamette University in Oregon and a MA in industrial-organizational psychology from the University of Akron, where she is currently a third-year student working towards her PhD. Kelsey works with Dr. Paul Levy, and her research interests include feedback orientation and environment, performance management systems, and employee stress and well-being.
Fritz, C., Sonnentag, S., Spector, P. E., & McInroe, J. A. (2010). The weekend matters: Relationships between stress recovery and affective experiences. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 31, 1137–1162.
Greenhaus, J. H., Collins, K. M., & Shaw, J. D. (2003). The relation between work-family balance and quality of life. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 63, 510–531.
Rothbard, N. P., Phillips, K. W., & Dumas, T. L. (2005). Managing multiple roles: Work-family policies and individuals’ desires for segmentation. Organization Science, 16, 243–258. 
Sonnentag, S. (2001). Work, recovery activities, and individual well-being: A diary study. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 6, 196–210.
Sonnentag, S. Binnewies, C., & Mojza, E. J. (2010). Staying well and engaged when demands are high: The role of psychological detachment. Journal of Applied Psychology, 95(5), 965–976.
Trougakos, J. P., Beal, D. J., Green, S. G., & Weiss, H. M. (2008). Making the break count: An episodic examination of recovery activities, emotional experiences, and positive affective displays. Academy of Management Journal, 51(1), 131–146.