So my name is Ashley, I blog at Writing To Reach You, and I am currently working on a PhD in theology. I met Alex on the internet, and we have spent the last couple years bonding over the soul-sucking nature of grad school and trying to offer each other encouragement. Alex is interested in whether balance is possible for grad students, and I am here to share my experience.
I finished coursework last year and am currently in a far more relaxed and self-directed part of my program where balance is a real possibility, but it was a bumpy road getting here. Grad school has a way of being all-consuming, which makes it easy to sacrifice large parts of your life just for success in school. My life has more than once become so unbalanced that the only way I could continue was to get things back on track.
The first thing to go was my health. Eating well is something I have always struggled with, and I had just moved away from home, so this was the first time in my life I had ever been completely responsible for all of my meals. Stress makes me lose my appetite, and late in my first year of grad school, I was extremely stressed. I struggled to eat well and eat enough, but that’s really difficult when you don’t have an appetite. I felt nauseated a lot of the time, and then I started getting dizzy. Not light dizziness, but a feeling like the entire room was spinning. I remember sitting in class trying to focus on a lecture while feeling so dizzy that I thought I was going to fall out of my chair. I left that class early and decided that something had to change. I created space in my days for real meals, and let myself eat whatever I wanted, regardless of cost or calories. Once I felt better, I reintroduced moderation and started exercising again.
The second thing to go was my finances. This actually began the minute I started grad school, but I ignored it until it was a problem too big to hide from. It took me two years to realize this wasn’t a temporary debt problem. My debt had humble beginnings. I thought I could afford what wasn’t covered by scholarships and student loans, but I had underestimated my living expenses (having never lived on my own before) and finally I was so far in credit card debt that I wasn’t just avoiding the problem, I was actively making stupid decisions to bury myself further in debt. It came to a point where I was either going to have to quit school or figure out how to work a full time job while remaining in school. I did the latter, and after working 15 hour days, six days a week for the better part of two years, I paid off all of my credit card debt and could finally breathe again.
The third thing to go was my emotional well-being. I’m a person with a lot of feelings, so I would describe my entire grad school career as emotional, but in the years where I was in PhD coursework and working 55 hours a week to pay off my debt, I was so busy that I didn’t have enough time to deal with my feelings and it started to show. In one year, I had three out-of-character mini-breakdowns. Crying on the floor episodes that took a day to recover from. My work was unaffected, but I didn’t feel at all like my normal self. And that, more than anything, was why when I had finally paid off my debt, I quit one of my jobs and slowed down. It was a difficult decision, because I felt like a total bad ass being able to do so much and do it well, but I knew that I was ignoring parts of my life just to prove how hard I could work, and having accomplished my goal, it was time to make a change.
When your life for five years has been defined by success in school, constant stress, and an impossible-seeming workload, you feel a little bit lost when things are suddenly quiet. And that was when I became grateful for the parts of my life that I never sacrificed for grad school. They made the adjustment easier.
When I was working on my MA, my life started to feel very small. Everything was about grad school, and I felt like I had lost touch with my other interests. So I started a blog. And this crazy thing happened as a result: I made friends. About the same time, I started writing fiction again, and I wrote a novel. Through all of this, I remained a dedicated journaler and made sure that every week involved enough alone time to keep me a sane introvert. I listened to music and enjoyed wine and kept in constant contact with people who make me laugh. These things kept me happy along the way, and kept me from falling apart when I was suddenly not too busy to deal with the parts of my life I’d been avoiding. Because as hard as it is to be a busy grad student, it’s the perfect excuse not to deal with some of the more difficult parts of life, but that stuff doesn’t go anywhere. It just waits for you until you slow down.
I look back at mistakes I have made as a grad student and think, “how could I have been so stupid?” They all still feel so real and immediate that it’s difficult to say that I have no regrets. But I know that I wouldn’t be this person if I hadn’t gone through those struggles, and I feel like a better and smarter and stronger person not just for what I learned in the classroom. My attitude to grad school has changed a lot over the last six years, but I didn’t just make the decision to come here. I have also made the decision to stay a million times.
So as for the question of whether balance is possible for a grad student? Maybe. But you might have to earn it with mistakes, and you will probably have to fight to keep it. It’s enough for me to know that every time my life got too extreme, I eventually found my way back to center. I’m probably not done doing that yet.