Achieving School-Life Balance While Earning a Master’s

How to choose the right program, adopt key time-management techniques, and avoid burnout to maximize your school-life balance as a graduate student.

Do you find yourself questioning whether or not to pursue a graduate degree? Are you worried about how you will manage your time between school, work, and your other responsibilities?According to the National Library of Medicine, graduate students typically experience higher levels of stress and burnout than those in their undergrad years. Many also report feeling exhausted, anxious, worried, and in some cases, depressed, with all of the responsibilities on their plate that often include a full-time job or a family.

With all of that added pressure, you might be wondering if graduate school is worth it. Hang in there, because having a higher education pays off in the long run–literally. According to the BLS, the average increase in salary between a Bachelor’s Degree and a Master’s Degree is between 15-20%, though this can vary a bit depending on the degree type. But how do you hit that next level of success in career and pay if just getting your master’s degree seems like an insurmountable amount of work to juggle? Keep reading, because we’ve created this guide to help you manage your time, your assignments, and your sanity.

Questions to Consider When Choosing a Grad Program

It’s no surprise that as a grad student you may feel overwhelmed with responsibilities, struggling to balance your work and personal life with academics. Still, graduate school opens a lot of doors for you in your career.

So, the first step in creating balance between work, life, and school is choosing the right program for you–including considering whether an online program might be the best fit.

Ask yourself these questions:

Questions to Consider When Choosing a Grad Program

It’s important to choose a program that accommodates your lifestyle. Consider taking night classes or finding an online program that gives you the freedom to customize your schedule, particularly if you work and/or are raising a family.

Many schools, such as Northeastern University, offer an array of on-campus graduate programs, online programs, and hybrids with elements of both. Think through whether it’s best to be a full-time student to get through your program quickly or to study part-time to allow more time for work and family commitments. In addition to the above, ask yourself the following questions before you decide to apply to graduate school:

What will have to change in my life in order to fit this program into it?

Let’s be honest, graduate school is time consuming, academically challenging, and expensive. You’ll probably need to make a few personal adjustments to fit it in your life. Will you be able to continue working full time? If not, what unnecessary expenses can you cut back on in order to be able to cut your work hours? Or, if working full time is a must, what other activities will you have to cut in order to make time for school? Often, temporary adjustments will have to be made to your entire lifestyle to accommodate graduate school.

Can I handle the demands of the program while working and living my life?

Although it’s important to choose a program that fits your lifestyle, you’ll likely need to reprioritize. That means learning to say no, especially if you’re on a deadline.

Still, grad school doesn’t mean you should kill off your social life. Talk to your friends and family about your schedule, warning them that sometimes you may have to pass on invitations you’d normally jump at. If you do need to turn down an invite, make an alternate plan to spend time with that person when it works better for you, and keep that commitment.

Am I being realistic about this program or do I need to seek other options?

According to a Business Insider report, sometimes you can find other alternatives to further your education, options that cost less, take less time, and still help you gain specialized skills and stand out from the crowd.

For example, consider online courses that lead to a certificate. One such provider is edX, an online learning platform launched in 2012 with the goal of offering higher education to anyone willing to learn. You’ll find courses in everything from architecture to zoology. Another online course provider is Coursera, which partners with more than 275 universities and offers certain classes for free. After evaluating alternatives such as these, you’ll have a good idea of whether graduate school is right for you or if there’s another simpler, less expensive, and less time-consuming path.

How many hours per week will I need to study, and is that feasible for me?

The number of hours you spend studying depends on your schedule, the degree you’re pursuing, and the school or program. Most schools expect you to spend two to three hours a week per credit hour studying outside of class time. For many graduate programs, 9 credit hours is considered full-time, so that means an average of 18-27 additional hours per week of study time, plus time spent actually in class. Clearly, graduate school is almost full-time job if you take full-time classes.

To make sure you carve out enough study time, create a schedule that you can stick to. Build in a little wiggle room in case you need more time to complete an assignment or a project. During study time, learn to avoid distractions, which means putting down your phone, unplugging your video game, and getting away from social media. Additionally, if the hourly commitment is more time than you have, consider attending graduate school part-time instead.

What is the payoff of getting this degree? Will it be worth it?

Graduate school can get pricey, but there’s good news: You’re likely to get a higher paying job once you have that advanced degree.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), employees with a graduate degree have the highest earnings and the lowest unemployment rates.Plus, more employers than ever are requiring a master’s degree for higher level jobs. Last year, the BLS reported that workers with a master’s degree earned a weekly median income of $1,575, and those with a doctoral degree earned $1,909. In comparison, employees with a Bachelor’s degree earned $1,330. This adds up to about an extra $12,000 per year between a Bachelor’s and Master’s, and more room for career growth in the long run.

How will my relationships be impacted?

Having supportive relationships can benefit you on your journey through graduate school. Establishing a support network helps you maintain your sanity and provides a little relief from the added stress. Planning time with friends, partner, and loved ones regularly helps to keep your relationships front and center, even when you have less time to give. Maintaining open communication, not just about your schedule but also about your stress and struggles can help you feel better supported by your people during this challenging time. And, reminding yourself and your loved ones that this is temporary, also helps.

How can I manage grad school as a parent?

Being a parent and a graduate student can be overwhelming, but there are resources out there to help. Making sure you have a strong support system in place – people to help watch your kiddos when you need help or a partner who can take on more of the parenting load when you need to study, can help to lighten your mental load. Blocking your schedule out and including time to spend with your kids each day or week can help you keep a balance. Several schools, such as the University of Arizona, even have family study rooms and emergency daycare. Look around your community for organizations that offer resources and support to students who are also parents. Remembering that you cannot do this alone and knowing where you can get help with your kids when you need it is the most important piece of managing grad school with a family.

12 Tips for Finding Balance in Grad School

Striking a balance in your life takes practice. You must stay focused and stick to your schedule while also finding time for yourself and the important people in your life.

You’re probably considering graduate school because you want to build a better life for yourself and create a better version of you. But if you’re miserable in grad school, that will affect other parts of your life too, impacting your work performance, family life, social life, and other relationships. Consider these tips to help you stay happy, healthy, and fulfilled:

  1. Learn time-management skills and implement structure

    According to Princeton University’s The McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning, time management is actually a form of expressing your values and showing what’s most important to you. Schedule tasks you know you’ll realistically get to and commit to getting them done. Block out time to focus on one thing—research for the paper due next month or reading the next three chapters in your textbook. Set a reasonable amount of time and focus on that one thing. Don’t be tempted to hopscotch from one task to the next. In reality, each time you switch from task to task it takes time to get back into what you were doing first. That slows your progress and affects the quality of your work.

  2. Make your weekly to-do list in order of importance

    Schedule the most important tasks early in your day or week so you’re not stressing about when you’ll get to them. Each day, reassess your priorities and adjust the next day’s schedule to accommodate the changes. Reserve time for fun. You can’t always stay in work mode. Plan a hiking trip with family or friends, make a playdate for yourself and your children, or plan a fancy dinner—complete with dessert.

  3. Have the right stress-management tools in your toolbox and use them

    Try researching what resources your graduate school or program offers to help you manage stress. For example, many provide free or low-cost counseling sessions with professionals who can help you talk through your situation. If that’s not an option, make an appointment with Dr. Google to research the most effective ways to manage stress. Look up how to practice mindful meditation or join a yoga class. Sometimes stepping away from your studies to exercise your body helps your mind reset.

  4. Find ways to become more efficient at regular tasks

    Sometimes you don’t realize how much time you waste on something until you actually time yourself. Choose a task to time each week, whether it’s laundry, paying bills, grocery shopping, or cleaning. Once you see how much time you spend, consider time-saving measures you can take. Can you pay bills once a month instead of each week? Order groceries for pickup? Set a time limit for cleaning and stick to it (no getting distracted!)? Experiment with your schedule until you figure out what works best for you. Time management is one of the hardest things to master, but when you do, you’ll find it’s a life-saving skill.

  5. Find ways to simplify your life

    Life is already complicated. If you’re planning on applying to graduate school, then it’s about to get more complex. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, then think about the things you can cut out of your schedule. What activities are truly important to you and what could you take a break from? Are you able to adjust your work schedule, such as switching to part-time hours or working weekends?

    You can also simplify your thought process. You might consider getting rid of bad mental habits like self-pity or internal judgment. The challenge you’re taking on is a big one. No doubt you are your own worst critic, so be kind to yourself.

  6. Let go of perfection

    Nobody is perfect. Let that sink in for a bit. Remembering that perfection is nearly impossible and that you’re only human can take you a long way while in graduate school. Attempting perfection in graduate school–while also working and managing a social life and/or family–will only make your life, and stress level, worse. Do your best, and don’t let the little things get in the way of the larger picture.

  7. Make sure you have a solid support system

    Recruit your friends to help you stay on schedule. If you’re at a social gathering, ask them to support you when you leave early to get back to your studies. Consider organizing study groups with classmates who can help keep you focused. You might even be able to divide and conquer on some tasks, splitting up research and then sharing what you’ve learned.

    If you’re in a relationship, make sure your partner is on the same page as you. Have an open and honest conversation about the amount of time and money grad school will cost and come up with a plan on how to make sure the relationship doesn’t suffer.

  8. Maintain a healthy lifestyle for optimal energy levels.

    To keep your mind strong for graduate school, focus on nutrient-dense foods. Get exercise when you can and do mindfulness activities regularly to help you manage stress. Healthy diet and exercise can really go a long way to keeping going when your schedule is challenging in graduate school.

  9. Have a plan for dealing with overwhelm and burnout

    Although stress can lead to burnout, they are two completely different things. Stress is feeling over-engaged and having an extreme sense of urgency. This creates anxiety, which can take a physical toll on you. Burnout is having a sense of hopelessness, losing your motivation, and feeling disconnected from what you’re doing. Burnout can lead to depression.

    If you find yourself feeling overwhelmed or are concerned about burnout, try changing your routine. This switch can motivate you to keep going. Another option is to promise yourself a reward once you complete a task that’s causing you stress. For example, “Once I finish learning all the bones, I will treat myself to coffee at that new coffee shop.” If your situation is more serious, find a counselor to help you work through issues and develop coping strategies.

  10. Minimize time wasters

    If you get distracted easily, turn on “do not disturb” mode on your phone. Avoid scrolling through social media or YouTube. Share your study schedule with family and friends and request that they don’t disturb you during your study hours.

    You can also designate a study room in your home or find a place to study outside your home, such as a library or a coffee shop. Choose the location that helps you focus. The buzz of the coffee shop might serve as white noise to keep you on task. But if it’s too much distraction, try playing white noise at home or stream the sounds of rain, chirping crickets, or the ocean.

  11. Set goals and remember your “why.”

    If you focus too much on the outcome, you might end up disappointed if you don’t get the result you expected. Instead, focus on mastering the process. Set daily or weekly goals for yourself and focus on accomplishing those. That will take your attention away from the big goal of finishing graduate school and instead help you focus on writing a great paper, finishing a project early, or mastering a challenging topic. Those steps will then lead to your goal: a graduate degree.

  12. Review and reassess yourself

    You might think of graduate school as a job. And like any job, you can expect a review from your boss. In this case, review yourself. Take time every month or every few months to review your goals, your progress, your expectations, and your mental state. What positive habits have you stuck to? What bad habits are draining your time or energy? Be honest, and if you find something isn’t working, figure out the best way to adjust.

What to Do When You Hit a Wall

Imagine you’re sitting at your computer screen. You’ve been staring at your empty document for the last 10 minutes and haven’t typed a word. You know you’re in a time crunch to work on your class assignment, but your mind is drawing a blank.

If you’ve experienced writer’s block, then you’re probably familiar with this scenario. The thing is, though, you need to stick to your schedule to get your grad schoolwork done. What can you do when you hit a wall?

Take a Break

If you feel your brain isn’t functioning optimally, then step away. It’s important to stick to the schedule, but that’s why you also need to block out time for breaks. Take your dog to the park, go on a quick jog, or hit the gym. If you’re more artsy than athletic, take a break to paint or color, which can help boost creativity, sharpen your focus, and alleviate stress. Scheduling regular breaks can help alleviate intense stress before it gets too bad.

Talk to Someone

If you’re feeling stressed and overwhelmed, tap into your support network. Sometimes talking things out with a relative or friend helps. Talking to another grad student may also help. No one knows what you’re going through more than another grad student. Research if your graduate program or school offers free counseling to students. Many schools also provide online consultations or workshops that teach you how to manage stress.

Try Mindfulness or Meditation

According to the American Psychological Association, mindfulness meditation is “training your attention to achieve a mental state of calm concentration and positive emotions.”

Mindfulness has two main parts: attention and acceptance. Attention means focusing on the present and being aware of your body, your thoughts, and your feelings. Acceptance is observing why you have those feelings without judging yourself.

To help get you started, try searching for free guided meditations on YouTube. Netflix even has a series to help guide you through meditation. Don’t just try it once or twice; commit to doing mindfulness exercises at least a few days per week or even 5 minutes per day and see how you feel about the results.

Assess Your Schedule and Make Adjustments

Be honest with yourself and identify where you feel you’ve been wasting time. Buy a planner or calendar app and make a weekly to-do list. Prioritize your tasks and be sure to cross them off your list when you’re done. As you check off a task, you’ll relish the feeling of satisfaction and want to achieve it again.

For bigger projects, break them down into parts. Set daily or weekly goals and deadlines for yourself. Hold yourself accountable if you miss a deadline and reward yourself for completing your goals.

Move Your Body

Exercise can help you think, learn, and problem-solve. It can also improve memory and reduce anxiety or depression.According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, adults should get 150 minutes of moderately intense exercise each week–about 30 minutes a day, five days a week.

If hitting the gym feels monotonous, try hiking, kayaking, or skiing (depending on the season). Or you can blast some music and dance or grab a yoga mat and find a shady spot under a tree. And of course exercise is often more fun with a buddy, so invite a classmate to come along.

Get Help When You Need It

Sometimes talking to a relative or friend isn’t enough. If so, consider talking to a professional. Most graduate schools or online programs offer counseling to struggling students. You can also search for apps that offer virtual counseling sessions for a low price. Many organizations, either locally or nationally, offer workshops and free counseling as well.

Stay Positive

Keeping a positive outlook when you’re feeling overwhelmed and stressed can be difficult. That’s why it’s important to celebrate all your wins, even the little ones. If you reach your weekly goal, receive a decent grade on your assignment, or even just have a good day, find ways to celebrate and reward yourself for your effort. Don’t forget to share your wins with your family and friends so they can cheer you on.

Connect With Your People

Remember the saying, “It takes a village?” Well, that doesn’t just apply to parenting. The people who care about you most–whether it’s your parents, spouse, or best friend–all want to see you succeed, so keep them posted.

If you’re a parent, stop every once in a while to savor a moment with your child. Do something fun with your little one to help reset your mind. Time flies by and you can’t get it back, so enjoy where you are right now—even if you’re carrying a heavy load.

10 Helpful Resources for Creating Life Balance in Grad School

We all need a little help juggling the various aspects of our lives. If it gets to be too much, you might start to feel like you can’t manage alone. Here are 10 resources you can use to help yourself find balance.

1. Active Minds

This national nonprofit organization provides mental health resources to young adults, particularly college students. Active Minds has a presence at more than 800 campuses, schools, communities, and workplaces, according to the organization’s website. Find guides online on how to be more inclusive, manage stress, and practice self-care.

2. Association of Psychology Training Clinics

This website lists universities that offer low-cost counseling to students. You can receive counseling from other grad students in training under the supervision of a licensed psychologist. The clinics charge clients based on a sliding scale, which takes a person’s income and family size into consideration.

3. Evernote

If you’re having trouble keeping track of your notes, this app is a must. You can keep your notes all in one place and have the app sync them onto all your devices. It also includes a planner and an audio recorder–for that one professor who speaks at a million miles a minute and never takes a breath.

4. Headspace

This meditation app is designed to help you learn mindfulness. It offers individuals–from beginners to more experienced users–a wide range of meditation techniques that can help reduce stress, teach you to control your anxiety, and improve your attention span. The app is $12.99 per month or $69.99 per year.

5. Online Intergroup of Alcoholics Anonymous

This online organization offers participants access to both video and phone conferences, chat rooms, and message boards. If you find yourself turning to substances to cope with stress, anxiety, or depression, then participating in these online meetings may help. You might also find solace in connecting with others who can relate to your struggles.

6. The Pregnant Scholar

For grad students who are also parents, this resource may be invaluable when facing struggles like losing your university housing, your university-provided health insurance coverage, or your fellowship. The organization also operates a free student helpline for pregnant and parenting students who want to learn more about their rights.

7. Sanvello

This app helps you track your moods and offers tips on how to make yourself feel better–whether that’s meditating, analyzing your thought process, or setting goals for yourself. You can also connect with online counselors or other app users.

8. Take Action for Mental Health

This campaign is part of a mental health movement in California. The campaign’s website provides various online guides that help you recognize signs of depression, which can lead to suicide. Campaign organizers also hold a film contest to help educate students and young adults on suicide prevention.

9. YMCA

This national nonprofit organization offers low-cost mental health counseling for individuals in various locations. According to its website, the YMCA offers teletherapy through video conferences. You can also find support groups, where you can meet people you can relate to and share experiences with.

10. 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline

Formally known as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, this network of local crisis centers provides callers in distress with free and confidential 24/7 support. If you ever feel the need to call 988, you’ll be connected with someone who will listen to you, provide you with support, and get you the help you need.

Interview with a Grad School Advisor

KatieSullivan

Katie Sullivan has a doctorate in organizational communication and is an associate professor and the director of graduate studies in the Department of Communication at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs (UCCS). Her scholarship centers on diversity and inclusion, branding, and social media well-being. In addition to teaching and doing research, Sullivan is certified in yoga, social emotional well-being, and Koru Mindfulness, which is designed especially for young adults. She teaches mindfulness meditation classes for graduate students seeking stress relief, more work and life balance, and greater well-being.

Q. How did you get into teaching Koru Mindfulness to graduate students at UCCS?

A: I am very familiar with graduate school and what it’s like. It can be an extremely stressful time in life. It’s also one of those times that’s full of growth and opportunity.

Many of us go to graduate school when we’re a little bit older. We’re trying to balance a job and our families or we’re trying to figure out what we’re going to do with the rest of our lives. All these things can add to stress, pressure, and burnout if we’re not taking care of ourselves.

I’ve been working in and teaching higher education for 20 years. In that time period, you see a lot of changes in education. When I first started teaching, people didn’t have personal cellphones. You can imagine how different our lives were. Today of course, unless we carve out time and find a place without distraction, we could be constantly engaged with something, multi-tasking or looking at different screens at the same time.

I’ve also been practicing mindfulness in some form for 20 years–whether it’s yoga, meditation, or other forms of mind and body awareness. I decided years ago to bring those two topics together– teaching and mindfulness.

I teach classes in social media management, and one thing I noticed when we’re working in media is that we’re creating opportunities for a fun and exciting career. There’s a lot of change, there’s a lot of engagement with other people, and there’s a lot of creativity involved.

But anyone who spends time on the Internet also knows that there’s negativity, pressure, and misunderstanding. It’s not the easiest place to have a real conversation.

So people working in social media are having to deal with angry customers or rude people. I started to think about what I could do as a professor to help people find well-being, calm, and balance with themselves, even when they’re dealing with a stressful job.

That led me to get certified in a program called Koru Mindfulness. It’s a meditation program designed specifically for college-age adults.

Q. What advice do you have for graduate students who are trying to reach a balance between their work or personal lives with their academics?

It’s hard to balance work and home when you’re in graduate school. The things I get to teach and do with students is talk about mindfulness and mindfulness concepts–like how we can use our breath to create space and calm in our bodies and how we can use breath to energize ourselves.

How can we learn to meditate so we can recognize the rushing thoughts or anxiety going through our heads? We’re all so busy most of the time that we don’t stop or pause to pay attention to our thoughts.

Mindfulness and meditation are one way to stop and pause and give ourselves that space to say, “I’m a full human being, and I want better self-awareness. What’s going on with me and how am I doing right now?”

Once we discover how we’re doing, we can work with feelings or thoughts that may be difficult or challenging so that we create more peace in our lives, more ease, sleep better, and have less stress. There’s nothing magical about meditation, but it is incredibly powerful to give ourselves those pauses or that space to say, “I understand what’s going on with me right now, and I can have some awareness or control over this.”

Our feelings have a direct impact on our communication. If we’re not aware of our feelings, we can go through our life communicating in really ineffective ways.

Q. What advice would you give students on how to communicate with their loved ones?

I think what your question touches on is, “How do we communicate about ourselves in ways that get our needs met?” One of the first steps is, again, self-awareness–understanding what is going on for us so that we can ask for what we need. It’s best to use “I” language: “I’m feeling really stressed out this week because I have three projects coming up. I’m wondering if I could get a little extra help at home with the kids or the household responsibilities.”

Or you can communicate to a faculty member to say, “I really want to show up for this group project; I’m having a really difficult mental health day. I’m having a hard time getting started today. Is it possible to get a small extension, and I’ll work with my team members to make sure they know that I’ll jump back into it tomorrow?”

So much of it is that piece where we recognize how we’re doing and the context that allows us to say what we need.

Universities are beginning to talk more about mental health and student services for well-being. We are in a time and place where we see students as whole beings, rather than just one facet of their identity, which might be “graduate student.” We understand that these are people, and people go through things. As a university system, we need to find ways to support people in all the things they’re going through.

Individuals themselves can also show a little more self-love and compassion. Students are particularly hard on themselves. A lot of people go to graduate school because they’re really good at what they do or they’re really smart or they have a real passion about something. So they may be more unlikely to accept anything less than perfection.

Q. From your experience, is it common for graduate students to experience feelings of being overwhelmed, stressed, or even depressed? If so, how can they get themselves out of that state of mind so that their academics don't suffer?

I wouldn’t say that I necessarily see it all the time, and I am not a mental health professional. What I can say is that this is a very timely and important national discourse. Universities across the country are talking about this. They understand that student mental health crises are real. A lot of people who are working in mental health and higher education fields have said there’s been a change. Students are reporting more anxiety and depression than they have in past years. There’s enough evidence from people who work in this area to say things seem different for students. They’re suffering from anxiety, depression, or all of these insecurities they may face personally, and it’s causing stress. This is a trend, and it’s really important that we pay attention to it and try and solve it.

Q. From your experience, do most students find that completing graduate school is worth the effort?

The people that I am in contact with are very happy they went through their degree programs. They got better jobs or got promotions in the work they were already in and love. They became better and more effective communicators themselves–which has positive effects, not only professionally but also personally. If we’re effective communicators, we divert that skill into all of our life’s facets. I think this is something that’s across the board, but obviously I’m working with people in the communication field. Graduate school is a wonderful way to achieve excellence in a discipline and to get a really good job. It can make a big difference.

I think it’s really important for everyone to ask themselves why they’re going to graduate school and if this is the right time. So, one of the things I do when I counsel people who are applying for our program is I try to be very realistic about what it takes. If someone is already working three jobs or they may have family obligations or maybe they’re not feeling their best and they’re going through a health issue, I would never dissuade them. Everyone gets to show up and say what they’re up for, but I do try to be realistic.

If they can’t fit graduate school in their lives, we’re not going anywhere. Grad school will still be here. If not now, maybe next semester or next year. I think people who find a time that works for them have a better outcome.

Q. Are there many graduate students who are also parents? What advice would you give a parent if they're thinking about applying to graduate school?

A lot of our grad students have children at various ages. Some people have babies; some people have teenagers; and some people have grown kids. Certainly, we have people who go for their master’s degree straight from undergrad and maybe they’re about 22 or 23 years old. But that isn’t always the case. It’s equally common to see people work for 10 or 15 years who apply for graduate school. We have people who have worked for 20 years when they decide to come back and get their master’s degree.

The advice I would give people is to ask the admission directors, “What is this program like for a parent? How many parents do you have in your program?”

Just be really, really forthright. Ask them how their program provides flexibility for people at different avenues in their lives. For instance, our program went entirely online. Part of the reason we did that is because our students kept saying, “It’s really hard for me to drive to campus after a long day of work. I would like to do my schoolwork when I can during the week.”

So, we listened to that and made a change. We recognize that people can balance their lives better and have more flexibility with the program we set up.