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June SPSPotlight: When Work-Life Balance is Work-Work Balance

When Work-Life Balance is Work-Work Balance

By Sara Andrews, GSC Vice President

Work-life balance. We want it, we need it, we fail miserably at achieving it. Equal parts laudable goal and fleeting illusion, the term can evoke a range of emotions in anyone who considers a multidimensional existence.

Advice for finding this balance often seems best suited to helping people decide which leisurely weekend activity will most rejuvenate them for the work week (hmm…gardening or MMA?) and it is offered in tidy lists of abstract suggestions that are nearly impossible to implement in day-to-day life. For example, what does it look like to “put family first” in the course of a day, summer, school year, or life?

As much as I enjoy lists, leisurely weekends, gardening, and MMA, most advice falls short when it comes to navigating the complexities of life as a graduate student, particularly when “life happens” and we encounter obligations and challenges above and beyond those enjoyed in pursuit of an advanced degree. Even graduate students become parents, caregivers, and patients, and there is little support for people with limited time, money, and energy who find themselves filling more than one demanding role.

So what happens when work-life balance looks more like work-work balance?

As I write this feature, my nine-month-old son is taking a much-needed nap while my husband sleeps in for his birthday. I am drinking cold – not cold-brewed, just cold – coffee and pounding out my thoughts at warp speed because I don’t know when the little one will need me. Having recently discovered that he is a being separate from my own, my baby is as delighted to crawl and fall toward danger as he is dismayed to be left in the relative safety of his pack ’n’ play so I can briefly turn my attention toward that moment’s most pressing wildfire. In addition to teething and working on a cold, this small human feels compelled to practice walking and talking at all hours of the night and day, which has left me with a cumulative 10 hours of broken sleep in the past 48. I did my research on what to expect as a new mother but, like so many things in life, there is nothing quite like the experience of living it 24 hours a day.

Graduate student demographics typically provide basic information about race and ethnicity, age, and gender, but few details about relationship, parental, or socioeconomic status, and virtually no information about non-academic goals, obligations outside of the lab, or how many students juggle multiple roles that on their own are enough to constitute a full and exhausting life. There are few outlets for people to talk publicly and honestly about these challenges and professional norms do not often encourage such disclosures.

Unfortunately, I don’t have an answer to the question I posed (or, alas, even a list to share).

What I can offer is a conversation.

What challenges are you facing? What personal changes or resources have helped you find something that feels like balance in your day-to-day life?

I’m writing this from the perspective of a new mom and seasoned graduate student, but we can start conversations on a variety of topics to share information, suggestions, ideas, and experiences. If you are interested in seeing a discussion on a particular topic that you’d rather not start, contact me at and I’ll start it for you.

Check out SPSP Connect! Communities for new graduate student groups related to work-life balance, parenting, health and well-being, and relationships, and feel free to start your own. We are a group of bright and resourceful people with a lot of information and experience to share. Let’s create the communities we need.

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