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You Can Sleep When You’re Dead: Keeping the School/Life Balance

I sometimes think of my graduate program at George Washington University as a rite of passage. It helps keep me motivated through those 12 hour days in the library, when I worry that I’m wasting the prime years of my life cooped-up in books.

I remember what my political science professor said on our first day of class: “If you’re a graduate student, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be reading all the time.” He was talking about the trials of graduate study and his personal approach to teaching. Of course, last week he appropriately assigned 553 pages on the comparative historical analysis of revolutionary change.

I think a lot of professors share that mindset though. I met last April with my former Russian literature professor, who gave similar advice that, as a young man at this point in my life, I should be working my fingers to the bone. His exact words: “Now’s the time to be like Stoltz!” – a particularly industrious, and awesome, character from Ivan Goncharov’s Oblomov.

These days, I try to keep those sentiments close to heart. I remember that most of my friends are either in graduate programs or have recently completed them, and that everyone has offered similar assessments of their experiences (med school, law school, dental school, PhD programs, all alike). Not that any of them didn’t want to be there, but that adjusting to the new course load can be a tough task.

I’m finding the adjustment particularly noticeable because I’m pursuing my MA at the same university where I completed my undergraduate degree. Managing coursework, clubs, research, exercise, and social and personal life was never an issue back then. I kept up all of those things and still could waste hours a day in front of the TV or on the internet.

Graduate school is different because keeping the balance is actually a challenge. I’ve never before been asked to average 1000 pages a week, on top of written assignments, presentations, and independent research, before taking the rest of my life and interests into account. At the same time, I have to count myself lucky compared to others, like my friend who recently completed his MA in history at Georgetown University and was regularly assigned over 2000 pages a week for class, or my old roommate who works 70 to 80 hours a week for his medical residency.

Last summer, I visited another former classmate who recently completed her Master’s degree in public policy, and we talked through a lot of these same issues. I admired her for keeping a good balance between coursework, work, and social life. She never griped about anything, because she acknowledged that going back to school is a choice, and being accepted to a good school is something like an honor, so she worked her butt off and did what it took to pass muster and still keep herself well-rounded.

So on keeping balance and keeping active, in the end, I’m reminded of another expression that my college roommate used to toss around: “We’ll have plenty of time to sleep when we’re dead.” I realize that for my situation, and for most graduate students, that’s what it takes to keep a school life and a life outside of school.