Degree In Sight

As a first-year psychology doctoral student, David Miller had no place to escape: Psychology books were scattered across his apartment and papers were piled on the sofa, bedroom floor and dresser. Everywhere he looked there were reminders of old assignments and the deadlines ticking away on new ones.

His 700-square-foot apartment had been overrun by his schoolwork, leaving only a trail to navigate the towering stacks.

"I did not want to live the next five years like this," he recalls. So he bought filing cabinets and sorted out papers, articles and research by class and topic-just one of the steps he took to keep his schoolwork more separate from his home life. Now in his third year at the University of Oregon, Miller has stayed organized and taken additional steps to better manage his load.

He relies on his nationwide network of family and friends and squeezes in visits to them to get away every once in awhile. He also hikes and watches sports to relax and take a break from his school life.

However, in the midst of comprehensive exams, coursework, writing the dissertation and juggling family life and jobs, many students may find it difficult to squeeze in such "me time."

Indeed, research shows that psychology graduate students are more stressed than faculty or practitioners and, simultaneously, have less money, security, power and social support, says psychologist John Norcross, PhD, who studies psychologists' self-care. No wonder, he says, students feel so overwhelmed in finding a healthy balance between graduate school and their personal lives.

But experts and former students say there is hope: They say that keeping a balance requires skillfully managing your time, knowing when to say "no," finding a supportive peer group and making time for family and yourself.

Manage your time

So how can you manage your time-or lack of it-wisely? Students and experts offer the following tips:

  • Prioritize. Ask faculty members and supervisors to help you set academic priorities-find out from them what classes or activities would most benefit your career, suggests Tanya Snicer, PhD, who graduated in 2004 from Queen's University in Ontario.

"If something else demanded 50 percent of my time, but was only a 5 percent priority-such as a committee that takes 10 hours a week-then it did not justify the time," she explains.

  • Write it down. Make to-do lists every morning and then do the most important item first-leaving yourself no time to procrastinate later on, recommends Norcross, a psychology professor at the University of Scranton in Scranton, Pa.

Break the work into pieces by setting small goals. For example, break a big research paper into several steps and give yourself a due date for each task, experts advise.

Focus. Tiffany Griffin-a first-year social psychology doctoral student at the University of Michigan-cut her daily study and coursework time from 12 hours to six by better concentrating on the tasks at hand. She boosted her efficiency by adding a six-minute break for every hour she studied and varying her study session locations.

  • Study socially. Griffin uses two types of study sessions: one where she studies alone and another where she studies with a friend or classmate at a coffeehouse. The mix, she says, prevents her from burnout and feeling isolated.

  • Keep regular hours. Treat school as a 9-to-5 job, advises Jan Kang, a fourth-year social psychology doctoral student at Columbia University. She arrives and leaves the university at the same time every day.

  • Breathe. Use meditation and deep breathing exercises to relax-even just for five minutes between classes or while studying, recommends Angela Zapata, a second-year doctoral student at Arizona State University.

"It helps me to see things from a clearer perspective," she says, adding that she is then able to refocus on the task at hand with fresher eyes.

Prioritize family matters

Managing time is what helps mother and fourth-year psychology student Suzanne Little keep her eye on the finish line of her doctoral degree. She has 2-year-old triplets and 6-, 4- and 1-year-olds. With six kids, how does she do it?

"You have to learn how to balance and not become too involved in your personal life that you neglect your schoolwork," or vice versa, says Little, an educational psychology doctoral student on internship at the Regional Multidisciplinary Evaluation and Counseling Center at Florida State University.

To do that, she keeps her children on a set schedule for bedtimes and meals so, in turn, she can keep one too. She also has banned her children from her home office so she can spread out her dissertation paperwork.

"Psychologically, this is my work space, and I'm then able to keep paperwork out of the hands that it doesn't belong," she says (see A family affair for more on parenting).

Karen Cone-Uemura-a counseling psychology doctoral candidate at the University of Utah-balances finding time for her spouse and two young children with a full-time course schedule. At times, she admits, she's had to sacrifice attending psychology conferences, presenting or gaining more publication credits to spend time with her family. But, she prioritizes what will most benefit her career and focuses on that, and occasionally takes her friends up on offers to watch her children so she can squeeze in more time for her spouse and schoolwork.

"I try and stay mindful and aware of my stresses so as to normalize their effects," Cone-Uemura says. After all, "who wants a grouchy mom, partner or therapist?"

Besides balancing children and marriage, students may have other family matters arise-such as helping aging parents, caring for sick family members or facing a divorce. To manage, experts suggest considering a lighter course load for a semester or two or taking on a less active role in committees or organizations. You can also take advantage of the school-year schedule to fit in family time.

Newlywed Zoila G. Tovar-Gamero, a third-year doctoral student at Arizona State University, did so to plan her wedding. She used breaks from school to book wedding vendors. And she chose a wedding date of Jan. 15 so she would have a break between semesters to recuperate from the previous semester and finish any last-minute wedding details.

"We might not be going on the weeklong honeymoon to Hawaii that we planned on since the semester starts Jan. 18, yet this was the best option for us," she says.

Find friends

"Helping relationships" with family, friends or professionals emerge as the single most useful self-care strategy, according to Norcross's research. Norcross says students can find support almost anywhere-from peers to study groups to advanced students to therapy.

Shamin Jaffer, a fifth-year doctoral student on internship at the University of Medicine and Dentistry in New Jersey, tapped one of her psychology professors as a mentor as well as family and friends for support.

"I had people who would regularly check in on me and were invested in me succeeding as an ethnic-minority graduate student," Jaffer says. "They kept track of me, and would help me to balance my time and normalize things when I got too busy."

For example, her mentor helped solidify her career goals to work on cultural competency issues, gain confidence to work on ethnic-minority organizations and align with other ethnic-minority students for support.

As for Griffin, she made a conscious effort to make friends with her classmates so they could build a support network.

"The truth is we can probably make it by ourselves, but why should we?" she asks.

In fact, Kang studies social support with a research team-led by psychologist Marci Gleason, PhD-that has found it's often better to provide social support than receive it. She and her research team have found that people who give and receive support have more positive and less negative moods. Plus, they found that even people who give support that's not reciprocated still have a decrease in negative mood.


Set aside 'me time'

Jennifer Doucet, a second-year clinical psychology doctoral student at the University of Rhode Island, devotes an hour to herself each day, such as by working out, talking to friends, taking a long bath or watching a movie.

"Whatever the activity is, I make sure that it is solely for me and not related to school or work," Doucet says. "It may seem like a lot, especially if you are worried about a case presentation or having trouble with statistics for your thesis. However, an hour a day is a drop in the bucket. The world will not stop spinning on its axis."

If anything, she has found that hour helps her better manage her time, allows her to think more clearly about tasks and gives her more energy for her coursework.

Doucet says she had to hit "rock bottom" before she realized she had too many items competing for her time-juggling two to four jobs at a time and a full course load. The cost? Her grades and health were suffering from lack of sleep and unhealthy eating.

She did a 180, making self-care a priority in her life. She sets weekly schedules, prioritizes and gives herself time to relax.

"Since I've become more selfish and more aware of the effects of stress and lack of sleep," she says, "I've been able to make a better schedule for myself and stick to it."


"Since I've become more...aware of the effects of stress and lack of sleep, I've been able to make a better schedule for myself and stick to it."

Jennifer Doucet
University of Rhode Island