As children's author Dr. Seuss once wrote, "Life's a great balancing act." From raising kids to assisting aging parents to maintaining a marriage, many graduate psychology students juggle more than just coursework, research, student teaching and internship. gradPSYCH asked students and seasoned psychologists to share advice and best practices on maintaining balance in their professional and personal lives.
"Take care to take care. We are of no help to those who seek our guidance if we are not well ourselves. I have learned that your family will be with you much longer than any supervisor or professor. I took a year off between schoolwork and internship to put my family's needs first. While my graduation is delayed by one year, the dividends of family time and balance have been invaluable."
Sixth-year clinical psychology graduate student, Chestnut Hill College, mother of two teenagers, and interpreter for the hearing-impaired
"Make realistic expectations for yourself. Reduce standards for cleaning the house, give gifts in bags instead of in gift-wrap and pick up cookies at the bakery instead of baking them. Learn how to say no, to prioritize, to make to-do lists and—above all—to take time for you."
Diane F. Halpern, PhD
APA past-president and psychology professor, Claremont McKenna College's Berger Institute for Work, Family and Children
"I make sure to include my husband in all the decisions I make on graduate school. It provides respect on both ends and creates less strain. When my nieces were born, I asked my faculty mentor for time off. I made sure to spend quality time with my family without worrying about what responsibilities I was leaving behind at school. When my grandparents died, I allowed myself time to grieve. I found talking with loved ones and friends, journaling and exercising to be helpful. I view graduate school as a journey and I want to make sure that I honor all of the joys and sorrows that come along with that process."
Fifth-year counseling psychology graduate student, Ohio State University
"I start working on an assignment the minute I get it. I never know if I'll have to take care of my child because she could be sick. Other students say they are going to work on something the day before it's due. That doesn't work if you have a family and are the sole provider for that child."
Graduate of the psychology master's program, American International College in Springfield, Mass., and single mother of a 4-year-old daughter
"It's so important to communicate with professors. I missed one class twice while caring for my child, who was ill, and I risked having my grade reduced. But I talked to the professor, explained the situation and offered to do extra work. It took a while, but I realized I needed to let the faculty know what was going on in my personal life."
Kari Neubauer Potthoff
Second-year school psychology graduate student, University of Northern Colorado, and mother of a 4-year-old boy
"Students should be proactive and advocate for their programs to address self-care issues in program policies and practices that create a nurturing environment for students. It's the best way to reduce the shame-and-blame situation that occurs in some programs that, for example, blame or punish students for missing classes when a family responsibility must be dealt with. We know enough in this field to know that the environment makes a huge difference in how we handle stress. Combating stress and promoting self-care must be addressed at a program level."
Nancy Elman, PhD
Psychology professor, University of Pittsburgh, and past-chair of APA's Advisory Committee on Colleague Assistance
"When we write a schedule, our minds are on our work and we forget the rest of life. To avoid this problem, create a work schedule that includes all the things you have to do—your job, school and so on. Then create your personal schedule, one that includes all the things you do for yourself and those close to you. Then compare your two schedules. Often you may have to make some compromises in both."
Jonathan C. Smith, PhD
Psychology professor and director of the Roosevelt University Stress Institute in Chicago
"When I decided to go back to school, I included my husband and children on the decision. We had a lot of family meetings, and without hesitation they said to go for it. The family has been willing to make sacrifices, and having them behind me has gotten me through the process.
"I was also the primary caregiver for my parents while going to graduate school. I wrote my dissertation proposal while my father was in hospice, and he died four days after I defended it. Having to juggle school, parents and children, I learned how to ask friends for help—such as picking up kids from school—and not feel bad about it. I just knew I would do the same for them. People are honest—I trust that if they can't help you, they tell you."
Fifth-year clinical psychology graduate student, University of Tennessee, and mother of five teenage children
"Explain to children that the time you are spending away from them is important because it will benefit them in the future. Explain the importance of your work, and your children will have a better understanding of the importance of education. I know my son does—he is eight and already can't wait to get to college. Also, do not ever apologize to anyone for having a family and wanting to spend time with them."
Fourth-year counseling psychology graduate student, University of Southern Mississippi
"My boyfriend [in medical school in New York City] and I have been together for six years, but long distance for five of them. In maintaining a long-distance relationship, clear communication is really important, whether via telephone or with actual visits. My boyfriend and I visit once every two months, on average, and talk almost every day. It's hard to really understand what they are going through without constant communication.
"I also try often to consider the positives aspects of being in a long-distance relationship. I've been able to concentrate on work and find support from friends I've made that I probably wouldn't have had my boyfriend been here. And we've both become pretty independent people, which I think will only benefit us in the future."
Fourth-year developmental psychology graduate student, University of Michigan
"There was time before graduate school and there will be a time after it. So my advice is: Don't panic. I take two classes a semester instead of the full load of three because I want to take my kids to swim practice, to have those 10-minute drives where I can find out about their day and the things that make up the fabric of their lives. Because I'm able to take it at my own pace and have a family life, graduate school is more enjoyable. I will look back at this as one of best times of my life."
Second-year clinical psychology graduate student, Eastern Michigan University, and mother of two