SASP – The Student Corner

Walking the tightrope: Achieving balance as graduate student

The author offers graduate students advice for getting the most from organizational and time management tools and software

By Jennifer M. Cooper and Kaleigh Bantum

Balancing the demands of being a graduate student with everything we have going on in our professional and personal lives is no easy feat. The face of graduate school and the “typical” graduate student is changing with new psychology doctorates, on average, finishing graduate school at age 32 (Siblo, 2012). We are dedicated students, but also spouses, partners, parents, friends and employees. The goal of balancing the demands of family and friends with jobs, research and publication activities, community service, leadership service, exercise and dare I say it - fun - is challenging at best. This issue is receiving more and more attention in our professional publications as well. “Dissertations vs. Diapers” published in the January 2012 issue of GradPsych highlighted the inherent challenges for many of being a female doctoral student during prime childrearing years and APA’s January 2012 issue of the Psychological Science Agenda also featured a great article on the importance of taking a break from graduate school for some. This attention has elevated the need for more concrete resources to help us manage our, at times, competing responsibilities. Some students are better at this than others, but, generally speaking, we all likely have more to learn about achieving balance in our lives as graduate students. We hope that by sharing some of what we have learned along the way we can help our fellow graduate students in keeping their feet firmly planted on the ground as we all work toward finding the optimal balance in life as a graduate student.

Your Two Best Friends: Organization and Time Management

When there is no shortage of deadlines and time is of the essence, the value of effective organization and time management skills are critical. Organization can be as simple as creating electronic folders for every semester/ quarter with subfolders for each class and naming your documents in a way that will help them to be easily located in the future. Good organization is intentional and purpose-driven; we are not just talking about decorative boxes in the corner of your office. For example, be sure to save copies of syllabi, which may be required for licensure as a professional psychologist or as part of a portfolio if graduating from a non-accredited training program. Creating a binder (that can be continually added to) with syllabi in chronological order may save one from pulling out hair five years down the road.

For those of us that have completed practicum and/or advanced practicum experiences, we know how much data it entails. But, in the words of a trusted mentor, “all data have a home” and practicum data is no exception. Organization of hourly logs, demographics of clients served, and assessments administered will be invaluable when the time comes to prepare for internships, postdocs, or first jobs. Summarizing time spent engaged in activities such as intervention, consultation, counseling and assessment and types of assessments administered will easily lend themselves to graphic representations that can help in marketing oneself as an experienced, competent professional in addition to being required when applying to internship sites through APPIC. For those of us yet to experience practicum, consider keeping up with logs and summary documents on a weekly or bi-weekly basis. Trust us, it is not fun to spend an entire day deciphering cryptic notes from a month or two ago to decide if it was an intervention or consultation case.

In the same vein, it is important to keep one’s curriculum vitae (CV) up-todate with professional development activities. One approach that we have found easy to keep up with is to update your CV each time you have a presentation/publication accepted or change jobs/volunteer positions. Updating a few sentences is easier than creating something from scratch when needed immediately (and how often does that happen?). Just think, next time you see a scholarship deadline that is in two days and requires a CV, you will be ahead of the game. If interested in going into academia in the future (especially in a tenure track position), it will also be beneficial to save several things from every convention/ conference where you present research. A final copy of presentations, a photocopy of the front page of the convention program and a photocopy of the page where your name is listed as a presenter may eventually take home in your dossier, so prepare now!

Now, let us switch gears to time management (which we will cover in more detail in the technology section below). Having solid time management skills will not only help as a graduate student, but as a school psychologist, a clinician, a professor and as a parent or significant other. As a graduate student, it is important to discuss your goals with your advisor(s), mentor(s), cohort and others you trust. After identifying goals, efforts should be made to develop a practical plan for activities that are important to your professional development. For example, if experience presenting at state, regional or national conventions is lacking, consider an initial goal of submitting a proposal to one or two major conventions to present research. Anxiety or fear of public speaking is not uncommon. If this is the case, consider a poster session where small-group discussions are more typical. Remember to work smarter, not harder. Are there students that have similar research interests that would be interested in collaborating on a presentation and sharing the workload? To borrow a great phrase from a colleague about the importance of teamwork and camaraderie in graduate school, students should be encouraged to “collaborate to graduate.”

Another goal may be to prepare for comprehensive exams or begin the process of writing a dissertation. In cases where the goal is large and may seem daunting, it can be helpful to break the larger goal into smaller, incremental goals. For example, the practice of engaging in daily writing for 10-15 minutes, as introduced in Write Your Dissertation in 15 Minutes a Day, can help to adopt a regular practice that fits into just about anyone’s lifestyle (Bolker, 1998). Starting or participating in a weekly writing group is another great way to carve out dedicated time to work on publication proposals while collaborating with peers. The common theme here is to develop a practical plan for activities that are important to you. You know yourself best; capitalize on that. Are you more productive in the mornings or the evenings? Do you need to carry a small journal around with you to jot down ideas as they come to you? Do you process information best verbally in a group or introspectively? Do you prefer to set goals a few years in advance or is your preference to let your goals and opportunities evolve organically? Can you work at home or are you more productive in another setting? There is no right or wrong answer to these questions; best practice is about knowing your own strengths and weaknesses, seeking resources and developing concrete steps to help you to exceed your potential! Bottom line: Find a system that works for you and stick to it!

Technology: Ensuring Benefits Outweigh Costs

There is no shortage of technological tools or freeware to help graduate students manage their busy schedules and efficiently engage in activities as early career professionals. Many free email accounts such as Gmail and Yahoo have calendar functions that allow individuals to share calendars with others, allow others access to schedule events on their calendars and to set up meetings with invitations. Cozi is another free application, which allows users to create and share multiple calendars that can sync with others’ calendars (perfect when coordinating child care or balancing multiple part-time work schedules). It can also be used to create online shopping lists, to-do lists and a family journal. Doodle is a free online tool that makes scheduling meetings a snitch. In less than a minute or two, users can create a link to send to members of a professional organization, a workgroup or classmates to find a mutually-agreed upon time for meetings. Skype and FreeConferenceCall. com are also great options for video or phone conferencing when collaborating on an article or presentation with a colleague or catching up with folks you met at NASP. Speaking of presentations, there are also great freeware statistical tools such as GPower and CutePDF writer to easily convert files into PDFs. This section would not be complete without a reminder about the importance of backing up files! I am sure we have all heard horror stories about people that have lost their dissertations because they did not back up their data. Dropbox is a free tool that stores photos, documents and videos online for immediate access on your computer. It is user-friendly, and when you invite friends, you get more storage (win-win).

Technology is great, but it can force us all to feel the need to be accessible 24/7, 365 days a year…if you let it. The trick is to reap the benefits of technology without falling prey to its insidiousness. For example, set pre-arranged times to read and respond to email messages in an appropriate timeframe without interrupting you throughout the day. One approach is to set one to two hours in the morning and one to two hours in the late afternoon/early evening to maximize efficiency and minimize distractions. The research on multi-tasking is conclusive; it does not help us to be more efficient (Glenn, 2010). As future school psychologists, let’s make an evidencebased decision to quit multi-tasking whenever possible.

Final Act

This article would not be complete without two final points. The first is what we fondly refer to as the “art of knowing when to say no.” As we experience success as a graduate student – be it as a graduate assistant (GA), an astute researcher or a graduate student leader in a state or national organization – we will be asked to participate in more and more. Since we cannot do it all, it is important for us to prioritize and decide which opportunities we can pass on. Word to the wise: this is a skill that is difficult for many of us overachievers and may require outside intervention in the form of advice from your advisor, mentor or family members until you become more comfortable. Take solace in the fact that there will always be opportunities; identifying the right opportunities for you is what becomes important. Finally, we would be irresponsible mental health practitioners if we did not stress the importance of physical activity and relaxation to combat stress. Research has shown that the link between mental health and exercise is pretty strong (Weir, 2011). So, next time you have a bad day, go for a run, walk your dogs, or play with your children outside. Chances are that paper will still be there when you get back, and you’ll feel better prepared to tackle it.

References

Bolker, J. (1998). Write your dissertation in fifteen minutes a day: A guide to starting, revising and finishing your doctoral thesis. New York, NY : Henry Holt and Company, LLC.

Glenn, D. (2010, February 28). Divided attention. The Chronicle Review(56).

Manes, R. (2012, January). Taking a break: How to transition out of and back into academic life. Psychological Science Agenda, 26(1).

Siblo, M. (2012, January). Dissertations vs. diapers. GradPsych, 10(1), 40-42.

Weir, K. (2011, December). The exercise effect. Monitor on Psychology, 42(11), 48-52.