Faith & Spirituality Family or Marriage General

Managing Work, Life and School for Graduate Students

It’s another month, and another group writing project for the Personal Finance Network. Our last project was a Summer Fun Guide, and my contribution was “Frugal Fun Ideas for Kids (of all ages)“.

This month, the topic is Back to School, given that most students will be heading back in the next week or two. For me, I have a few weeks off until my fall semester class begins, and I hope to take advantage of the time to get some home projects done (i.e. more retaining walls).

And that lack of time during school is why I’m writing this. I want to talk to you about work/life/school balance for graduate students. And to be specific, I’m talking about students who work for full-time pay or are full-time parents.

Get Your Graduate Degree When You’re Young and Single

I think without a doubt that everyone would agree that the best time to get a graduate degree is when you’re young and single. “Single” means not married, but I would agree that some dating relationships are just like marriage. However, in the end, you only have to legally look out for yourself, including your own schedule, finances and happiness.

I don’t want to stereotype singles as people with unlimited time on their hands or people with no major commitments, but when you’re married or taking care of children, time management and balance issue becomes seems to increase exponentially. And you don’t appreciate the time you have as a single person until you’re no longer single (can I hear an Amen?).

Why does it change when you’re engaged, married or with children? Because you’re not just obligated to attend your family or personal functions, but also your spouse’s and your children’s. And you can’t just come home from work and expect to tune out your spouse and kids because you’re very much a part of their life now. You can’t be selfish with your time anymore, as much as you wish you could.

Tips for Balancing Your Work, School & Life

Some of the following come from my own experience, while others I’ve extracting from friends and coworkers. Pick and choose to see which applies to your own situation, and if none do, then feel free to comment with your own!

Schedule your week: I’m horrible at scheduling, so for me this is easier said than done. But if you’re finding your work, love life or school falling behind, try scheduling your days, especially the evenings and weekends. Putting some type of structure into your life is going any time, but especially when you’re going through years of stressful due dates and hard work.

Cut out the TV: As much as you might want to just crash on the couch after work and put off your homework, try recording the shows you MUST see and scheduling your TV-time to just one night. Same goes for other distractions such as novels and browsing the internet for fun.

Prioritize: First comes your family. If you lose your job or fail out of school, they’ll still be there. You don’t want to lose them. Next comes your job. You can’t really continue school without that paycheck. Last comes school. It’ll always be there and most schools let you take a break. If you really want to have complete control over your work life and school balance, then look into online universities. This form of education is becoming exponentially popular and for plenty of good reasons. First, you can schedule your classes however you want and learn at your own pace. The online medium also means that you don’t have to worry about any fees related to commuting or living in the dorms, and also many online credits are easily transferable to other institutions. If you’re interested in the medical field, Gwynedd Mercy University’s nursing programs are a great example of how flexible online learning can be.

See what your school offers: I was amazed at how many colleges come up when I query for “work life school balance”. It seems that universities are very aware of this issue, and rightly so. They know they’re last on the priority list, so making sure their students have time for school keeps them profitable. Check your school for a “Work Life” office, or even Work Life Grants, such as those at Virginia Tech.

Communicate with those around you: You can schedule and prioritize all you want, but if you don’t inform your friends, family, coworkers/boss and classmates of any restrictions you’ve placed on your time, you risk unexpected distractions and intrusions, or the loss of your friendships. Make sure they know your schedule so they can better respect your time.

Leave time for blowing off steam: The stress from working a day job, running a household and taking classes for years can really build up, so make sure you plan a few weekends to just get away on a short (or long) vacation. Be sure to plan ahead so you don’t neglect your job or class work.

Put family additions on hold: If you’re looking to have your first kid, or adding to the herd, consider postponing additions until you’re closer to finishing your degree. This one may be hard as family, friends, etc. will continually ask you when you’re going to give them a grandchild, niece, etc. Just make sure you communicate your intentions, if your intentions do include expanding the family at all.

Know that it will end eventually: Right now I just finished the first half of my program. It seems like I started the program just yesterday, although I know it’s been a year already. By taking it one day at a time, I avoid the temptation to stress or worry that I still have over a year left in the program. Oh great, look at what you made me do now. Thanks for reminding me.

Exercise: You would think that adding MORE work into your day probably isn’t the best way to help balance your life, but you’d be wrong. Releasing stress and giving yourself some quiet time through exercise is an excellent way to feel refreshed and get more energy. Remember, “all work and no play makes you a mean, nasty person” or something like that. So go out for a walk, jog or take on some yoga or strength training.

Volunteer once a month: Similar to exercising, you’ll probably find volunteering a refreshing experience. When you’re so focused on yourself and your family for so long, you forget there’s a bigger world out there. By volunteering at least once per month,

Don’t try to be perfect: If you find yourself spending hours and hours refining your homework or studying for tests just to get a few more percentage points on your grade, think about scaling back. Some professions (e.g. engineering and research) look highly upon grades, but in the end there’s a cutoff point where the costs of your time and sanity aren’t worth the benefits of an A over an A-minus.

Think of school as a job: Only allow yourself to put in a specific number of hours each week on homework, studying and classes. Once you hit that threshold, it’s time to stop. Just like in a day job, if you can’t get the work done in one day, you usually have the next day to finish, or you just need to work harder that first day to get it done. See the previous tip to also recognize you don’t need to get it perfect all the time, or even half of the time.

Pray: Just like exercise and volunteering, use praying to get some time away from the madness and get your thoughts straight. Praying helps untangle the mess inside your head and might even give you new insight into that homework assignment! And if you’re atheist, I guess you can just stare at the wall or watch the grass grow. Eh, to each his own.

Don’t forget the romance: It’s easy to make sure you’re keeping up with your work and homework, keeping the kids and spouse fed, and making sure the house doesn’t fall apart, but don’t forget that you’re a sensual being that needs love, as is your spouse. Scheduling time for romance may sound like you’re defeating the purpose, but you’d be surprised that if your spouse knows what chunk of your time is reserved solely for him or her, then it can be very exciting. Just don’t let him or her down and cancel at the last minute (or worse, forget)!

Have good friends: By “good friend”, I mean someone to whom you can vent and won’t lecture you. It’s good to have someone to talk to who can just listen. Just don’t become that selfish friend who only talks about themselves (like some of my wife’s friends). Friendship is a give-and-take deal, so set aside time to be a friend too.


I think I can summarize work/life/school balance into two words:




You need a routine and time boundaries to keep your work, school and home life separate. And when that routine becomes too much, you need a way to get away from it all, whether through exercise, prayer, a movie night, or a date with the spouse. Just don’t let school take over your life, because once it’s done, you still need to have a life to go back to. If you don’t maintain your friendships, marriage, parenting or job, then you might not like the life waiting for you.

Now Check Out the Other Personal Finance Network Articles!

Squawkfox: Dorm Room Essentials Checklist

Quest for Four Pillars: Back to School: Get Your Educational Finances in Order

Blunt Money: An Empty Wallet Isn’t Required for Back-to-School

MoneyNing: Frugally and Happily Back to School 9 Different Ways

Canadian Capitalist: Back to School: Save on Textbooks

About the author

Clever Dude


  • now i’m not an athiest, but instead of ‘staring at the wall’ a good alternative is to self reflect on yourself, your goals, your progress, and your accomplishments. No different than what you said prayer would do on untangling the mind.

  • grad school has to be one of the easiest things to do in life. i’m not sure how it warranted such a lengthy write up. then again, 6 credit hours per semester to finish grad school in 18 months was far less than the 33 credit hours per semester for undergrad. if you can’t handle 2 classes plus working full time each semester, which many people evidently can’t, i’m simply amazed.

  • @Tim, 33 credit hours in a semester is normally not allowed, but even if it was, that’s 7 hours less than a normal work week. Tack on another 6 hours of school per week, a home to take care of, a wife/husband and possibly kids, which you usually have NONE of in college, then perhaps you should look again at your assessment of the ease of getting a masters.

    Oh, and keep in mind I spend at least 6 additional hours per week on this site.

    Looking back to college, I easily could have done 20 credits in every semester and finished in 2 years if I tried because I had no other responsibilities. I was there for schooling and nothing else. Now, I’m maintaining a home, supporting a wife, and working on 4 side efforts (websites) at the same time.

    Stop thinking you’re any more special than anyone else.

  • Tim, I’m going to make a few assumptions here:

    1. You are lucky enough to have your entire graduate education paid for.


    2. You’ve never been in grad school.


    3. You aren’t getting a damn thing out of your graduate education.

    2 classes in graduate school is nothing like 2 (or even 4) classes in college. Each of these classes demands around 2-3 hours of week in just showing up for the class, but then demands (on average) another 8-10 hours of preparation or other work (writing, research, etc.). In addition, you should be engaged in your own researching and publication, and most likely you have a part time job or assistantship to juggle.

    Merely having the reading done and showing up to class isn’t enough to earn a graduate degree. You need to be fully committed to your field and to really learning the material and being able to apply it, critique theories, and develop your own theories. Grad school isn’t merely an extension of undergrad work.

  • So far, I have heard many things about graduate school. My father went to medical school with two toddlers and a wife, and did very well. Personally, I have tried a Master in Science and didn’t do very well, and it ended up being a horrible investment. I don’t even have kids either! I do find it intersting that out of all the students in the MS program, those who had families were top of the class. Those who did the worst had no children. Perhaps they were more mature, were smarter, better test takers, or knew how to prioritize. Who knows. I was also very picky about the programs and schools, and may have passed up good programs that I was more cut out for. I am definately paying the price now- literally.

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