To defer or not to defer gratification while in graduate school

It’s a gorgeous day in the East Bay, and I’m trying to figure out how to squeeze in everything that I want to accomplish today, both on the personal and professional fronts. So far, so good: I went on an early morning coffee date with my husband, and have been watching some statistics lectures online and working out on the elliptical trainer.

I just got side-tracked, as you can see… The professor was talking about how multiple regression can be used to predict behavioral outcomes, and my mind wandered back to conversations that I’ve had recently with two graduate students, talented young women who are trying to figure out how to succeed in their scientific careers while also leading fulfilling personal lives. Although they are at very different stages in their Ph.D. program, they both have important decisions to make that could influence the course of their lives.

I wish I could use inferential statistics to predict the consequences of these students’ decisions — or, better yet, I wish I had a crystal ball. Should I advise them to charge full speed ahead with their research right now, putting their personal lives on the back-burner until after they’ve landed good jobs? Alternatively, should I tell them that there is no time like the present to establish a good work/life balance? One cookie now, or two cookies later?

I suppose the best advice that I can give them is to “live deep and suck out all the marrow of life”, in the tried-and-true words of Thoreau. Take advantage of your youthful energy, and experience as much as you can. Learn to draw deep satisfaction from your work & achieve ‘flow’, make time to fall in love and establish deep friendships, and *play*. But (and this is a big ‘but’): don’t set unrealistic expectations, or you will make yourself miserable.

You can’t expect to achieve perfect work/life balance at any given moment. Sometimes you need to kick your work into high gear, and at other times you need to take a step back from it to reinvest in a relationship or take better care of your health. At the end of a year, you should be able to look back and reflect on how you’ve grown professionally and personally – but you should also be able to say that you’ve been kind to yourself.

But time is slipping away from me, and there’s still a lot of marrow to be sucked from the day.


About Silvia Bunge

I'm a tenured faculty member, and the head graduate advisor in my department.
This entry was posted in Interpersonal, Productivity. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to To defer or not to defer gratification while in graduate school

  1. rebecca chambers says:

    Yes, yes, you really can have it all! But you must love what you do so work doesn’t always feel like work. Two cookies now AND two cookies later.

  2. Stephanie says:

    Thanks for your post. It’s given me a lot to think about in terms of how I approach these kinds of issues. Personally, I aspire to not think of work and personal life as being dichotomous with separate goals. I think that my work benefits from having a happy personal life and similarly my personal life benefits from feeling good at/about work. I try instead to put my energy into finding places where both can be enhanced simultaneously and only consider trade-offs when forced to (which of course is only sometimes successful). I guess I’m also just a two-cookies-now kind of person :).

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