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Are you ready for the lifestyle changes?

As with any other major life experience, attending graduate school will invariably lead to some lifestyle changes. Even for those people who move directly from undergraduate to graduate studies, the personal shifts can be pronounced, since grad school is quite different from the undergraduate experience.

The major lifestyle changes associated with grad school can be broken down into the following areas:

Time

Grad school is intense and requires a lot of studying, research, and writing. Though you will likely have fewer courses at a time in grad school than as an undergraduate, you should also expect to have less free time than you ever had in your undergraduate years. The bulk of the work in grad school takes place outside the classroom, and thus the workload is far heavier than your sparse class schedule would seem to indicate. Grad school will test your time management skills, especially if you are working while studying (as detailed below). The bottom line is that grad school will absorb a lot of your time, squeezing you for energy and focus in areas of your life where you may not even expect it.

Attending grad school part-time may help reduce these acute time pressures, though with the trade-off that you'll likely be a student for a longer overall period of time.

Action steps:

  • Ask yourself what time-consuming tasks you can take care of before the school year starts.
  • Plan and implement systems to streamline chores, errands, meals, physical exercise, and other essential tasks.

Employment

It speaks volumes that grad students often consider their studies a full-time job. But for a variety of reasons, many students have no choice but to work during school. If you have a demanding job, being a student in addition to working isn't impossible, but it isn't easy, either. If you only plan to work a few hours per week to have some extra income, it really shouldn't affect your studies or your lifestyle much at all—many students do this. The following lifestyle considerations apply particularly to people who are working professionally and attending grad school.

First, working as a professional while studying (especially if you attempt to do one or both full-time) will require some flexibility on both fronts. Unless your grad program and your employer are able to accommodate your needs as a student-professional, you will face considerably more tension than either of these pursuits would normally engender on their own. If possible, part-time work or study can really ease this pressure.

Working, like studying, can tire you out. Put the two together and you are burning the proverbial candle at both ends. Imagine finishing that urgent project for your job by the deadline, only to zip off to school so you can turn in the paper or work on the group project that kept you up late all last week. While this probably won't happen every week during your studies, it's going to happen often enough. The need to achieve at work and school can create competing tensions that you will struggle to balance at times. Especially if you are financially dependent on your job to pay for your education, working while studying is going to mean you have very little space or time for anything else, including your personal life (as discussed below). Adjusting to these new constraints takes time and tests resilience.

Nevertheless, working while studying isn't all bad. If you are a working professional, your experience on the job may have helped you develop powers of concentration, time management, and efficiency you never knew you had when you were an undergrad. Even though the workload is more severe in grad school, you may be better equipped to handle it now. Likewise, your work knowledge may apply to your studies, and vice versa: leveraging these links can give you advantages at work and school.

Grad school can also open you up to new professional pursuits. Since grad school can be about finding a new direction, don't miss the chance to mingle! You'll be studying with students and professors who share your interests while immersing yourself in discussions and activities that enhance your knowledge, communication skills, and professional abilities. This can pay off at your current job and in your future work. Likewise, the people you meet during grad school can become part of your extended network of contacts in your chosen field. These new opportunities can lead to changes in your lifestyle that you wouldn't otherwise have experienced.

Action Steps:

  • Discuss your plans to go back to school with your boss early on. Tell them what you hope to achieve in doing so and discuss how your goals relate to your position and can (hopefully) be supported by your organization.
  • Prepare your boss for your transition back to school by letting them know your course schedule and any new limitations you will have outside your work hours.
  • Prepare yourself by not bringing work home for a few months so you get used to the new schedule.
  • Ask yourself what opportunities you might have in grad school to expose yourself to new issues, skills, roles, organizations, and so on, and how much time you would be able to devote to that exploration.
  • Get to know your classmates: What relevant work experiences do they have and who do they know?

Personal life

Of course, there is more to life than work and school. In many ways, the effects that grad school can have on your personal life are the hardest to predict and the most difficult to adjust to. Simply put, you are in for some changes.

While there's personal growth during grad school, there are also personal costs. If you're in a relationship, expect to see less of your partner. In fact, this may be a perfect time for your partner to take up new hobbies, renew lapsed friendships, train for a marathon, start writing a novel, and do anything else that takes a lot of time. Similarly, if you have children, you'll need to rearrange your schedule and family support system to fit with your studies. And it should go without saying that grad school may not be a great time to get married or have a kid—are you willing to put that off for a few years?

Your social life is also in for an adjustment during grad school. You'll invariably have to turn down some social invitations from friends who aren't in grad school (and even some from those who are). Again, school will occupy a lot of your time. But you're also likely to meet new friends in school who share interests and who are tuned into the unique pressures of your program. These friends can be a source of support (they "get" what you're going through), but understand that this can also be a source of friction with your partner and friends who aren't in a position to understand the program's inner workings and the effect it has on you.

It's challenging yet critical to figure out how to balance your existing personal relationships with the new contacts and demands of grad school. Be mindful of letting grad school take over your life!

Action Steps:

  • Examine how you can prepare yourself, your family, and your friends for the effects your graduate education and time constraints will have on them.
  • Discuss your thoughts with family and friends and come up with a plan or agreement to balance the demands of school and personal life.

Budget

However strict or lax you've been about personal budgeting in the past, grad school is going to complicate your financial planning. You should consider your financial readiness for grad school very carefully before applying, and then prepare to adjust your spending to manage it all. The costs of grad school push most people into a period of financial austerity, which has obvious implications on their usual lifestyle. As a grad student, expect to be more budget-conscious than you already are, whether that means forgoing your annual ski trip, cutting out cappuccinos, or eating ramen noodles more often than you really want. At the same time, try to put aside a little money for the unexpected incidentals—grabbing a quick meal with your study group, buying a book you can't get at the library, or enjoying a mental time-out over an ice cream in the park.

Action steps:

  • Consider your financial readiness before you apply, and also as you gear up for school.
  • Work out a sample budget to follow during grad school and try it out for a month to see how realistic it is. As you practice with this grad school budget, you'll get a taste for your financial readiness and can make gradual adjustments to your lifestyle and spending instead of a drastic change all at once.
  • Spend as much time as possible before the start of grad school trying to generate revenue you can save and use during school.
  • Investigate cheap and free alternatives to the habits that you just can't shake.

Conclusion and further resources

It's important to understand that grad school will change your lifestyle in many ways. Some of these changes are unique and positive, like meeting new people undergoing the same intense experience, and deepening your knowledge in a field that interests you. Some of the changes are difficult, like trying to juggle your personal life, your time and money, and your work and studies. It's important to be realistic about how much you can handle at once, and to choose a pace for your studies that makes the most sense for you.