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5 Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me in Graduate School: Balancing Work and Family

July 6, 2021

When thinking about what five things I most wish someone had told me in graduate school, I had not planned to write about work-life balance—but I found it difficult to not write about this topic, particularly today. The Coronavirus has intensified all of the challenges, frustrations, joys and opportunities that an academic life with little ones in tow can bring. I write this acutely aware of my own privilege; the pandemic did not impact my ability to provide for my family and so far, has not impacted our health. The lessons that follow are some of the ways that I have maintained my sanity in our profession while desperately trying to wring more hours out of hectic days.

No. 1: There’s probably a book for that!

In this career there will be moments when you might feel a bit lost. How do I turn my dissertation into a book? How can I develop better time management strategies? There are many books and resources out there to navigate these challenges. William Germano’s, From Dissertation to Book is my favorite how-to-guide for transforming a dissertation into a book. The National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity holds a 12- week virtual boot camp to help academics strategize about time management.

No. 2: Step away from your work without guilt

This is not the type of job that most of us, realistically can “clock out” of. Sure, we leave the office, we make plans with friends and family, but in the back of one’s mind is that nagging feeling that “I should be working on that article.” My strategy for this is to make a list of what I will accomplish in the day. When I finish the list, I am off the clock and I don’t look back.

No. 3: Allow yourself to step off the career train if life calls for it

As a graduate student, I meticulously planned out my career and it never dawned on me that life events beyond my control would impact those plans. But my focus shifted entirely when my son was diagnosed with a major medical issue. At that time there was no way for me to keep up the pace I had set for myself. I stepped back from my work for my family but I wrestled with that choice at the time. I wish someone had given me license to step back, to slow down and realize that, for the most part, my work would still be there when I was ready to return to it. 

No. 4: “You are not your citation count””

This lesson comes from Dr. Malliga Och. You’ll spend so much time on your research, but when you come up for promotions, much of that work will be distilled down to your citation count. Your citation count is important, but don’t let it define you. Instead, choose projects and topics that you’re passionate about and become a recognized expert in that area, the citation count will likely follow.

No. 5: Be open to “The New””

Be open to new ideas, new research topics and methods, new modalities for teaching, and mentor young scholars. This one is simple, but it can be easy to forget once you have topics you’re known for working on and a great group of scholars to work with. But being open to “the new” can help breathe new life into your research and teaching. For example, we often think about mentoring of junior scholars as service to the discipline and something that is generally helpful for mentees. But I’ve found myself inspired in my own work after engaging in  mentoring of junior colleagues because they have introduced me to new ideas, new perspectives or new approaches to which I would not otherwise have been exposed.


None of these suggestions will forestall the inevitable challenges associated with work and family life.  In truth, I jettisoned the idea of finding the elusive work-life balance long ago. Instead, I hope these suggestions will do for you what they do for me—make space for extra time to devote to both of my passions, my work and my family.

Heather Smith-Cannoy is Associate Professor of Political Science/Social Justice & Human Rights at Arizona State University. When she is not chasing her adorable 7-year- old son around, she directs ASU’s <a href="">Global Human Rights Hub</a>, an interdisciplinary human rights research initiative.</p>

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