Summer is often seen as a season of endless possibilities, offering a chance for graduate students to make progress on their research, catch up on tasks, and enjoy a break from the academic year. At the same time, however, it can also be a time of uncertainty and anxiety, especially when it comes to the pressure to be productive without the usual structure of the academic year. This lack of structure can be both liberating and overwhelming, as graduate students are left to manage their own time and priorities. Balancing the opportunities and challenges of summer can be a delicate task, but with some careful planning and thoughtful strategies, graduate students can make the most of this unique season.

Here are seven strategies that can help graduate students have an effective and fulfilling summer, with some examples, tools, and resources for each:

Strategy #1: Evaluate your priorities and values

Instead of overwhelming yourself with an abundance of work, it is essential to set clear priorities for the summer. Think of summer as a basket with limited space and focus on filling it with a personalized blend of work and non-work activities. 

As you determine your priorities, take some time to reflect on the relationship between your work and your values. What is important to you? What do you want to achieve? Consider how you can make the most out of your work while staying aligned with your values. This may involve setting boundaries around your work schedule, communicating your needs and limitations to your colleagues or advisor, or finding ways to incorporate your personal interests into your summer goals. 

You could use journaling or mind mapping as you reflect on your priorities, or conduct a values assessment through the career exploration tools ImaginePhD or myIDP.

Strategy #2: Set realistic goals

Use the information from your priority and value assessment to set realistic goals that align with your values and priorities. Make sure your goals are specific, measurable, and achievable within a given timeframe. This means that you should be as clear as possible about what exactly you plan to achieve and when, and realistic about what you can get done in a limited amount of time. Be sure to adjust your goals as needed and to be attentive to factors that are outside of your control.

Your goals from summer might include anything from developing a new skill to learning about possible career paths after graduation. If you want to focus on skills development, consider taking an online course through platforms like Coursera, Udemy or edX, attending a workshop or webinar, or reading up on a topic that interests you for structured learning. UC Berkeley’s D-Lab offers workshops and training sessions on research methods, data analysis, and digital tools in summer, too. If you want to focus on professional development, networking, attending conferences and events, and seeking mentorship are all effective strategies for career planning and development. To learn more about professional development resources and opportunities available to you, visit GradPro’s Graduate Student Professional Development Guide.

Strategy #3: Create a schedule and stay organized

Use a schedule to break larger goals into smaller tasks, stay organized, and prioritize the most important tasks. This will help you stay focused and avoid feeling overwhelmed. Consider using a planner or calendar app like Google Calendar, Calendly, or TimeTree to schedule blocks of time for specific tasks, breaks, and personal activities. You can also use a tool like Trello or Asana to create a to-do list, or productivity apps to break down large tasks into smaller, more manageable steps. Here are some additional tools and apps that might be useful: Notion, Evernote, Todoist, Clockify, Google Keep, Focus@Will, Pomodoro Tracker, Rescue Time. Everyone has different preferences and styles, so use the ones that work best for you.

Strategy #4: Find a supportive community

Graduate school can be isolating, so it’s important to connect with other students and find a supportive community. Consider joining a student group or organization related to your field of study, attending conferences or workshops, or participating in a peer check-in group. Meetup and LinkedIn are also great places to find and join groups of people who share your interests, including groups related to graduate school and academic pursuits.

GradPro offers summer check-in groups and planning workshops for graduate students. Fill out the Summer 2023 Check-in Group Interest Form to stay informed about registration. Attend an Information Session on May 17th or 18th, 2023 (register by May 16th, at 5:00 p.m. PT) to learn more about the format, available groups, and registration process. 

Strategy #5: Prioritize your mental and physical well-being

Graduate school can be stressful, so it’s important to prioritize self-care and activities that promote mental and physical well-being. This could include practicing mindfulness or meditation, going for a daily walk, or joining a yoga class. Be kind to yourself and remember that you’re not alone in facing the challenges of graduate school. Practice self-compassion and give yourself the same support and encouragement that you would give to a friend. Resources like Headspace, Insight Timer App, and Calm offer guided meditation and mindfulness practices that can be accessed from your phone or computer. If you need support for your mental or physical health, don’t hesitate to take advantage of our campus resources for health and well-being.

To prevent burnout and care for your wellbeing, it is also essential to take breaks and engage in enjoyable activities such as attending weddings or visiting family. Set aside specific periods for leisure activities that interest you, whether it’s visiting the beach, indulging in a good book, learning a new language, or exploring new dining options in your area. By scheduling these commitments on your calendar, you can get a realistic sense of the weeks and days available for work, personal, and family events.

Strategy #6: Set boundaries

Setting boundaries between work and personal time is crucial for achieving work-life balance. Consider setting specific times for work, setting limits on your availability for meetings or emails, or using tools like the Forest app to avoid distractions during work time. You can also consider regularly blocking off one or two days a week to fully unplug from work and spend time with family and friends. Think of it as a “weekend warrior” approach, where you can adventure away from work and return feeling refreshed and ready. Here are some additional tools and apps that might be useful- StayFocused, Cold Turkey Blocker, Freedom, Mindful Browsing.

Strategy #7: Communicate with your advisor

Check in with your advisor before the summer starts about expectations for your work and for communication during the summer months. Find out whether you should provide regular updates on your progress and if you should reach out if you face any challenges. Agree upon your mode of communication keeping both of your preferences in mind: will it be through email, phone, or a face-to-face meeting? Or something along the lines of Slack or Google Docs?

Overall, achieving work-life balance as a graduate student can be challenging, but implementing these strategies can help you make the most out of your summer while taking care of your well-being. To discuss your summer plan with a Professional Development Liaison and stay accountable to your goals, consider signing up for a GradPro consultation.

About the Author: Haripriya Sathyanarayanan is a Ph.D. Candidate in Architecture with a designated emphasis in New Media at the College of Environmental Design, and is an international student and student-parent. Priya currently serves as a Professional Development Liaison (PDL) at GradPro.