You have probably heard that when you start grad school, you will have to say goodbye to your friends, family, and free time. Grad school will be so difficult, time-consuming, and life-draining that you won’t be able to catch your breath.

This is true for many, many grad students. But it doesn’t have to be true for you. Your experience in grad school all depends on your expectations for it.

As a grad student, you typically fall into one of two camps.

First, is the group that freaks themselves out. They think that they aren’t smart enough, everyone is smarter than them, or that their professors will expect them to know more than they already do. The second group is the overconfident group. They believe that they are completely ready for grad school and that it will be just an extension of undergrad.

While there are outliers, most grad students’ reality is actually somewhere between those two sets of expectations.

When I was in grad school, I learned that, yes, grad school takes a whole lot of time and a whole lot of effort. But, when I took the time to look ahead, figure out my goals, and set a plan, I was able to find some time for myself as well.

If you are curious how I was able to make it through grad school without pulling any over nighters and working strictly between 8am and 5pm (there were some exceptions), then keep reading.


1. Determine Your Goals for the Semester

Before you start (or go back to) grad school, think about your immediate goals for the semester and determine what tasks need to be done to reach them.  These tasks are your “nonnegotiables.”

As a grad student, I took the time to figure out my top goals and non-negotiables before each semester.  When I was doing my coursework, my goal was to start my homework assignments the day they were given.  When I was writing my dissertation, I had monthly writing goals.

When I started teaching, my top goals were to get my students to enjoy my classes and get amazing course evaluations. (This was helpful when I was applying for jobs in academia.) You start by determining what your non-negotiables are for the semester and make them your top priority on a daily basis.

2. Create a Weekly Schedule Every Week

Once you determine how to reach your goals, your non-negotiables, you should figure out how much time per week that will take. Create a weekly schedule and find time for your non-negotiables first. Then fill in everything else.

I like to spend a little time on Sunday night to reflect on my previous week, make a list of things I need to get done, and add them to my weekly schedule.

Although this task took 10-20 minutes per week, this process actually took me a little time and experience to get right. I used to be so unrealistic about my goals for the week. Then I learned that I could only do about 3-4 tasks per day. Once I matched my expectations to reality, I thrived.

3. Create Monthly and Weekly Budgets

Did you know that grad students don’t make much money? Shocker! It sucks, but it’s true. You just won’t be making a lot of money at this point in time.

When you are struggling financially, it adds so much to your stress level. I dealt with it by creating monthly and weekly budgets.

If you weren’t a finance major in undergrad, managing money is probably not something that you ever learned in college.

A quick way to make a simple budget is to add up all of your recurring monthly expenses and subtract that from the total income you will have each month. Then divide that by four to figure out how much you can spend each week.

Free download: Budget Printable in the Resource Library

4. Make Time for Things You Love

This is my favorite piece of advice! Figure out what you love to do and do it! So simple. Why don’t grad students do this?

I’m an only child so I entertained myself by getting lost in a good movie or TV series. So everyday, I would make time for at least 2 hours of TV every night… while I was in grad school. Having this time for myself really kept me sane and prevented burnout.

Also, if you love hanging out with friends, schedule girls’ night at least twice a month!  You need this time to just be you. And since you’ve created a weekly schedule, you don’t have to feel guilty or worried that you should be doing work. You’ve created a balanced system for yourself.

Related: Why Self-Care Should Be a Priority This Year

5. Find a Mentor

Mentors are so important at every stage in life; especially in grad school.

So how do you find one before grad school even starts? Every department has a grad student directory. Email someone who seems interesting and ask them some of your questions.

If they give good advice and don’t sound annoyed about you emailing them, then they sound like good mentor material to me. Your mentor can give you all the good tips and tricks for surviving grad school in your department.

Remember, grad school is very difficult and time-consuming but you shouldn’t let it take over your life completely. My grad school experience was very challenging but it was enjoyable at the same time. You just need to find a good balance for you.


By Toyin Alli

Toyin graduated from the University of Mississippi in 2011 with a degree in Mathematics and continued to earn her PhD in Mathematics at the University of Alabama in 2016. Now she has her dream job as a Lecturer teaching undergraduates at the University of Georgia. Toyin runs a blog, The Academic Society, that helps grad students with their teaching practices, job applications, and overall grad school survival skills. To learn her tips, tricks, and tools for grad school survival, join her Back to Grad School Challenge.