If you’ve been in graduate school for any length of time, chances are you have probably heard some version of the following: “you’ve changed so much since starting your ______ degree” or “you act like you don’t have time for me anymore” or “you think you’re better than the rest of us because you’re earning ___ degree”.

It feels unfair, judgmental and probably hurts your feelings. No matter how often you may encounter these criticisms, they don’t get any easier to hear, especially if they come from your close friends and/or family.

Yet, many of us, especially graduate students of Color, encounter these unfair criticisms as we pursue our academic and professional goals.

Dealing with others’ misconceptions of your time, resources and availability as a graduate student makes setting boundaries challenging. However, boundaries so necessary to your success in this new academic space (I wrote about (over) accommodating friends/family in graduate school here – 10 Things That I Have Learned So Far On My #JourneyToPhD).

Here are a few tips for setting better boundaries while in graduate school:

1. Protect your time.

One thing that I have learned during the first year of my PhD program is that if it’s not in my planner, it doesn’t happen. This goes for FaceTime calls from friends, study breaks, naps and everything in-between.

Whether you are an early morning academic or a night owl (like myself), protect your time! If you write/work better between the hours of 6 and 10am, don’t schedule (or allow anyone else to schedule) anything for you to do during that time.

Along with planning, protect the time that you set aside for academic tasks, graduate assistant duties, personal errands and most importantly, rest.

2. Place your phone on DND.

Don’t be afraid to make yourself intentionally unavailable. I’ve discovered that my best work hours are in the evening from about 9pm until 6am. So, I place my phone on Do Not Disturb starting at 9pm and get to work. Now, I make sure to call home first so that my mom doesn’t worry and I even use a setting on my phone that allows calls only from those in my “in case of emergency” contacts. This works better for me than turning my phone off all together. Choose a method that works for you and commit to it.

3. Practice saying NO and not apologizing for it.

This is probably the most challenging tip for me to do on this list. As a southern, Black, Christian woman, it’s so difficult for me to say NO to those in need. However, as a graduate student carrying all of those identities together, it is essential to my well-being and productivity that I do. This means that sometimes, that unexpected call from a  friend has to go to voicemail because I just don’t have the time to sit and talk.

Saying NO to folks you care about doesn’t feel good. In fact, it probably contributes to the “you think you’re better than everybody” accusations that I mentioned above. However, try to think about it like this: if you’re always saying yes to everyone else, when will you truly say YES to you?

4. Let your advisor(s) know when your plate is full/overflowing.

This one can also be a bit challenging. As graduate students, there’s ALWAYS something to do: papers to write, articles to read, chapters to outline, and that’s just the beginning!

If you have an assistantship, you may also have papers to grade, classes to teach, data to enter and more meetings than you have time to attend; this doesn’t include the pressure that is often placed on grad students to present at conferences and publish journal articles.

The requirements for grad students (doc students in particular), are vast and demanding. Sometimes, you have to let your advisor(s) know when things are off-balance.

No, you can’t move your weekly meeting to Tuesday instead of Wednesday. No, you can’t grade just one more paper to lighten their load. No, you can’t have the literature review done in 2 days when they initially gave you 3. You, like your advisor, are NOT a machine.

5. Learn how to recognize when your mind and body need a break.

Lastly, as graduate students, we must learn to listen to our minds and bodies. Exhaustion comes in many forms and shows up physically, mentally, emotionally, academically and spiritually.

In the busy-ness of academia, it may feel unnatural to stop and check-in with yourself about how you are feeling and what your mind and body are requiring of you to function. Have you eaten today? How many hours are you sleeping each night? When is the last time that you laughed out loud?

All of these things matter and can impact your self-care. Academia tells us to take care of ourselves but it doesn’t really allow us the time and space to do so. Therefore, we have to create it for ourselves.

Spend some time reflecting on what you need to be your best self; your mind, body and spirit deserve it!


This post was contributed by: Raven K. Cokley, M.Ed., a current second year PhD student in Counselor Education at the University of Georgia. Her research interests include giftedness in Black girls, Black women’s experiences in higher education and Black liberation movements. You can contact Raven at ravenk90@gmail.com, find her on Twitter @brilliantblkgrl and you can find her blog at ravenkcokley.com.


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