Balance, or Not to Balance

Daniel Porter, 2011, Cognition and Cognitive Neuroscience

Transitioning into grad school can be pretty rough. You’re juggling your classes, starting your research, but at the same time everyone is telling you how important it is that you maintain a work-life balance. With all the papers to read and write, grants to apply for, and forms to fill out, the truth is, most students will not achieve it their first semester. However, there are three things I always advise when asked how to try to strike this balance. First, make regularly scheduled non-grad school commitments: it’s way too easy to write off nebulously planned activities and say, “Oh, I’ll just get some work done and go another time.” But the work is never done; once you finish a project, there’s always another you could be starting. Secondly, learn to triage your work: focus on the tasks that are most important, not the most urgent. It’s dangerously simple to jump from one task due tomorrow to the next. Unlike in undergrad, your research is more important than your classes. Finally, make friends with people in non-academic fields: join a sports league, find a hobby group, just find some friends who aren’t grad students ( is a great resource for this). It’s so easy to lose perspective on what a work-life balance looks like when everyone around you is in the same insular academic setting. Use these groups to get those regularly scheduled activities to knock out two things at once. You will be swamped; you will probably freak out and wonder why you decided to go to grad school; just remember that you’re running a marathon. Pace yourself, try to keep perspective on the big picture, and everything will eventually settle down.

Here’s what to know:

Daniel Castro, Cohort 2011, Biopsychology.

Since moving to Ann Arbor, I learned a number of important lessons and factoids that I believe may be of use to the incoming students. I will begin with some places to check out:

  • Good eats
    1. Frita Batidos (Cuban-esque fusion)
    2. Raven’s Club (American/fusion)
    3. Madras Masala (Indian)
    4. Iorio’s Gelateria (gelato)
    5. La Dolce Vita (desserts)
    6. Chop House (steaks)
      1. Also underground cigar lounge
    7. Lena’s (latin-fusion)
    8. Fleetwood Diner (American Diner)
    9. Mark’s Carts (Food trucks)
    10. Isalita (latin-fusion)
    11. Aventura (tapas-fusion)
    12. Belly Deli (Asian-fusion)
    13. Totoro (sushi)
    14. Ginger Deli (Vietnamese)

  • Good drinks
    1. Raven’s Club (cocktails)
    2. Lena’s (cocktails)
    3. Isalita (cocktails)
    4. Aventura (cocktails)
    5. Ashley’s (beer)
    6. Vinology (wine)
    7. Mash (whiskey)
    8. Bab’s Underground Lounge (ambiance)
    9. Grizzly Peak (beer)
    10. Last Word (cocktails)
    11. Bill’s Beer Garden (beer)
    12. World of Beer (beer)
    13. Bar 327 Braun Court (cocktails)
    14. Dominick’s (sangria, beer)
    15. Comet Coffee (coffee)
    16. Espresso Bar (coffee)
  • Movies
    1. State Street Theater (indi, foreign, midnight, festivals)
    2. Michigan Theater (indi, foreign, festivals)
    3. Rave (box office)
  • Dance Clubs
    1. Live (23-40)
    2. Rush Street (21-45)
    3. Ricks (just no. Undergrads only)

  • Parks
    1. Arboretum
    2. Gallup Park (canoe/inner tubes)
    3. Argo Park (canoe/inner tubes)
  • Music/Live Show Venues
    1. Circus (karaoke, moth readings)
    2. Blind Pig (touring bands)
    3. Ark Theater
    4. Comedy Club
    5. Most big name stuff in Detroit

Here are some helpful hints for orienting yourself to the city:

  • AATA (local bus system) is very limited
    1. Specific hours of operation (all buses DONE by 11pm, 6pm on weekends or not at all)
    2. Low frequency (unless you are on a major line)
    3. Poor mobile phone compatibility
    4. Decent bus lines: 2, 4
      1. You can also rent bikes
      2. Zipcar is an option

  • Small city (relative to Seattle, L.A., NYC, Miami, Chicago)
    1. Most arts/events are driven by university
      1. Lots of events put on by city, though (e.g., Top of the Park in the summer)
      2. Close proximity to Detroit for anything else (e.g., DIA)
  • Weather can be tricky (except Fall; Fall is amazing)
    1. Humid in summer
      1. Prepare for super intense, 20 minute storms (umbrella = necessary)
      2. Generally hot, feels hotter because of humidity
    2. Cold in winter
      1. Semi-sunny during winter (relative to Seattle)
      2. Really cold (negative teens with the right amount of wind chill)Coldness can be combated by:
        1. Winter coat (wind resistance a +++)
        2. Snow boots (Seriously makes a world of difference)
        3. Scarf (easy and effective barrier between wind and your face)
  1. Spring is meh
    1. Depending on intensity of winter, can start by February, or not until late April
    2. Rainy-ish
  2. Fall
    1. Wonderful
    2. Beautiful
    3. Cozy
    4. Looks like a movie set

First Term Small Lessons

Jaime Munoz-Velazquez, Cohort 2014, Developmental Area.

The first term was full of small lessons I would like to share with others.  My transition to Ann Arbor from the West Coast had a learning curve.  I had to adjust to living with different seasons, it is cold here, so just buy the right gear and you’ll be fine. I learned that building a strong support network is important to one’s success.  Meet people from other departments, it keeps you sane.

Most importantly, I learned to ask questions from everyone, someone knows the answer or someone can at least point you in the right direction. Additionally, I enjoy going to World of Beer or Bill’s Beer Garden for a drink with friends after a long stressful week. Depending on your personality, if you enjoy a low key evening with friends to a night out on the town Ann Arbor has something for you.  You are as productive as you want to be. Don’t forget to also exercise your body and not only your mind.   Pace your work, and listen to your advisor.  Above all, remember the reason why you are here, your research. And finally, there will be many opportunities to do things, choose wisely (when in doubt ask your advisor and others), one can easily become over committed with unnecessary things.

Dear First Year Tiffany:

Tiffany Jantz, 3rd Year, CCN Area

In a letter to herself:

Dear First-Year Tiffany,

This is third-year you writing to say congratulations.  You did it!  Despite what it originally felt like, the application and interview process did end and you were invited to attend one of the best universities in the world!  I know you are going through a whole range of emotions ranging from excited, to nervous, to hungry, to worried, to thrilled, and probably back to hungry as you prepare to leave your comfy, familiar home in California and settle down in Michigan for the next half of a decade.  I know you’ve never been to Michigan, and that you needed to search for it on Google Maps to remind yourself exactly where in the Midwest it is located.  You are going to say goodbye to your friends who get all of your jokes, and goodbye to your old lab where you knew everyone and everything, and goodbye to your old school where you rocked at getting good grades, to wander 2,356 miles across the country.  I’m not going to lie: the transition will be tough.

And that’s OK.  It is a huge life change and huge life changes get to be tough.  Just because you are uncomfortable at first does not mean you don’t belong there.  You are going to make new friends.  You know Jordan, Myrna, and Steven, the people you interviewed with? You guys are going to go to sushi and then have an epic ping pong match that will devolve into a game of don’t-let-it-hit-the-floor.  And remember Ziyong, the grad student with whom you stayed during your interview?  She becomes one of your closest friends who gives you great advice, from what classes to take to how to navigate advisor-advisee relationships, over your semi-weekly lunches at Revive.  The administrators that you have been corresponding with will be priceless when it comes to answering just about any U of M-related question that comes up (Ummm… how do I get into my office? Wait.  Where is my office?).  And sure, during the first few months it is a little tricky getting used to the new lab space and procedures but before you know it you’ll be confidently showing new grad students around.  There end up being a ton of resources at your fingertips that you will use to prepare to teach, to become a better scientist, and to prepare for your career.

The hardest part of the transition you are going to face is coming to terms with is that you will not be able to finish every task by its deadline.  I repeat: you are NOT going to be able to finish every task by its deadline (self-imposed or otherwise).  As the popular internet meme states “Ain’t nobody got time for that!”  Even if you stay up all day and night, there is always more to do, more to read, more to tweak, more to edit, more to apply for, more to analyze, more, more, more.  By the time you reach your third year, you will be practiced at the art of prioritizing, but try to avoid spending your first year trying to do it all, and do it all perfectly.  Once you begin to integrate the Facebook company motto of “done is better than perfect” into your approach to your coursework, your life will be much easier and your research will move much faster.

So good luck on your pursuit of the Doctorate of Philosophy in Psychology.  The word doctor comes from the Latindocere which means ‘to teach’ and the word philosophy originated from the word philosiphia which means ‘love of wisdom’.  The people you meet during your time at UM will be from all different walks of life but your shared love of obtaining and sharing wisdom will lead you to create bonds that will last long beyond your time in Ann Arbor.

See you in a few years!  Until then, I have some work I need to do…

Third-Year Tiffany

Make Time to…

Last one Veronica Rabelo:

Get a hobby. You’ve probably already heard that work/life balance can be difficult or elusive in academia – but it’s crucial that you develop healthy habits in grad school. Over time, your workload will become more demanding, so it’s important to take care of your mental and physical health. As my peer mentor Jes Matsick advised me when I entered the program, “No one is going to pull you aside and say, ‘Hey, you’ve been putting in a lot of hours lately – you deserve the weekend off.’ It’s up to you to craft those boundaries and take time off to relax and unwind.” Having some structure in place can help you achieve greater work/life balance – whether by joining a group fitness class at the CCRB, signing up for an art class through the Ann Arbor Art Center or Groupon, or gathering a group of people to go on weekly walks in the Arb.

Hobbies are also a great way to make friends outside of grad school. One of the benefits of Michigan’s cohort model is that you enter grad school in a group (whereas other graduate programs may only accept one new doctoral student per year). This means that you have a great community of students with whom to take classes, study, and commiserate. That being said, it can also be helpful to surround yourself with people who are outside of your program to help keep you grounded and in touch with sides of yourself that go beyond your work.

Ultimately, remember that you were accepted to the program for a reason, and that you deserve to be here. Although it’s important to stay focused on acquiring new skills – such as new methods, advanced statistics, and scientific writing – it’s equally important to get plenty of sleep, eat well, and stay grounded. Oh – and try to have some fun along the way!

You Made It! Now What?


Alexandria Caple,  CCN, cohort 2014

First and foremost, welcome to Michigan! All of your hard work has paid off tremendously. I’m sure many of you are probably thinking something along the lines of “okay, now what?”. This is perfectly normal and I can assure you, you’re not alone. But fret not, because I’m about to offer you some general tips to surviving the graduate school experience.

Here are my top five tips for getting through the first year with relatively little stress.

  1. Your elders are all knowing.

What I mean by this, is that upper level graduate students have all the ins and outs of the program as well as Ann Arbor. From food endorsements and summer festivals, to class recommendations and general research help, other graduate students make all the difference. Listen to their suggestions and heed their advice, they’ve been there before and are giving you valuable tricks of the trade.

  1. Make day to day lists.

Often times when people think “big picture” it can be easy to get overwhelmed with everything that needs to get done. Instead, focus on things that can be accomplished on a day to day basis. Make a to-do list and mark off everything you completed for the day. Not only will you be working towards that “big picture” goal, but you’ll also leave each day feeling some sense of accomplishment.

  1. Never be afraid to ask for help.

We are all still in the process of learning. Often times, you’ll encounter things that you’ve either a.) never heard of, or b.) are vaguely familiar with. It’s perfectly okay to not know, as long as you pick up this information along with way. There are many resources available to you at Michigan, all you have to do is inquire.

  1. Get to know the area.

Michigan will be your home for the next 5 years or so, be sure that you make it feel like such. It is incredibly easy to go through a graduate program without knowing anything outside of—in this case—the psychology building. Learn your surrounds, get to know Ann Arbor, and leave your mark on the town.

  1. Make time for yourself.

I’m sure this tip comes as no surprise. It sounds simple in theory but I can assure you, during your time in graduate school, this is the one thing that falls short for most people. Learn to make time to exercise, sleep in a little longer, explore your hobbies, and spend time with friends. In order to be successful in anything that you do, you must first take care of yourself.

Hopefully, you will find some of these tips to be useful, not only during your transition but during your time in graduate school as a whole. The journey ahead of you is going to require a lot of work, but you know what they say about all work and no play…

Work-Life Balance

Neil Lewis, Cohort 2014, Social Area

One important thing to keep in mind throughout grad school is the law of diminishing returns – the economic principle stating “that if one input in the production of a commodity is increased…a point will eventually be reached at which additions of the input yield progressively smaller, or diminishing, increases in output.” Another way of thinking about this is that the 6th hour of staring at the 4-way interaction in your SPSS output trying to figure out what it all means (hint: it likely means you should run a simpler study), probably isn’t the best use of your time.

When you reach this point, it’s time to stop working and take a break – the output will still be there tomorrow, and often taking some time away from it is just what you need gain the clarity needed to move forward. I mention all of this to bring attention to what I think is one of the most important keys to success in graduate school, which is to maintain a healthy work-life balance. Part of being successful is knowing when you need to take a break…and actually taking it. You do not need to spend every waking moment thinking about and working on your research. You can (and should) have a life as well. Hang out with your friends, maintain your hobbies or find new ones, exercise, SLEEP, keep up with your TV shows (your students will appreciate the references when you teach); whatever it is that you enjoy doing, keep doing those things. You’ll be happier, healthier, and more productive if you do. Maintaining a balance will also benefit you in the long run – the best research ideas come from your interactions and observations in the real world, not from [Insert your field’s top journal here]; you can’t have those interactions and observations if you spend all of your time in the lab.

Welcome to Michigan!


Continued from Veronica Rabelo:

Organize your notes and PDF’s. As part of your coursework and lab participation, you will be spending a lot of time immersing yourself in the literature. If you’re not already super organized, now would be a great time to set up a “system” to keep track of all the notes and PDF’s you amass. Some students use citation management software like Mendeley or EndNote to keep track of their articles and notes; others create an Excel spreadsheet or Google Doc. Invariably, you will end up returning to the same articles over and over again. To save yourself time in the long run, keep all of your PDF’s and articles in one place. As you read articles, it might also be helpful to jot down some notes on the following: What was the purpose of this study? What were some of the major methodological strengths and limitations? How does this article relate to my larger research interests? How might I be able to use / cite this article in a manuscript? Which additional ideas does this article spark?

Still more to say later!….



8/6/13 Tiny white blooms line the path through Ingalls Mall with Rackham in the background during a "Day in the Life" of the University of Michigan on August 6, 2013.

Veronica Rabelo, Women’s Studies and PSC, Cohort 2011

Congratulations – you’re about to embark on a PhD! The University of Michigan is an incredible place to complete your studies. You will have access to top-notch resources, brilliant (yet down-to-earth) faculty, and phenomenal staff and support. Here are some pieces of advice to help you get the most out of your time in Ann Arbor…

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The best thing…

Sara Chadwick cohort 2014, Joint Women’s Studies

One of the best things about coming to Ann Arbor as a first-year graduate student was how nice and welcoming the other grad students and faculty were! Everyone constantly asked me how I was doing and they seemed genuinely invested in my progress. I also quickly made friends with the people in my cohort, which was very helpful when trying to organize my new workload and responsibilities as an incoming student. It was also nice to have other friends who were new to town and willing to try out restaurants and bars (there are so many here!). I am currently a huge fan of the Earthen Jar (delicious Indian food) and the happy hour at Savas (it has a nice outdoor patio). Some of the older graduate students also told me about Melange, which has half off sushi on weekdays until 7pm! The best advice I have received so far as a graduate student is to be friendly and talk to faculty members and other grad students if you haven’t gotten a chance to meet them. Introduce yourself and take the time to learn about their research; those connections will go a long way if you ever have questions or need advice on your own projects!

In all, Ann Arbor is a wonderful place to live and is full of activities. There are always both community and University events going on and they are worthwhile to go to! The lectures and events in this town are all top quality, and make Ann Arbor one of the most desirable towns to live in here in the Midwest.