Reflective Practice

Balancing Teaching & Research as a Graduate Student

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By Ryan Donovan

Occupying the dual roles of graduate student and professor is simultaneously exciting and challenging. Working to find a balance between research and teaching is an ongoing process that shifts depending upon many factors, including what point you’re at in the semester, whether you are teaching a new course or a familiar one, your progress toward program milestones, and external factors like life events from birth and death to relocation and caretaking. There are times that one area necessarily takes precedence over another, especially during a heavy grading time or when you’re close to finishing a draft of a dissertation chapter. These factors are unique to you (and your program) and thus, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to balancing teaching and research.

The first step toward balancing teaching and research as a graduate student in general is to prioritize your mental and physical wellbeing. Recent studies have demonstrated the toll that graduate school can take. It may be hard to even focus on your teaching or research duties if you aren’t feeling well or if you are dealing with anxiety, depression, or impostor syndrome. The GC’s Wellness Center offers student counseling services to current students to help address these common issues.

Balancing teaching and research requires its own kind of intentional, ongoing effort. For instance, how do you deal with the pressure of having a room full of students  waiting for you when you’re trying to write up lab results? Identifying and planning for your goals, both short and long term, can be an effective way of mapping your way to the PhD.  As you make progress toward or on your dissertation, you may increasingly feel the need to create structure within a structureless system. At the end of this post is a guide for a multi-year plan that can help you identify the many factors that impact your teaching and research, as well as help you identify goals and milestones.  

The multi-year plan is a great way to take a macro view, but a micro view is also important. Do a self-assessment of what’s working well for you and what’s not, noting any common roadblocks or setbacks. Actually write down what you are spending your time on for a few days–this demonstrates what you prioritize and it may surprise you. Being honest about how you are actually spending your time during your workday is crucial to making changes so that how you spend your energy aligns with your priorities.

Once you have this information, you can identify spaces for change. In her book Write No Matter What: Advice for Academics, Joli Jensen suggests matching specific tasks to your energy level. In practice, this means that you schedule your work according to when you know you have the most/least focus. In other words, don’t spend the time of day when you are most energized and focused on completing rote tasks like grading quizzes or checking email when your level of energy and focus could be better spent on writing, research, or reading for your upcoming exam.

Check in with yourself and notice whether you avoid writing in favor of tasks that make you feel busy or productive but that actually are preventing you from making progress on longer-term projects like a dissertation or master’s thesis. Do you have a sudden urge to clean the house? Or to immediately reply to every email? Note whether the time you spend preparing for class cuts into your research time. This is an opportunity to become curious about why you avoid certain activities or procrastinate–it might just be that you are cleaning the house or over-preparing for class in order to avoid stress and anxiety about writing.

Balancing teaching and research means consciously devoting time to each–and, most importantly, moderating the time spent on each so that you avoid working in binges. Robert Boice advocates for working in brief, regular sessions (on both teaching and research) in his now-classic book, Advice for New Faculty Members. In practice, this might mean that you spend time between appointments or waiting for the subway jotting down notes for class. Brief, regular contact with your projects is a key to progress.

When you think about preparing for class, consider how much time you spend planning the content versus how much time you spend planning the pedagogy, i.e., how you hope students will engage with the content. Part of balancing teaching prep. is figuring out how to share the responsibility with your students through collaboration and active learning.  

Just as brief, regular preparation for teaching helps moderate negative emotions (think stress and anxiety), brief, regular contact with your writing projects does the same. You’ve probably often heard or been told to “write every day.” For many of you, this will work. For many of you, this is not realistic advice. Current debates about writing every day or not aside, only you get to decide what works for you and what counts as writing for you. However, it is worth noting the power of habit here. Are in the habit of making regular contact with your project or in the habit of putting everything else ahead of it?

With practice, you can learn to distinguish preferences from needs, i.e., you might prefer perfect writing conditions but you don’t actually need them. When you’re feeling stalled, it is easy to wait for motivation to arrive. Consider the possibility that action precedes motivation. Simply taking action can actually motivate you. Action might mean venting by writing about why you’re stuck even if you don’t write anything else or make progress toward your lesson plan in that moment.

Balance often feels elusive given all of the demands on your time as a graduate student. It requires your ongoing attention as you learn to juggle teaching, research, service, and your life outside of graduate school. You may often as not feel the imbalance, yet securing time for regular contact with your current long term projects (whether that’s your second exam or your dissertation research) will help you make progress and moderate stress. Given that graduate school is inherently stressful, this is the point of trying to balance these things at all.


Resources at The Graduate Center:
Teaching and Learning Center:
Teach@CUNY Handbook
TLC Guides
Visible Pedagogy
On Teaching and Research: Research and Teaching: Why Integrate Them?, First year teachers in the sciences, Teach your own research and Teach yourself

Wellness Center:
Dissertation Support Group/Master’s Thesis Support Group

Office of Career Planning & Professional Development:
Companionable Writing
GC writing support

Selected Books:
Ken Bain, What the Best College Teachers Do
Robert Boice, Advice for New Faculty Members
Joan Bolker, Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day
Joli Jensen, Write No Matter What
Karen Kelsky, The Professor Is In
James Lang, Small Teaching
David Sternberg, How to Complete and Survive a Doctoral Dissertation
Helen Sword, Air & Light & Time & Space: How Successful Academics Write
Sword’s article “‘Write Every Day!’: A Mantra Debunked

Online Resources:
Tanya Golash-Boza:
Raul Pacheco-Vega:
Discussion and support for finishing dissertations:
HASTAC Progressive Pedagogy Group
NYT on procrastination and attention management

Create a Multi-Year Plan 

Adapted from Karen Kelsky’s 5-year plan in The Professor Is In (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2015), 48-51.

Make a multi-year plan that lays out your commitments side-by-side by creating a table with the time in the far left column. You can divide by semester or month. Then along the top, draw from the relevant categories below. Fill in each space in the grid with relevant goals, realities, milestones, etc. It can be really useful (and a little overwhelming) to see everything laid out in one place, but it can help you think longer-term about how you can strategically plan your future.

Click here for a template.

Categories to consider:

  • Path to Degree: Program milestones (exams, language requirements, proposals, due dates, etc.)
  • Research & Writing: Set deadlines for large projects, set a publication trajectory (book review, article, diss. chapter), plan visits to archives and/or fieldwork, set a reading calendar
  • Teaching: Plan a teaching trajectory (courses you want to teach/institutions where  you want to teach), consider how/where/if you will teach your research/methodologies
  • Conferences & Awards, etc.: Plan the conferences will you attend–what are the submission dates for abstracts/panel proposals and  awards you wish to apply for
  • Jobs: Plan to prepare, write, and revise your documents well before you go on the market, compile a teaching portfolio, have a CV for ac/alt ac and a resumé for non-ac jobs, consider internships
  • Grants & Funding: List dissertation and other research funding opportunities here–look both in and beyond your department, the GC, and professional organizations. Consider GC-specific funding opportunities/jobs for when your 5-year funding package runs out.