Can a Grad Student Still Grind? Capitalism & The Myth of Work-Life Balance

Stereotypes of the sexy coed aside, being a student was always one of the least-sexy times of my life. As a somewhat obsessive nerd, I threw myself into my work so completely that I reached the end of my first round of higher education having gone on a number of dates I could count on one hand. This, and a more general lack of socializing, meant that I exited my first MA with a great GPA, glowing letters of reference, and in the midst of a major depressive episode.

Totally burnt out, I stopped at the MA level and threw myself into a different kind of life—I moved to Montreal, where I worked as a writer and performer, doing burlesque, drag, theatre, comedy, anything that gave me a chance to throw myself onto a stage and experience something new. I was still obsessive about my work, but it’s harder to isolate yourself when you’re constantly surrounded by artists (it may surprise you to learn that artists really know how to party).

Hell, I even got laid from time to time!

 

From academic to broke artist

The jump from academia to perpetually-broke bohemian artist wasn’t as big a leap as you might think—before I was born, my mother was an actor, a story-teller, a makeup artist and a poet. When it comes to my own affinities, I’m basically a perfect blend of her and my professor/logician father.

My life in Montreal wasn’t exactly stable, financially or spiritually, but it was the first place where I was able to fulfill my need to put art into the world, and experience life outside of journals and texts.

 

…And back to academic again

In the past couple of years, my life there and the activist work I was more and more involved in led me to realize I wasn’t actually done with academia. And so, fully a decade after I finished my first MA, I moved 2000 km away from my friends and my community in Montreal for a grad programme in Calgary, Alberta, just two and a half hours north of the small city where I grew up (terrifying).

montreal vs calgary

Guess which one is Calgary

Now I find myself wondering whether it’s possible to still do the things I’ve come to enjoy doing in the outside world while also doing a decent job in a graduate programme I care deeply about—more specifically, I’m wondering if it’s possible for me to be in a grad programme and still, occasionally, get laid?

 

Dating apps gathering dust

I am fully aware that this is something people have definitely accomplished—hell, some people I’m working with now have had entire babies while studying, and that both involves and is SIGNIFICANTLY more time consuming than getting laid.

But the fact is that, bohemian artist or not, I’m still more or less an awkward nerd. I downloaded Tinder and Bumble when I arrived in Calgary a couple of weeks before class began, promising myself that this time I would actually make use of them. I spent a few days sending messages and trying to make connections, but after I received a few opening “ice-breakers” that included racist or ableist slurs (Jesus, Calgary), both apps are now gathering dust on my phone screen, abandoned.

And now that classes have begun, I’m trying not to fall back into my pattern of obsessively pushing through every reading, no matter how dense, but I’m realizing the only times I’m not studying are when I’m sleeping, eating or on public transport (and even when I’m doing one of those last three things, I’m thinking about how I really should be studying).

 

Puristanism, capitalism, and the myth of “work-life balance”

But while grad school may be a pressure cooker that pushes me and possibly other members of my cohort into questionable coping mechanisms, I’m hardly the only person who’s guilty of privileging work over fun to the detriment of their own mental and physical health. We are, after all, living in a capitalist culture, which itself emerged out of Puritan culture.

Puritanism handed us a world in which all-work-and-no-play was our only hope of spiritual salvation (and they weren’t crazy about sex either). Capitalism added a thin veneer of secularism and an obsession with “productivity”—that is, contributing to our employers’ accumulation of capital and thereby, to a lesser extent, enriching ourselves. Though we pay lip service to the idea of work-life balance, the fact is that we still expect people to spend the vast majority of their time working.

 

Feeling the burn (out)

The expectation and the pressure, sometimes internal, to work all the time, are the reason so many of my friends and I have experienced burnout not just once, but multiple times over the course of our still-not-that-long lives. It’s also the reason I find myself so dedicated to this programme that I can’t even find time to meet somebody, or somebodies, I might like to sleep with, or even to feed myself properly.

For a radical socialist who spends a good deal of both my personal time and my writing life railing against capitalism and calling for people to resist its most pernicious effects and treat themselves as full human beings deserving of rest and compassion, this is more than a little embarrassing. I may be great at encouraging my friends to take the time to take care of themselves and to do the things they enjoy, but when it comes to my own life, I am as prone to punishing myself with impossible expectations as anyone.

the struggle

Visual representation of my internal struggle

Giving a solid 80%

I talked to a friend recently about my worries and my growing fatigue as I tried to figure out how to be a grad student and have a life at the same time, and she actually gave me some damn good advice for life in general. She told me how horrified she had been when she heard her colleagues talking about the importance of giving “110%”, and their shock when she had told them that, in fact, she was only willing to give “a solid 80%”.

This probably seems incredibly obvious to a lot of people, but as a massive perfectionist, the idea of only giving 80% was a bit of a revelation. As my friend explained it, part of giving that solid 80% is being willing to accept that your work will sometimes be imperfect, to see those imperfections and to still judge that it is, essentially “good enough.” And that leftover 20% might just be enough for me to find somebody I actually want to bang in Calgary!

It’s not perfect, but 100% of 20% is better than nothing at all, right?

 

Not quite a full rebellion

Obviously this isn’t quite a full rebellion against capitalism, but it is a small way to reject the impulse to regard ourselves as workers first and foremost and to make sure we’re keeping something back for ourselves and our non-working lives.

Since talking to my friend, I’ve started trying to incorporate a kind of calculated laziness into the way I work—this past week, when I found myself faced with over 300 pages worth of readings to do in four days, instead of spending about 70 hours in that four days trying to push myself through a detailed analysis of everything, I instead read the papers I enjoyed, skimmed the others, and then went for brunch with my friend (the same one who gave me the excellent advice—it’s nice to have somebody who will check in to make sure I’m not driving myself insane).

 

Dating as praxis

There’s no way to avoid feeling like I’m in a crazy pressure cooker while I’m in grad school, but I think with a little work—or rather, a little less work—I can make it a more tolerable kind of pressure, rather than the emotionally and spiritually crushing experience it was last time. And hell, if I can make some time to actually go on a few dates, I might be able to avoid inundating my poor friends on Instagram with constant thirst posts that inevitably result when I’m not getting laid.

For me, an important part of undermining capitalist ways of thinking is figuring out how to treat myself as a person who has worth beyond my productivity, and conversations I’ve had with other friends suggest I’m not alone in struggling with that. Adopting a working style that acknowledges that your work doesn’t have to be perfect, and that you don’t have to work yourself to death to be a worthwhile human being would probably be good for all of us, and, as an added bonus, bad for the capitalist overclass that relies on us to create profit for them.

So, as I continue to explore Marxist and other socialist ideologies and work to situate myself as an activist and a scholar, I’m going to keep that in mind—if I can resist the urge to throw everything I’ve got into this programme, I might even find the time to get laid sometime this year.