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10 Steps to Work-Life Balance in PT School

by Carol Passarelli


Is it possible to achieve a work-life balance in PT school? Yes!

If you decided to go to PT school, you’ve signed yourself up for 3 years of heavy payment. Tuition and living expenses aside, becoming a Doctor of Physical Therapy requires 3 years of your time. Upon my first exposure to the impending slew of exams and clinicals, my instinct was to shut my eyes and bulldoze through every semester, pushing over every obstacle between graduation and me. Achieving work-life balance in PT school was far from my list of priorities.

I don’t recommend this.

The first semester’s collateral damage included my fitness, a normal sleep schedule, and a few of my friendships. Do not make the mistake of putting your life on hold for physical therapy school! Over the last 2 years in my DPT program, I’ve used a (far from perfect) trial and error system to try to strike a balance between school and other activities—ultimately, to maintain my sense of self and to experience life beyond studying.

Whether I’m entrenched in studying for midterms or am just easing into a new semester, I’ve tried to use the following rules to keep PT school from taking over the other parts of my life. Live by these rules and PT school will be a lot less stressful. Trust me, it is possible to find a work-life balance in PT school.

1. Life is messy

Accept this. Put down that Windex. I recognize that all of you type As will disregard this, but it would behoove all of us to remember that small bumps in the road should be expected, not abhorred. In my first semester, I cringed every time I saw my unfinished to-do list (this was almost a daily occurrence). If I could go back, I’d spend more time giving myself high fives for every accomplished task instead of kicking myself for everything left undone.

And really, if you’re having a rough day, sometimes it’s best not to force yourself to accomplish everything you set out to do. Cut down your schedule, and remind yourself of everything you DID get done.

2. Yes, your time IS your money

Spend it wisely! As graduate students, we don’t have much unplanned time. Guard that time and remember that you can, in fact, tell your friend (or even your faculty member) that a time doesn’t work well for you. Asserting that Saturdays or, say, after 7 pm on weekdays are protected times can help you keep to a routine even when school gets crazy.

PT school may not be the time to volunteer at the local homeless shelter or work part-time. I worked at a yoga studio for two semesters but realized that the money I made didn’t come close to equating to what I could have gotten out of those hours from studying or doing my own self-care yoga practice.

3. There is no such thing as a "good" or "bad" activity

A lot of DPT students in the classes above me told me to be careful—if I, say, spend time with my cohort after class (discovering Frisbee golf, grabbing a beer, complaining about studying, etc.), then I would end up losing valuable study time. Okay, truth. But on the flip side, too much studying could result in a smaller support network with your classmates.

I recommend trying to leave your judgment at the door. Don’t feel guilty for choosing one activity over the other! Studying isn’t always the best thing for you, and grabbing a drink or going for a run with a classmate isn’t necessarily a waste of time. Your worth isn’t measured by your time in the library.

4. Don’t feel guilty

Recall pulling into your new apartment complex—possibly in a new city—with all of your belongings in tow, no friends yet, and that long drive monologue you gave yourself about how you were going to kill PT school. You were going to take the best notes, find the best resources, ask the best questions, and everyone in your cohort was going to be blown away by your awesomeness.

A couple of months later: midterms have come, and your meticulous study plans somehow didn’t account for that hike you took last week and that spontaneous YouTube binge on videos of how to poach an egg (Easter 2016: it’s harder than it looks). This is my ultimate panic time; I freeze up! As the exam looms closer, I feel more and more guilty every time I start studying. When I see a lecture I’m not familiar with yet, my chest tightens and I angrily ask myself why I hadn’t studied it earlier. This is where that guilt comes in.

If you’re in PT school, then you likely ENJOY studying—that is, learning about something that you’re passionate about. However, guilt is a common side effect when you tie your learning to your self-worth or performance on a test.

My biggest lesson in PT school (and something I’m still actively working on) is to leave guilt at the door and instead zoom in on what’s in front of me on my desk. A lot of the time, studying can be downright pleasant when you allow yourself to not know everything already.

5. Find your 10-minute routine

Whether it’s 10 minutes of stretching, meditating, or (if you’re like me) playing the new Zelda game (which is fantastic, by the way), schedule something you do alone for 10 minutes at the same time every day. This can help you take a break, reset, and reconnect.

Take those 600 seconds out of your busy schedule to do something that is purely for you. It doesn’t have to be Instagram-worthy; you just need to enjoy it.

6. Learn something that’s not school-related every semester

I started PT school determined to read hundreds of books, learn new languages, and be the ultimate, well-rounded badass I thought I was. If I could talk to my first-semester self, I’d tell myself to calm down. All of that isn’t possible.

However, I am a huge proponent of learning something independent of your classmates. Whether it’s a cooking class, learning guitar, or figuring out how to braid your daughter’s hair (if you don’t have a daughter, find a classmate to borrow from), make time to learn something completely new!

7. “No” is a complete sentence

Yes, I heard this from Oprah.

It extends beyond its original context, though. As a PT student, you need to learn to say no. No to extra activities, no to extra studying. Set your limits and stick to them. Whether it’s that extra review session or food prepping for the week, it’s sometimes okay to opt-out—no explanation necessary. I’m still working on this daily!

8. No need to rationalize

As a continuation of #7: if I’m having an off day, I immediately look for the culprit. Did I not sleep well? Am I subconsciously stressed about a presentation or exam? Do I need a haircut (definitely)? If I can’t find a reason for my mood, my next step is to convince myself that I have every reason in the world to be happy, capable, and productive.

Here’s what I’ve learned: you don’t have to prove to yourself that you are happy. If you can’t rationalize your mood, that’s okay. Give yourself a few deep breaths and maybe adjust your goals for the day. Accept your mood for what it is.

9. Reflect!

Okay, I go to a Jesuit university. This is a large part of our curriculum. However, regardless of what program you’re in, it is helpful to individually reflect on where you are and how you feel.

This may sound like you’re back in Kindergarten—having structured time and activities to think about what you’ve done. This has, however, been one of the most profound routines I’ve introduced into my life since starting PT school. My recommendation is to write down 3 things I’m grateful for every night before going to bed.

Take the time to practice gratitude, and PT school suddenly gets a lot more manageable.

10. Remember what makes you, YOU

My first semester of PT school felt like a class-wide existential crisis. Where you used to be the minority, you’re now one of an entire cohort of fitness-loving science nerds. This can be a blow to your sense of uniqueness, but it’s an excellent opportunity to disconnect from the idea that your extracurriculars define who you are.

Take your 3 years in PT school to disassociate from your resume and start focusing on what will make you an excellent clinician, partner, and friend. Coming to Colorado for PT school, I soon realized that EVERYONE loved backpacking, yoga, and exploring. It was a good reminder for me that my friends and family didn’t love me for my activities; I was more than what I spent my time on. Remind yourself of this, and find ways to connect with your cohort and friends in more ways than just shared interests.

We can all find balance in PT school

If you’re reading this post, then you’re already cognizant that a balance between PT school and your life is integral to living fully and successfully. I’m still trying out new strategies to stay centered and concurrently continue to grow as a person in PT school. By remembering these tenets, I can honestly say that PT school has been much more fun than it has been stressful. Best of luck in your studies, and I hope you come out of PT school knowing yourself better than when you started.

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