Setting Healthy Boundaries in Academia

by | Apr 18, 2017

Setting boundaries is often noted as the first steps toward achieving work life balance. But what constitute boundaries in the realm of higher education, in graduate school, in professional life writ large? And perhaps most importantly, how can you set and maintain healthy boundaries in academia?

Boundaries as a Tool

It can be helpful to see boundaries as a tool that helps you work more effectively, rest more intentionally, be present in the moment, and ultimately build a life that reflects your priorities.

We often think about boundaries in the context of work, specifically around blocking out time to work more efficiently. Boundaries can function in this way certainly, but when used thoughtfully they help you do more than just divide up your daily routine.

Boundaries can help you create space between your emotional needs and the needs of those around you, craft distinct home and work (and private and public) lives, and build a sense of agency over your physical, intellectual, and emotional resources.

Putting some thought into what boundaries feel right for you and being clear about them to yourself and others can help you become a better student, mentor, teacher, employer, and scholar.

Where to Begin

If you don’t know how to approach the task of setting boundaries, turn to your mentors for help. Ask them how they structure their day—if they do work from home, what does their routine looks like? This conversation can also help you get a sense of the expectations at your particular school, department, or office.

Keep in mind, however, that boundaries are ultimately very personal. Boundaries are, in essence, about priorities and they should reflect your priorities, not those of your mentors, friends, partner, or parents.

Boundaries Should Be Firm—but Sustainable

It is helpful to set firm boundaries and to put thought and care into the process—otherwise what’s the point? But remember to regularly check in with yourself to see if your boundaries still feel right and relevant.

Because they are a tool and there to serve you in preserving and maximizing your strengths, they should above all be useful. This means that what works for you today may well not work next week or next semester. Approach boundaries as firm on the short term, and flexible and fluid over time as you learn from experience.

Boundaries in Academia Are a Political Issue

In our heightened public conversation around resistance, the notion of breaking boundaries might be more visible as a progressive project, but setting healthy boundaries is also a political act.

We are not encouraged to set boundaries in academia, so recognize that maintaining yours will likely take vigilance, and at times you will feel you’re going against the grain.

Since boundaries should be about making the most of your limited emotional, intellectual, personal, and physical resources, resist the message, particularly pervasive in academic life, that strength means plowing through the challenges that come from physical pain, emotional distress, lack of sleep or invaded space. It is ableist to presume that strength can only mean being all things to all people or pushing yourself to the limit.

Strategies for Maintaining Boundaries

So with all this in mind, what are some practical ways you can fold healthy boundaries into your short- and long-term self-care plans?

  • Keep a to-do list—and stick to it
  • Block out time in your day for specific tasks and guard that time from interruptions.
  • Remember that it is okay to keep your door closed or your headphones on, especially if you are sharing a cramped office space with others.
  • Set limits on when you will check and respond to email—and make those limits clear to colleagues and students. A note on your syllabus about what time of day you stop checking email (say, after 8 pm), or how long a student should expect to wait for a response from you (for example, 24 hours) goes a long way.
  • Ask for what you need from others, especially when doing service work. Writing recommendation letters, for example, should be re-framed as a collaborative task.
  • Chose what you share. If a colleague, student, or classmate opens up to you, see that as a mark of their trust. However, don’t feel obligated to share anything about yourself you aren’t comfortable with just because they did. Their boundaries might look different then yours—and that’s fine.

Boundaries Are about Communication

You may well receive some push-back when setting and sticking to your boundaries, and this can produce anxiety. Take time to draft a brief script that both clarifies for yourself why you set the boundary and prepares you for what you’ll say when your boundary is questioned.

This is not about being defensive or justifying your decision. Rather, see this an opportunity to reflect on the value of that boundary to you, and to practice clear, respectful communication with others. To this end, the work of communicating your boundaries is itself also about setting boundaries on what you will and won’t say and share.

With all of this in mind, try to embrace boundaries as liberating; preserving your energy, clearing your head, resting and taking space for yourself are important ways to help you work towards your bigger goals.

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Alexandra Sastre is the associate director of campus communications at Swarthmore College.

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