“To be or not to be?”: Time and Graduate Life

The two sides of our time...photo by GradLife McGill Instagrammer @falisha.k

The two sides of our time…photo by GradLife McGill Instagrammer @falisha.k

Full name: Graduate Student. When your name is Graduate and your surname Student, you come to realize how the word time gets more and more often into your conversations. It’s always a matter of time: the time you are supposed to spend sleeping, the time for eating and feeding yourself up (yes, it does exist!), the time you would like to invest in hobbies or working out, the time to wake up, the time to love, the time to submit a paper, to get out from the library, to study, to read, to teach, to cheer, to…what?  Although you may find as many ways to talk about your graduate time as David Foster Wallace would do (and have a look at Infinite Jest’s footnotes to have an idea), there is one time that would never disappear, that is the time that we lack, the time that we may need to do all the things that we want to do.

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Hobbies can teach you how to have a life and can yield unexpected professional benefits

The summer is quickly winding to a close, and a shiny new fall term is just around the corner. This year promises to be extremely busy – I’m attending three conferences, have plans for two (or three!) more manuscripts, will be TAing two courses, and there’s an absolute pile of beetles still screaming for my attention. Add to that my online activities and the other time-consuming miscellany of academia, and this geek’s schedule is looking pretty darned full! (Note to advisor: yes, I will get some research done too, promise!)

I’m sure you all often find yourselves in similar situations. I’m also willing to bet that many of you have hobbies and personal interests that you wish you could spend more time pursuing, but often feel obligated to leave to the end of the “to do” list since it’s not “real work”.

I would argue that it’s not only important, but also necessary, to carve out a bit of time to do these things that make you happy. Academics (and students) have a terrible tendency to have one-track (tenure-track?) minds: it’s all research, all the time. It can turn into a viscous and chronic bout of workaholism, leading to dissatisfaction, stress, depression and ultimately burnout.

I think that the grad student years are a great time to practice the arts of time management, priority-setting, and even the very difficult skill of saying “no” to things that maybe aren’t all that interesting or important to you,  so that you can learn how to have a life in spite of your academic obligations.

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Making time for myself

As an undergraduate, my day-to-day existence was a predictable weekly pattern consisting of lectures and lab sessions, homework, shifts at my part-time jobs, and time to just chill and have fun with my friends and flatmates.   This prescribed and comfortable routine changed a LOT when I entered the strange universe of grad school as a M.Sc. student; suddenly I was only taking a course or two each term, and spending the rest of my time figuring out how to do this thing called “research”.  Now, as a Ph.D. candidate, my time has become very much my own to manage.

It’s funny: at first I assumed that the lack of course work would translate into a nice, stable, 9-to-5-ish existence, similar to the one I had when I was in the workforce and had a Real Job.  Then the reality of the enormous amount of work I had to do hit me.  Sometimes it seems like there are simply not enough hours in the day to get it all done and that I’m forever juggling how I prioritize items on my to-do list   One thing that I am consistently guilty of shuffling onto the “To attend to later – way later” pile – is me.

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