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10 ways to keep your sanity as a Ph.D. / Graduate student (part 1)

15 Jan

As I head into another term as an English Ph.D. student, I’m thinking back on what I’ve learned over the past year and a half as an English Ph.D. student and what keeps me — or what I now know doesn’t keep me — safe, sane, and occasionally exuberantly happy as I take classes, teach classes, try to manage the “more things to do than time available to do them in” dance of academic research, navigate the politics of the university, and try — oh, how I try! — to craft a meaningful career out of academia.

1. Do something completely creative or fulfilling that is NOT related to your graduate work and that is entirely without high stakes at least once a day. Seriously. This is, I think, the hardest thing to really commit yourself to, because it can, in many ways, feel like such a waste of time. But that’s actually the whole point: that you “waste” some time, every day, doing something that brings you joy. I mean, there’s no way you’re not going to waste some time, so wouldn’t it be better if, while wasting this time, you enriched your life? Instead of just looking at silly puppy videos on YouTube (which, okay, I do a lot and which, yes, I think is actually a totally useful way to spend a few minutes), spend that time journaling or going for a walk or taking photos of the sunset or soaking in a bath or volunteering at an animal shelter or, if you’re me, blogging. It’s not that any one of these activities is better or worse than any other “waste of time” activity, but they all give something back to you. And you deserve to be given back to. Moreover, everything we do in grad school feels like life or death. Didn’t get the grant proposal in on time? You lose your funding! Didn’t finish reading that article? You’re going to fail your exams! You get the picture… And while all of these things might not actually be quite so high-stakes, they all feel like it. So pick a hobby that makes you feel good and that isn’t itself just another thing I have to get done before I go to bed.

2. Practice being kind to yourself for at least five minutes everyday. I don’t know what this looks like for you, because I think we all need different sorts of kindness, but for me it means the following: for five minutes while I get dressed in the morning and then five more minutes while I get ready for bed at night, I commit to only saying kind things about myself. While I put on makeup, I say that I am smart and creative instead of putting myself down for the spots on my face or harping on why I feel I need to wear makeup. While I get dressed, I say that I am smart and creative instead of telling myself that I’m fat or wishing my breasts were smaller. While I brush my teeth at night, I tell myself that I am smart and creative instead of reading back to myself the litany of things I could have done better during the day. Why do I repeat this mantra? Why is this advice particular for grad students? Well, we get told all the time, by our instructors and our peers and ourselves, that we should be trying harder, that we aren’t going to make it, that the odds are against us, that we are miles behind, that our best isn’t good enough. And as a woman, I’m sent similar messages about my worth from the media and the hegemonic systems of patriarchal power that we all live within. A little reminder that I am, in fact, smart and creative and worthy is a rare and precious thing.  Therefore, the simple act of not repeating those negative academic and social messages and in fact countering those messages is, I believe, revolutionary and, more importantly, makes me feel a little better, a little more hopeful, a little more human.

3. Don’t forget to enjoy your work. If you love that novel that was assigned for a class, read it and love it and experience the joy of loving it. If you’re excited about your research, gush about it to a friend and fantasize about what it could lead to. Grad school is not all thankless, but enough of it is, so we should make particularly sure that we don’t take the joy out of what we already love.

4. Be proud of your accomplishments. How often do we politely deflect praise, nitpick our performance, or tell ourselves that, no matter what, we could have done that better? If you’re me, the answer would be: a lot. Instead, take the opportunity to be immodest. Crow occasionally. Be satisfied with the work you’ve done. Find something to love about the way you’re spending your time. You not only deserve this kind of treatment, but you need to realize that you’ll only be fulfilled in your work if you like it, regardless of what others are telling you about it.

5. Make lists. Nothing is more stressful than I know I’m forgetting something. So write it down: to do lists for the weekend, to do lists for your chores, to do lists for things you need to tell your students, to do lists for emails you need to write, timelines for your research, timelines for your academic datelines, etc. Not only will you feel better knowing that you can rely on the list instead of your (stress- or lack of sleep- or occasionally booze-addled) mind. Plus, studies show that simply the act of writing — of converting intangible memory to tactile words, of using both sides of your brain — helps to solidify your memory!

6. Make consistent lists. It’s not worth much if you can’t ever find that super important note that I just know I wrote down on some slip of paper — it must be here somewhere. Is it in my desk at home? I’ve been there, and that’s why I now take notes in one or the other of exactly TWO and only two places: my day planner or, if for some reason it’s not on me, my cell phone. Hats off to those of you who’ve combined the two — my technological capacity is still slightly lower.

7. Create structure and set goals. While it can be thrilling to have the whole summer to work through your exams’ reading list or to be finished with coursework and therefore have tons of time to work on your dissertation, this open-ended time can, in contrast, be crushing, overwhelming, paralyzing. So break things down and make them into manageable tasks: I will read one chapter and one one article a day. I will write one chapter a week. I will make three pages of notes for each thing I read. Do the math — how much do you have to do and how much time do you have to do it in and how long does it take you to do each item? Add it up and divide it out — this will not only keep you going, it will also help reduce your anxiety because you’ll be able to trust that you will get through that WHOLE list soon enough. An important note: make sure that the goals you set are accomplishable. While it’s good to challenge yourself, if those challenges cannot be met, you’re setting yourself up not only for failure, but also for lowered confidence and self-esteem, which helps no one.

8. Create accountability. This is especially important for the kind of work we do without much supervision, like teaching and studying for exams and dissertating. It’s easy to make those lists and build that structure, but if you have no one to report to but yourself, it can also be easy to slip into a cycle of not meeting your own expectations, making excuses, feeling shitty, and then getting overwhelmed by the mounting overflow work. Instead, make a weekly date with a friend where you report to each other how things are going or create study groups, even if you’re not all working on the exact same materials. Not only will this make sure you don’t drop the ball, but just spending that time explaining what you’ve been working on will help solidify it in your mind and be valuable practice for when you have to explain yourself to — gulp! — exam panels or dissertation chairs or hiring committees.

9. Give yourself rewards. I have a lovely friend — Hi, Chelsea! — who rewards herself with a delicious bottle of our favorite wine every time she finishes a dissertation chapter. Brilliant! There’s some Pavlovian stuff going on there: she now associates finishing a chapter with yummy wines. But there’s also a celebratory aspect that I think is equally important; when we have four, five, six chapters to write, and then edit, and then submit for review, and then edit again, and then…. it can begin, I’d argue, to feel like a never-ending, thankless task. So what Chels is doing is celebrating the small accomplishments as they come, which (if the rest of this list is to be believed) is of the utmost importance for our sanity.

10. Work hard, play hard, and spend some time just lying in bed renewing. It’s important to put in a good day’s work. It’s equally important to go out with friends and have a whole heap of fun. It’s also equally important to, when the mood strikes, spend the evening in your pajamas, drinking cocoa and knitting and watching silly movies. Don’t diminish any of those tasks. Don’t feel like you need to justify yourself for not going out to the pub because you want to finish grading, or going out to the pub when you have more grading to do, or choosing grilled cheese and reruns of House over a shopping trip with the gals. You need to figure out your own balance and then honor that.

So there’s my two (ten?) cents on the matter — but now it’s your turn: what are the tips and tricks you all use to keep your sanity in grad school?