Sunday, August 28, 2011

Déjà vu and the Balancing Act

Thanks to my brother Jake for altering this comic for me.

We have come to the time of year all grad students dread: the end of the summer, which means the return of the undergrads and our various semester-related duties (classes and/or teaching). In these last few uninterrupted days I am cramming in an immune assay that will be much easier to do when I’m not having to schedule it around meetings and teaching obligations.

This transition along with a New York Times special section on graduate school (came out a few weeks ago, but a professor just brought it to my attention) has me thinking about what the life of a grad student is “normally” like (and I guess when I say normal, I mean during the school year). We are always transitioning between one thing and another, going from teaching a discussion section in the morning to working on a grant application to doing some lab work, having to prioritize what we actually will get done (i.e. what can we half-ass the best today and what is going to take the front burner), with our constant companion being a guilty feeling like we should be working more, especially when we aren’t working and doing something like eating, watching TV, sleeping, or spending time with our spouse.

With any full-time job comes the multi-tasking and extra-busy periods, but I think the biggest difference is with a lot of jobs when you come home you leave your work at work. There isn’t the nagging feeling that you could or should be working on something all the time. Some grad students, they do work all the time, and a lot of them are really happy doing that and often have very productive PhDs as the result. But for those of us that can’t work all the time, it takes a while to find a balance between work and non-work where we don’t feel guilty and still get everything done.

The need for breaks was really solidified for me during pre-lims (part of our qualifying exams). This is a very intense period during our second year in grad school where we have six months to answer four essay questions and then orally defend those questions. There is so much to read and write that you can work all the time, and I did pretty much work on pre-lims whenever I wasn’t in class or sleeping. I did decide that I would take Saturdays off, or at least not work very much those days. I also started doing yoga that semester, which has become a regular part of my routine now. Making the decision to have a break helped be not worry all weekend that I should be working on my pre-lim answers. But, because I was taking a pretty hard class at the same time, I did end up working on the homework for that class with other people on Saturdays, which killed my one free day. The homeworks being really difficult for me would sometimes send me over the edge of stress, making me incapable of working at all that day and undoing any productivity. I felt like a huge bitch on the weeks where I ended up not having a break, even though my friends deny that I actually was.

Now that I am back at the point in the year when I can’t do whatever I need to do whenever I want because of teaching responsibilities and meetings, I need to get back to honing my multi-tasking skills. There is a lot of work to get done and never enough time to do it all. But making down-time one of the things that balances out the week will hopefully make this an efficient and enjoyable semester.

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