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The Graduate Student Summer: Fostering a Balanced Summer Self

For those of us who grew up in the American public school system, it is hard to forget those blissful days when the ring of the final bell on the final day of school meant three months of blissful summer freedom. Yes, many of us still had “work” to do over the summer: summer jobs, perhaps, or summer school and studying to help us “get ahead” or “catch up” in one way or another. But despite those responsibilities, the summers of my childhood were always a chance to take a deep breath and recuperate from the fast pace of the fall, winter, and spring months. A chance to get lost in the woods behind my house, swim in a muddy river, and spend evenings at the local drive-in (yes, we had one of those).

The slower pace of summer followed me into my professional life. I was an English teacher before going back to school to earn my doctorate, and as any teacher is likely to tell you (including this one, a teacher blogger and friend of mine), summers are an important job perk. Though (much like graduate students), teachers rarely have the summer “off,” the pace slows down enough for them enjoy time with friends and family that they struggle to find during the school year.

Being a teacher certainly impacted my understanding of what “summer” is and should be, and though this has changed now that I am (back) in graduate school, it has not changed so much as to be unrecognizable. As a teacher, I spent many of my summer days getting work done in the morning (curriculum planning, studying for the GRE, or completing my master’s portfolio) and then spending time in my gardens, downtown, or at the gym in the afternoon.

A look at my (week)day as a summer graduate student reveals a not-so-different routine:

6am-8:30am: Morning Tasks. Wake up, feed the dog, make coffee, talk to my partner (Kristoff, a pharmacology postdoc at U-M), absentmindedly listen to a few segments of the local news and The Today Show, load the dishwasher.

8:30am-11am: Do something dissertation-related. Right now, because I just finished data collection, this means transcription of interviews, organization of files, or quantitative analysis. In the fall, it will mean drafting dissertation chapters. I try to do something that requires a little more brainpower in the morning, when I’m more focused and fresh.

11am-1pm: Midday break. Sometimes this is longer or shorter, depending on the day, but this often involves a workout for me, a walk for the pup, and lunch. And I take lunch seriously, often cooking something special for myself, like udon stir fry with local veggies (one of my favorites). As I eat, I check my RSS feeds or browse the headlines on CNN.com.

1pm-5pm: Do something work-related. Note that I said work-related, not dissertation-related. This could be dissertation work, but my afternoon is more flexible. Sometimes, I write a post for one of my blogs in response to an article I encountered on my RSS feed. Sometimes, I do some work for one of my other projects. Sometimes, I do some reading for my side job tutoring local high school students. It really just depends on what’s coming up, what needs to get done immediately, and honestly, my frame of mind on any particular day. If I’ve hit a data analysis groove, I keep going. If not, I stop.

5pm-11pm: Do something else. At this point, I’m done for the day. Okay, yes, the timestamp on my computer reads 6:07pm right now. I’ll admit, “blogging” tends to fall into a special category of work-meets-play, though I usually consider it part of my work. But on most days, I call it quits around 5pm and start cooking, cleaning the house, or playing with my pup.

Why stick to this schedule? This is what helps me stay productive. It’s summer, and in Ann Arbor, we only get these few months of sunny beautiful weather. Short bursts of work broken up by substantial breaks helps me get things done each day while still enjoying what summer in Ann Arbor has to offer: Walks in The Arb, The Art Fair, and a meal on a downtown patio with friends. Do I put in 8-hour workdays in the summer? Certainly not. Total the number of hours of work time above, and you’ll notice that on most days, I only log about six and a half hours of work time. Yes, this might flux up (like today) – but it will also flux down.

I also know not everyone works like I do. I’m in a small program, and even among the 25-or-so of us in the Joint Program in English and Education, there are vastly different work styles, each of which offer particular advantages and disadvantages. Some of my friends and colleagues work late at night, reserving morning time for family, cleaning, and/or errands. Others work in long bursts of productivity, followed by full days off.

In an effort to recognize the diversity of ways graduate students today stay productive during (while still enjoying) summer, I did a bit of crowdsourcing. Here are some strategies other graduate students have used to stay productive during the summer months. I have drawn excerpts from their responses and grouped them for the sake of conciseness. Basically, responses fell into one of four categories: setting manageable daily goals, keeping our whole selves happy, finding positive and supportive others, and being sure to thoroughly enjoy time spent away from the dissertation:

Set Small Goals

A graduate student at U-M
Make a series of "to do" lists--by category (exams, research, diss, personal, etc)--and try to get something done from two lists every day.

A graduate student at The University of Illinois-Chicago
Set a task for yourself each day to complete rather than one continuous long task. Breaking it down, I can tackle one small task, then have the remainder of the day for myself.

A graduate student at U-M
Send proposals to summer conferences (ideally proposals that are the kernels of dissertation chapters).

A graduate student at University of Virginia
Set 2 (or however many) public "daily goals" and track when you get them done. Sometimes there's a small prize for the most productive person.

An assistant professor, former U-M student
Writing was the very first thing I did every morning, and I mean THE VERY FIRST THING. That way I would usually get a couple of pages down before breakfast, and--having already produced something--I felt free to choose whether to go back to the writing later or call it a day and do other stuff without feeling guilty about it.

Surround Yourself with Supportive Others

A graduate student from U-M
Share your writing and thinking with others as much as you can, even when it's not very good.

A graduate student from U-M
Meet regularly with people who care about you and your work. I would call it "supportive accountability."

Find Ways to Stay Positive

A graduate student at U-M
Give yourself grace. Teaching and researching each take a particular kind of emotional toll, so you need to find ways to feed your spirit. For me, that's digging in my garden, picking wild fruit, and taking long, aimless walks in fields or forests. I'm getting my work done this summer because I give myself grace to start and end my days in these ways, with dedicated work time in between. Whatever yours is, find the place where you feel most whole, and unapologetically dwell there on a regular basis.

A graduate student at U-M
Tape encouraging words to your monitor and desk.

A graduate student at UC-Berkeley
Don't feel guilty when you're not working; instead, enjoy that time to the fullest extent possible, so that you're refreshed when you do get back to work. The problem is being in that in between state where you're not actually accomplishing either goal (working or relaxing), and no good of any type comes of it!

A graduate student at U-M
Be kind to yourself, be kind to others. Keep a bottle of wine in the fridge and your mom and best friend on speed dial. Don't forget how lucky you are to be doing this work.

Protect Your Weekends and Time Off

A graduate student at Purdue
I have deadlines set for different projects throughout the summer to make sure I don't fall behind on progress. But never work on Friday or Saturday, it is summer after all.

A graduate student at U-M
Compartmentalize: work when you work, play when you play. Be realistic about how much you're going to work--small and consistent is better than binge writing infrequently.

A graduate student at U-M
In the summer, I typically don't work weekends, and I NEVER turn down lunch invites if I can help it.

However you manage your summer days as a graduate student, it’s important that we take the opportunity, as one of my colleagues notes, to “give ourselves grace” by enjoying the beautiful weather, the somewhat relaxed pace, and the opportunity to plan our days around specific, well-defined small goals. It’s also important to remember, especially when the days get long, the writing gets tedious, and the isolation of dissertating begins to weigh on our hearts, how lucky we are to have the (relative) freedom of flexible schedules and the ability to do the meaningful work and research that we do. So even though I do not still enjoy the euphoria of that final bell on the final day of school (or go to drive-ins), I can enjoy a summer evening after a productive day of writing with my partner, my dog, and my friends.