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Beat the Burnout

I knew I’d hit a particularly low point when, this January, I found myself spending more time than I’d care to admit Googling “psychics in Boston.” I was still recovering from a flu that had knocked me out for nearly three weeks, amidst which I’d flown to Chicago for the MLA conference (literature’s big field conference, for the unfamiliar). It might have been the physical toll of the illness – the worst I can remember in years. Or perhaps it was the psychic toll of the conference and all it represented – a conference where countless others interviewed for tenure-track jobs that I might never have a chance at despite everything I’d accomplished. Most likely, it was both as well as a a total adrenaline crash from the previous six months of defending my dissertation and starting a new job (and new courses) without taking a significant break.

I guess I figured a psychic would help. I never been to one in my life and I’ve never really been one to believe too much in that kind of “New Age” stuff, aside from reading my horoscope with some regularity (shout-out to my fellow Scorpios and to Sonia Saraiya for perfectly encapsulating my feelings on this matter). But I know that what I was really searching for online was not the psychic at all – it was answers: a sense of certainty . I wanted someone to neatly unfurl the future before me. I wanted someone to tell me to keep going, to tell me it would be ok, to tell me everything would work out as it’s supposed to at a time when I was seriously struggling to tell myself.

I was riddled with guilt. I had succeeded in getting a job and one, moreover, that I not only truly loved but that, as far as contingent positions go, is about as good as it gets (low course loads, relative stability, outstanding colleagues and students). How could I possibly complain? I was also riddled with doubt. Was I doing enough to be rehired for next year? Did my students like me? Was it ok that I was producing scholarship at a much slower rate than during graduate school? Would I ever find a publisher for my work-in-progress? Would I ever get anywhere on that work? Did any of it matter? I couldn’t shake the feeling that everything I did – everything I was pushing myself to to do – was utterly meaningless, even though it still felt important to me.

It seems clear enough now that I had a real case of burnout. Ironically enough, this was around the time when burnout was a hot topic thanks to Anne Helen Petersen’s viral Buzzfeed article and several important responses to it. And while I recognized that my burnout, like Petersen’s, bears a certain incontrovertible degree of privilege, the article seemed to articulate some of the deep-seated feelings I was experiencing (and I mused, too, that it didn’t seem incidental that Petersen had also earned her PhD). For the better part of the year, I had been tired, anxious, and irritable (some of those, familiar feelings), but I was also increasingly forgetful, missing deadlines or appointments because they simply slipped my mind (sorry GradHacker Eds for the sometimes last-minute posts!), less motivated and productive than usual, more prone to procrastination, and generally, almost consumingly, demoralized. Reading Petersen’s article made me feel less alone.

I write this now hoping that it might make someone else, too, feel less alone. We know that mental health is a crisis in academia and that the solution ultimately has to be systemic, not individual. Nonetheless, we at GradHacker HQ haven’t shied away from offering advice on how to overcome slumps in the hopes that it could provide temporary solace. While the majority of this advice has focused on solutions for getting your groove back  academically or pedagogically, I want to take a slightly different tack and talk about some of the most effective things ― some work-related, others more general ― that have helped me start to beat the burnout (or that might prevent it in the first place!)

Make a Long-Term To-Do List
When I’m feeling particularly overwhelmed or unmotivated (the two are often not mutually exclusive), I find it helpful to make a long-term to-do list. It can be easy to get wrapped up in the idea that everything needs to happen at once: that chapter needs to be finished, that article revised, that syllabus revamped, etc. For me, at least, I can lose sight of the bigger picture when I start to stress about everything that needs to be accomplished, seemingly at the same time. In those moments, I’ve found that it can be useful to take a step back and revisit my expectations and timelines, parsing out important tasks over a series of a few weeks, months or even years. Often I’ve found that breaking down big tasks into a series of smaller steps and smaller deadlines can take the pressure off the immediacy of the short-term to-do list; it not only helps me implement a doable plan but helps me refocus on the few key things that actually need to be done quickly so I’m better able to manage my time and, perhaps more importantly, my attention.

Prioritize Your Own Work
When I’m feeling burned out I often find it’s because the majority of my time and attention has been concentrated on tasks that primarily benefit other people ― everything from responding to emails, to grading or tutoring, to departmental or community service, to research assistantships. Don’t get me wrong,these things are important, and they are things that I often enjoy immensely. Taken together, though, they can sometimes leave me feeling drained and unable to prioritize my own research/projects/activities. Recently, I was listening to a podcast interview with “Intern Queen” Lauren Berger. One of the pieces of advice she gave that particularly resonated with me, drawn from her recent book, was to start your workday with tasks that are crucial to you rather than with email or something for someone else. It’s not always possible, of course, but I’ve tried to make it a practice to do just a little bit of work on my own projects before I delve into other, externally motivated tasks. Even if it’s only an hour or so, it’s made a world of difference in terms of my outlook and ability to find balance in my day, so I don’t feel like I’m constantly working without any output to show for it. I even started using a Pomodoro timer (where has this been all my life?) and just two or three cycles on an otherwise busy day can be enough to do the trick!

Reframe Your Idea of Productivity
Perhaps the most oft-repeated piece of advice for beating burnout is to take a break. But if you’re someone like me who has trouble truly relaxing, taking time off can be really difficult to do (especially in a culture of academic overwork), even though it’s vital. “Taking a break” and not doing anything can sometimes be more anxiety provoking. I’ve found, however, that when I do need to take a break from academic life, the best thing to do short of taking time off entirely is completing other tasks that are still productive but are not necessarily work-related. I’ll spend a day listening to music or podcasts while cleaning my apartment. Or I’ll take my dog to the park and maybe run a few errands while I’m out. I might schedule a few appointments that I’ve been neglecting. These are not always the most exciting tasks, but they can afford me the mental break I really need while also keeping my mind and body occupied. The point is, though, that you absolutely have to reframe what counts as “productive”; doing so goes a long way!

Go Dark on Social Media
For me academic twitter has been, in equal measure, a great networking resource and a source of extreme anxiety. While it’s allowed me to connect with scholars in my field across the country, organize panels, and learn about new research, it’s also been a constant reminder of other people’s productivity and successes. I myself sometimes fall into the habit of using Twitter as a highlight reel instead of posting the good and the bad. Nearly every time I post I feel an intense urge to delete it, out of both embarrassment and fear of contributing to the problem (many times, I do). It can be incredibly unsettling to scroll through Twitter and find post after post after post of people doing amazing pedagogical things, writing countless articles, going to all the conferences, seeming to be endlessly productive, especially when you’re struggling to do so (and even if it’s not real life). The relentlessness of the question “how will I ever keep up and get a job with all these accomplished people around?” can be paralyzing. Social media ― not just Twitter, but Facebook and Instagram too ― can breed insecurity and self-doubt. This is not news. As a result, it can be really beneficial to cut it out entirely or at least limit your intake. While I daily consider but haven’t yet gone dark on Twitter entirely, I have set limits on my phone that only allow me to scroll for 10 minutes a day, and I’ve made a conscious effort not check it first thing in the morning so it doesn’t set a negative tone for my day. Checking it in moderation has prevented me from dwelling too much on what everyone else is or seems to be doing and instead to focus on what I’m doing.

Change Your Environment
Right around the time I was feeling especially burned-out, organizing-guru Marie Kondo’s Netflix special had just been released. Like many, I binged the show and immediately ran to my closet and started folding and organizing (because compartmentalizing your belongings is better than compartmentalizing your feelings, am I right?). I was not only decluttering but changing my space in a tangible way. Indeed, if there is “life-changing magic” in Kondo’s method (questionable views on books aside), it’s because, at base, Kondo is advocating for changing and re-charging the energy of the space we occupy. And this change of energy is not just about the physical or material but is ultimately mental, too. I think that changing your environment can be impactful, forcing you out of or mixing up a familiar space or perspective. This could be big things (going for a walk in a new spot, taking a trip to a new place) but it can also be much smaller ones (rearranging furniture, decluttering belongings). In one of the episodes I was watching, Kondo said that in the morning she likes to open the window and light incense to change the air in the room. Hokey as it sounds and as hokey as it definitely felt, I took her advice to heart and went to my office. While I don’t have any windows, I did light incense. And even if it was just a placebo effect, that small step quite surprisingly made a huge difference because I felt like I was no longer passively accepting my burnout but was taking active steps to combat it. I was in control of my space and environment; it couldn’t consume me. I changed the air in the room and found that my perspective began to change slowly, but undeniably too.

And for the record: I never did get to the psychic, but I’m still open to recommendations for a good one!

Your First Year in a Ph.D. Program

Julie: Usually we write about the end stages of the doctoral-student career as soon-to-be Ph.D.’s prepare for the job market. But this month we’d like to step back and offer advice to those just starting out in graduate school.

We believe early career planning is especially important in the current climate surrounding doctoral education. From all sides, Ph.D. students hear that their fields are in jeopardy, that research and teaching positions are shrinking, and that the doctoral path is one taken only by the rich or the financially foolish. That refrain is especially heard in the humanities, as typified by Jordan Weissmann’s recent blog post for The Atlantic, but he has also written about the lack of jobs and the decline of research opportunities for scientists. Others have aired similar concerns about fields such as computer science, particle physics, and the biomedical sciences. The challenges faced by Ph.D.’s seeking work outside of academe even made The New York Times recently in an article entitled “The Repurposed Ph.D.”

Jenny: In our work as graduate-career counselors, we know doctoral students to be intellectually inquisitive and passionate about their fields. We also know that during years of graduate study their priorities may shift. Life, to many students’ surprise, doesn’t stop during a doctoral program. And no matter how much you love your field, research is work and, as such, can sometimes feel like a grind no matter how passionate you are about the topic.

Part of being an engaged graduate student is to manage those shifts in your priorities and attitudes over the long haul. A doctoral program, as the old saying goes, is more like a marathon than a sprint.

Julie: If you started your program in the fall, then you know how to get around the campus by now, and have developed a study schedule that works for you. It’s time to think about making the most of your first year.

First, find out what your department expects of you. I hope you attended the orientation for new graduate students in your department and have reviewed its website. Most departments will have sections about the Ph.D. process, taking you from course requirements through dissertation completion. Some departments may have a timeline that indicates what you should achieve in each year of your graduate program. Others may offer discussions on the nature and benefits of the various requirements and expectations of doctoral study.

Jenny: To get off to a good start it’s crucial to be involved in the life of your department and attend the activities, seminars, and meetings that it organizes for students. Faculty members will expect that of you and will see your participation as a sign of your level of engagement in the field.

Attending those events may sound like an added burden, in addition to your coursework and teaching responsibilities, but think of it as a chance to get to know people in your department. Graduate school can be an isolating experience, so it’s important to take the time to connect—intellectually and socially—with others, particularly in the early years of your program.

Julie: Second, understand that doctoral education is different from that offered at the undergraduate or professional-degree levels. Most people find that their doctoral program challenges them intellectually in ways they have never been challenged before. That can be exhilarating or discouraging, or both at the same time. It’s important to develop a support system that can help you get through the more stressful periods.

Jenny: Most departments provide a range of services, and it’s up to you to make use of them. Your department may offer regular professional-development seminars that can prepare you for teaching, writing grants, and going on the academic job market. Take the time to attend those seminars—including some during your first year—as they will help you to gain the skills that can set you up for success in your field down the road.

Julie: Many universities offer terrific professional-development opportunities through their career services, graduate-dean offices, teaching centers, and other departments, which often work together to sponsor such programs. Savvy students take advantage of those services regularly, while other students seem to be completely unaware of the programs or find out too late. Be the savvy student. Do a bit of research on your university’s website, talk to older students in your department, or stop by the writing/teaching/career/dean’s office and ask about the services they provide to doctoral students.

Jenny: Once you’ve chosen an adviser, that faculty member will likely become your main source of career and scholarly guidance. Julie and I have spoken with many graduate students in the course of our work, and we know how much this relationship can influence how a doctoral student experiences a program. A great adviser can make the experience wonderful; an absent, difficult, or even downright mean adviser can turn the experience into a misery.

So chose wisely. Do your “due diligence,” as a lawyer might say. In your first year or two in the department, get to know professors and their work, considering carefully who might be a good fit for you. And be sure to talk with students farther along in their programs about their experience with individual faculty members.

Julie: Your adviser will be in charge of helping you get your Ph.D, but you will be in charge of your career. It is vital that you pay attention to what interests you, rather than looking to your adviser for guidance on that. Keep track of potential areas of research interest. Eventually you will need to select a dissertation topic, and you will want it to be something that excites you. Take courses with different professors in your department and, when possible, in related areas of study. Be sure to introduce yourself to your professors, to fellow graduate students, to staff members (such as a graduate coordinator), and to administrators. You never know from where opportunities will arrive.

Jenny: Besides departmental events, attend lectures and programs elsewhere on the campus to widen your circle. It’s also a good idea to start to get to know your scholarly association’s website; read not just the scholarship but about the discipline itself and about the services the association offers. Most scholarly societies have listings of job announcements and fellowships, along with helpful professional advice. Too often, I see students who have missed a couple years’ worth of relevant information simply because they did not know to look to a scholarly association as a source of information and support.

Julie: Talk with more-advanced doctoral students who participate in graduate-student groups. At Penn, for example, we have active student groups involved in university governance (the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly), career interests (the Penn Biotech Group), and many other topics.

Consider joining a graduate-student group and maybe even taking on a leadership role. The organizational and administrative skills you develop—running the group, public speaking and presenting, committee work—can help you be a better student, manage your time better, and provide skills that you will need later in your career, academic or otherwise. It’s particularly important to establish a pattern in your career of regular interaction with others around a central goal or project—especially if you are in a discipline where you do most of your research on your own.

Jenny: Developing a range of skills will make you a stronger doctoral student. You will, of course, be better at some of those skills than at others. Take the time to build a level of comfort with the things that don’t come naturally to you, whether that means teaching, presenting, writing, or networking.

Most people have a natural tendency to avoid doing the things they perceive themselves to be “bad” at. Your doctoral program will offer you many opportunities to practice your areas of perceived weakness. Take advantage of them.

Julie: Jenny brings up something most people are more likely to associate with M.B.A. than Ph.D. programs—networking. As you go through your doctoral program, you should be building a network of contacts in your field and related ones, from both inside and outside your institution. Those people can be your collaborators—and sometimes your competition. Either way, knowing them will help you to keep abreast of developments in your field.

That is why conference attendance, even when you are just starting out, can be so important. Find out whether your university offers travel grants to help graduate students defray the costs of going to academic conferences. Keep an eye out for conferences happening near your institution. Many of the major scholarly societies have regional chapters, and attending those sessions is a good starting point.

Jenny: During your graduate training, be sure that you are keeping up your connections (and developing new ones) with people working outside of academe. That will be good for your general mental health and sense of perspective. And it will pay off if, upon earning your Ph.D., you pursue a nonacademic career.

Julie: Many students who start off in Ph.D. programs come to realize that it is not a good fit for them. That does not imply failure or lack of ability on the part of the student, but rather a mismatch between the goals of the doctoral program and the career goals of the student.

If that mismatch is where you now find yourself, go talk to someone about it. Visit the counseling center on your campus, or the career-services office. Many students find the first year of a doctoral program to be extremely challenging, and not just the workload. They are in a new city and trying to develop a new social circle. Talking to someone can help you sort out whether being in your particular program is the right fit for you.

Jenny: Finally, immerse yourself in your coursework but not so far in that you don’t take the time to follow up on some of our suggestions. Most of our recommendations complement your research and teaching experience and should enhance your first-year experience.

We invite our readers to share their tips and words of wisdom on the first-year doctoral experience by posting in the comments section below.

Sink or Skim?: Top Ten Tips for Reading in Grad School

The reading load for your graduate courses is quite substantial, not only in terms of the number of pages required per week, but also in terms of the complexity of the readings which are assigned. We understand that this can be intimidating at first, and have put together these tips to help you master your readings (instead of allowing the readings to master you!).

1. READ STRATEGICALLY, NOT LINEARLY (SCHOLARLY READING IS NOT LEISURE READING): When you read a book for pleasure, you most often read linearly – starting at the beginning and working your way through the book page by page. This is not necessarily the best strategy for academic reading. Your job is to read strategically – mining the text you are reading for information. You need to dive in, find the information you need, and move on to the next reading. Make use of the tables of contents, introductions and conclusions, and index, if there is one, as well as headers and sub-headers to help guide your strategic reading.

Questions to consider as you read strategically: What is the author trying to say? What is
motivating the explanation of the topic? What does this research contribute to our body of
knowledge or the world? What are the main arguments of the piece? How does this relate to other
assigned readings?

2. TAKE NOTES WHILE YOU READ: Take notes while you are reading, whether in the margins of the text, in a notebook, or on a computer. This will help you remember those thoughts and details that you identify as important, as well as assist you in comparing and contrasting different readings for the week. It can also be helpful to jot down questions, critiques, or observations you have. This will help you when it comes time for class discussion.

3. READ WITH A CRITICAL PERSPECTIVE: A critical perspective is helpful for situating what you are reading in a broader context, which is crucial for International Studies. Contrary to how it sounds, being critical does not simply mean being negative or criticizing everything. Rather, critical perspectives question assumptions and values that appear to be implicit in arguments.

Questions to consider when reading critically are: Who benefits from particular social structures and who is marginalized? What values underlie the work? What experiences and perspectives do these values privilege? How might focusing on different experiences re-frame the conversation?

4. READ FOR UNDERSTANDING, NOT MEMORIZATION: Your job when reading for grad school is not to memorize every detail of the assigned readings. There are no multiple choice exams in graduate school. Details such as names, dates, and data can be looked up at a later time. Rather read for general understanding of what the different authors are trying to say (using the questions outlined above to guide you).

5. KNOW HOW YOU WORK: Grad school is a lot of work – there is no doubt about that. In order to keep up with the demands (and keep your sanity), it is important to know how YOU work. Everyone works differently. Some people are morning people, some people are night people, some people like to highlight everything, some people like mind mapping, some people like sticky notes. What is important is that you figure out what works for you and stick to that. Do not compare yourself to your classmates and their working style.

6. TAKE A BREAK!: While the amount of reading may seem daunting and you might feel like you need to spend every waking moment tackling your assignments, it is absolutely crucial to take a break every now and again. Stand up, stretch, go for a walk, go out with friends, play with your dog. Whatever it is that relaxes you and gives your mind a break, make sure to take the time! Additionally, no one is at their most brilliant after an all-nighter. Make sure to get some sleep!

7. WORK WITH YOUR CLASSMATES: While everyone has to recognize their own work style and do the readings in a way that works best for them (see #5 above), that doesn’t mean you should ignore your classmates. Talk to each other about the readings, summarize them for each other, and discuss any questions or problems. One of the most effective ways of thoroughly understanding something is to try and explain it out loud to someone else. You are all in this together!

8. MANAGE YOUR TIME: Managing your time wisely is one of the most important skills in graduate school. If you have 300 pages of reading for your three classes in a given week, you know you will not be able to leave it all to the last minute. If you know you have three papers due at the end of the semester, do not plan on writing them all after Thanksgiving. Managing your time so that you leave yourself ample opportunity to do the work and do it well is crucial. Once again, everyone works in different ways, but find what works for you and make it a habit. One effective way is to work in 45-minute blocks. Beginning on the hour (for example 9 a.m.) work (read, write, etc.) for 45 minutes without interruption – no phone, no internet, no email, no TV. At 9:45, take a 15 minute break to do whatever you want. At 10 a.m., repeat with another 45 minute work block. You will be surprised how productive you can be with 45 minutes of working with no distraction.

9. CREATE THE RIGHT ENVIRONMENT: Create a reading space for yourself that is free of
distractions. Have a good chair and a good lamp. Don’t read lying down as it interferes with active engagement with the text. Whether your reading space is in your house, the library, or a café, creating the proper environment can have a positive effect on your understanding of the material.

10. PRIORITIZE: Sometimes, it is simply not possible to get it all done. While not completing all the readings for class should not become a habit, sometimes it cannot be helped. In those times, prioritization is crucial. Look at the syllabi for your course – what is the topic for the day? Which readings does the professor highlight or which seem to be most pertinent to the topic? Focus your efforts on reading for understanding based on the topic for the week. If you are really behind in a given week, talk to your professor and explain the situation. Ask if there is anything you should focus on for that week. Again, this should not happen frequently, but everyone gets behind sometimes. Don’t panic and continue working through the materials with all the tips outlined above

Healthy Living for the Graduate Student – The Basics

Where were you for the last four hours?  Most graduate students will answer, “In the lab” or “sitting at my computer.”  With the focus required for literature review, data analysis, writing manuscripts and bench research, it is unsurprising that our health often drops down the priority list.  Previous posts in this blog have discussed the importance of fun and making time for yourself, but this is a reminder that your physical health is important.  Lack of care for your lab instrument or computer leads to an inability to conduct research.  So too will lack of attention and care for your body and mind.  In this post, I will write some general comments about starting a health routine.  In future weeks, I will follow up with more details of nutrition and fitness requirements.

So what is important to know?  Nutrition and physical activity are both necessary.  Hate running? Or can’t find the time for that gym class? Go take a 10 minute walk around campus once or twice a day.  Run up and down the stairs in your building a few times. Maybe invest in an exercise ball “chair” or a standing desk for your office.  Try a few things to figure out what will work to give your body a little energy boost a few times a day.  There are numerous studies that show physical activity improves mental stamina and acuity and is, therefore, critical for a graduate student to maintain a steady pace of work.

Now about nutrition.  We all have our quick fixes and our special comfort foods that may not be the best fuel for our bodies.  So it is key to find balance in your food choices.  Eating the same things all the time is not desirable as you may be missing key nutrients, so add variety in fruits and vegetables, in your meal preparations and in your protein and fat sources.  Also, eating sweets and processed foods or quick snacks is ok if those times are occasional and balanced by nutritious, real food the rest of the time.  Consider your food intake as fuel – so will a protein and vegetable stir fry or a greasy pizza produce more focused, sustainable work energy?

It is easy to write about nutrition and exercise routines, but much harder to put this into practice.  Two ideas have helped me to find a sustainable routine.  First, try to prepare ahead of time – prepackage meals and snacks at the beginning of the week so you can just grab a portion each day on your way out the door, like this blogger does.  This requires a little planning on the weekend but makes it easier to make healthy choices during the week when you are busy.  Likewise, plan your exercise times ahead of schedule so you don’t have to think about it during the week.  Book the time and stick to it to make it a habit.  Second, be forgiving as you are starting a new routine.  It takes time to make habits and sometimes you fail with one system before finding another that works.  Keep trying until the habit sticks.

As we start this semester, I encourage you to consider your current nutrition and exercise habits.  How well are they fueling your studies?  Try the USDA Healthy Eating Index to determine the quality of your diet and take a look at the Let’s Move initiative for information about physical activity requirements.  What changes do you want to make?  What changes are reasonable to make this semester? I am eager to hear your plans, so comment below with thoughts and questions!

‘Twas the Night Before Christmas (Graduate Student Edition)

Last year, we brought you 12 Days of Marine Science Graduate Student Christmas. And this year, we’ve tackled the holidays again with our very own remix of a beloved children’s poem (with Christmas gifs, could you ask for more!). Best enjoyed with a mug of hot chocolate (or something stronger) and with this playing in the background:

We’re on an unofficial hiatus until the new year, so check back then to see what the ocean’s been up to!

‘Twas the Night Before Christmas (Graduate Student Edition)

‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the lab,

Not a creature was stirring, not even an undergrad;

The lab coats were hung by the fume hood with care,

In hopes that our PI soon would be there;

Some grad students were nestled all snug in their beds;

While visions of publications danced in their heads

But my labmate with her tea, and I with my mocha (peppermint),

Had just settled down for a long-ass experiment,

When out in the parking lot there arose such a clatter,

I sprang from my lab bench to see what was the matter.

Over to the window I trudged with a teeth-gnash

Tore off my latex gloves, and threw them in the trash.

The moon on the breast of our newly-parked cars

Highlighted our drudgery, in the lab at all hours,

When what did my watering eyes did appear,

But a Mini-Coop, and eight boxes of lab supplies…oh dear.

With a little old driver, much smarter and wiser

I knew in a moment he must be my advisor.

More rapid than peer reviews his orders they came,

And he mulled over, and pondered, then called them by name:

“Now glass cleaning! Now grading! Now culturing and DNA extractions!

On, lit reviews! On, data analysis! On, exams and presentations!

To the end of this semester! To the end of the fall!

Now, slave away! Slave away! Slave away all!”

As students to free post-seminar snacks fly,

When they find some more coffee, and get a caffeine high;

So over to the lab bench the grad students we flew

With our hands full of lab supplies, and our lab notebooks too—

And then, in a twinkling, I heard (though it’s not my strong suit)

The stepping and stomping of each loafer boot.

As I looked up from my research, and was turning around,

Down the hallway came my advisor with a bound.

… (Tra la la nose like a cherry, bowl full of jelly, tra la)

A squint of his eyes and a turn of his head

Soon gave me to know I had data to spread(sheet)

He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,

And filled all the grant applications; then turned with a jerk,

And grabbing his laptop, from his office desk he rose

And giving a nod, out the lab doors he goes;

He sprang to his car, to his students gave a wave,

And away he drove, probably back to his research cave.

But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight—

“Happy Lab-Mas to all, and to all a good night!”

The Broke College Student’s Guide to Giving Holiday Gifts

You’re a college student, and you don’t have a lot of money to spare. And now that it’s gift-giving season, you might be feeling a bigger pinch on your wallet than usual. After all, how are you supposed to afford next semester’s textbooks (hint: like this!) and nice, thoughtful presents for your five best friends, four younger siblings, three awesome roommates, two loving parents, and your Aunt Partridgina Peartree? (Sorry for the terrible “12 Days of Christmas” joke…)

Of course, it’s the thought that counts, and you don’t really need to give your friends and loved ones presents. But if you’re looking for some free/cheap gift ideas, you can show you care this holiday season with some of the items and kind gestures below!

Dinner party

If you have access to a kitchen and enough space to host people, make your gift to your closest buddies a low-key dinner party. It’s hard to go wrong (or expensive) with pasta for a crowd. Buzzfeed knows what’s up with these one-pan pasta dishes. Or you can all pitch in and make it a potluck holiday party.

Also popular in the food-gift category? Baked treats. Do the right thing: wrap ’em up pretty. Here’s one of our favorite candy cookie recipes. And here are dirt-cheap treat bags.

The Interwebs

Put your time gallivanting around reddit, tumblr, and the like to good use by curating a collection of the funniest/weirdest/coolest stuff you can find. You can even publish your findings, whether it’s a collection of funny GIFs or a YouTube playlist, to a tumblr or WordPress site. Give it a holiday theme or tailor it to the person. Think about what they person really loves, from sports teams to books to viral dance crazes. You’re sure to find enough fun stuff online to keep them smiling until New Year’s Eve.

Childhood memorabilia

This is a good one for Mom and Dad or anyone else with a sentimental side. See if you can dig up a hand-drawn picture or note from your kindergarten-ish days—a list of “reasons why I love my mommy/daddy at Christmastime” would be peeeeerfect. Then find an inexpensive frame and boom. Adorable gift. Bonus points if you get an unfinished frame from a craft store and personalize it with your own artsy paint job. Which brings us to our next idea…

Arts and crafts

Do you knit or crochet? Cketch or paint? What about just artfully writing your intended gift recipient’s favorite song/movie/book quote on a mug? Whatever your abilities, you can make simple homemade gifts sure to make your friends say “Aww!”


You saw this one coming, didn’t you. We know they’re corny, but they can also be the cute kind of corny—as long as you don’t give “Good for one free hug” coupons and call it a day. Instead, think about some of the more meaningful things you can offer: an afternoon spent hiking, just quality time between you and your BFF. A month of emptying the dishwasher for your roommate. Helping your little brother set up his first blog. An hour-long foot rub for…whomever you’re comfortable enough with to touch their feet. And you can get all crafty with your coupons too, whether it’s using your digital design or glue-and-glitter skills or both! (Or you can just use the template above, found here.)

No one expects you to give cashmere sweaters as a poor college student, so don’t stress about holiday gifts. Instead, just enjoy the season and have fun celebrating the people in your life. Santa would be proud.

What Holiday Treat Should You Stress Bake/Eat?

It’s the most stre-e-essful time of the year!

Let’s face it: the Hallmark movies they’ve been showing since Halloween don’t depict the real end-of-the-year hustle no matter who you are, whether you’re a high school senior trying to finish your college applications before the end of the year or a college student with finals beating down the door. Even if you have everything under control, there’s the stress of traveling, family gatherings, shopping, decorating, entertaining, and all those holiday parties you have to attend!

Luckily, December is prime treat season. Now’s the time to stress-eat or, even better, stress-bake. Stress-baking, especially to share with others, has actual psychological benefits associated with it, according to science.

So take an application/study break, pull out the baking sheets and cookie cutters, and whip up one (or all) of these stress-beating snacks!

College app stress

If you’ve got your Common App filled out and all you need to do is finish those pesky supplemental questions and essays, you’ve earned yourself a decent break—which means you have time to put into baking some delicious gingerbread cookies or sufganiyot.

Depending on how well you’ve budgeted your time, you can donate more or less time to your cookie-making break. You can use store-bought dough that’s premixed or the kind you just need to add eggs and water to; you can make your own dough but limit your decorating to the bare minimum or not at all; or you can go all out and make the dough and frosting yourself and decorate each cookie with individual detail (if you really need to procrastinate take a break). What’s great about gingerbread is that you should let the dough rest for a little bit, and watching an oven is no fun, so you can work on your apps during those times. Just don’t forget to set a timer!

Sufganiyot are time-consuming but delicious jelly doughnuts for Hannukah. What’s great is that there’s a long inactive period while making these because the dough has to rise. Set a timer for the recommended rising time (maybe add a five-minute buffer just to be sure) and work on your applications intermittently. You can be busy in the kitchen and keep busy at work too! (Here’s a recipe for baked sufganiyot in case you’d like to be slightly healthier this season.)

Exam stress

With exams, you probably just want to step away from everything for a few days, or better yet, just not take them at all. While this seems like a great idea, it’s not really that possible. You’re better off to take a short break to make a quick fudge or some candy.

A lot of fudges are pretty easy to make and aren’t that time consuming. You have to give them time to cool before eating, but let that be your incentive to study hard or finish your essay in a timely fashion and reward yourself with decadent fudgy goodness. And all you need for a lot of fudge is a microwave, a microwave-safe bowl, and a pan to put it in! You can find some simple fudge recipes here and here.

There are also a lot of candy options. Again, these tend to require setting or cooling times, but that allows you to schedule different breaks in your studying. From a holiday twist on classic muddy buddies to homemade gelt to microwave-made candy, there are plenty of easy candy recipes floating around.

If you’re super nice and your class is on the smaller side (not a 100+ person lecture of course!), you might consider bringing some to your final for your classmates. Unless there’s none left of course!

General holiday stress

This is for the Golden Students who submitted their college applications early and are cool as a cucumber about exams. This time of year can still be anxiety inducing with all the pressure surrounding the holidays, plus Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) setting in for some people. You might need a little pick-me-up, and making food can be great stress relief. That’s why it’s called stress-baking! Since you don’t have to worry about being crunched for time, bake something delicious that will force you to focus on it for a while. Try making pie or maybe some truffles.

When it comes to pie, the prep time is long, but the payoff is big. And there are so many different types of seasonal pies you can make, from an old-fashioned pecan or apple pie to something less traditional like eggnog or cookie—warning: the literal best thing you’ll ever eat!—pie. If you’re really bored (and creative), you can get fancy with the crusts.

Truffles are delicious, addictive, and typically easy to make. However, they are a time commitment. They typically take at least an hour just to chocolate-coat them. But if you’ve ever had truffles, you know they’re worth it. You can find some recipes here and here.

And remember, if you don’t like baking, store-bought works just fine. Enjoy!

Debunking the Shame in ‘You Should Be Writing!’

“You should be writing!”

This popular tongue-in-cheek rebuke has been a humorous, if not a durable universal higher educational meme, familiar among graduate student researchers, academic faculty, and other writers. It softly shames us for engaging in activities unrelated to advancing and publishing our research–namely, the laborious and intensive writing part. Oh, the indignity of us partaking in something other than our scholarly writing!

While, maybe, we should be writing, it’s easier for some of us to take the comical scolding to heart. During a writing drought and after we’ve chosen to play pick-up volleyball with friends, spend quality time with family, or read non-academic books for pleasure, we may punish ourselves in the quiet aftermath for not working on our research scholarship. Shame, an outgrowth of the imposter syndrome, which GradHackers have extensively discussed here and here, can embed in us as firmly as our visceral reactions to feeling publicly humiliated.

In reality, we pack our bags for impending guilt trips when blocks and other distractions momentarily prevent us from writing effortlessly. In an interview with Inside Higher Ed Editor Scott Jaschik, Joli Jensen, the Hazel Rogers Professor of Communication at the University of Tulsa, says the unnecessary mystification of academic writing leads “many of us to feel shame and fear when our writing doesn’t go smoothly.”

It can be even more challenging in the face of looming deadlines, when deep feelings of guilt and embarrassment triggered by writing slumps render us immobile. Before long, we’re stuck, and our scholarship has stalled. Sadly, building disengagement can give way to academic writing paralysis.

The voice in our heads scolds us.

“You should be writing!”

You can quell the inner turmoil that exists amid the need to meet timely writing targets and the call to enrich one’s emotional self with some intentional actions:

Read, read, and read some more. When you’re blocked, and you have yet to transform your own words, computations, and analyses into productive writing, you can at least expand your literature review as a prep for your continuing work. Research shows we learn to write by reading. Academic researchers who argue that only writing–and not reading–advances writing, have it halfway right. Why kick fellow academics when they’re down? Broadening one’s reading proficiency, as we’re compelled to do through lit reviews, inspires graduate researchers to make progress–and write more. This, from writer Mike Elgan: “When you are thinking about what you’ll write, you’re actually engaged in the craft of writing—you’re doing the most important part of writing.”

Write something, anything related to your scholarship. Author Steven Pressfield would call it “making a start.” His book, The War of Art, aims to help writers break through all sorts of writing blocks. Ruminating on the words and related meanings connected to your research brings you that much closer to beating the resistance to write.

Get a little help from your friends. Discuss your reading and writing plans with colleagues and friends. Sharing a dialogue with them is good; you starting the conversation is even better for you and your writing progress. GradHacker Brady Krien in a recent article suggests some innovative ways for graduate scholars to communicate their research to the public.

Stop looking for large chunks of time to write. Unless you’ve been blessed with scholarly serendipity, which could certainly be the case, and you have loads of free time, the luxury of routine lengthy writing sessions is probably unrealistic. Think of your writing episodes as extended series of short piecemeal gains, as opposed to long and unvarying periods of writing.

Recommit yourself to the purpose of your research. Do you remember why you chose your original research topic? Recall your intention to pick that particular subject, to want to dive into the literature, and to discover the truths wrought by your own experimentation in the area. Reclaim your commitment to seeing your study through to the end. And know that you’ll need to begin writing (again) to make that a reality.

10 Small Things Students Should Be Thankful For

We all know we’re supposed to be thankful for the big stuff at this time of year—friends, family, your education, your job, food, good health. That stuff is no secret, and you’ll find plenty of memes and posts across the internet to remind you to be thankful for all that.

But this Thanksgiving, don’t just think of the big things you’re grateful for. Think of the little things too; the things that make life worth living for college students.

1. The friend who pays for Spotify

Nothing is worse than having to listen to ads every other song when you’re hanging out with friends having an impromptu karaoke session. Nothing, that is, except paying $10 a month for the privilege of not having those ads. Be thankful for your friend group’s DJ this season, especially if they let you choose the music.

2. Netflix

No commercials. No waiting a week for the next episode. No brainer.

3. Late-night delivery

Is it even really a Saturday if you don’t order food at midnight? Remember to be thankful for not just the pizza but the delivery person and those who made the food for you as well. They are true heroes because they keep you from having to go out in the cold or (worse) make it yourself.

4. Chocolate

Is there anything as universally perfect as chocolate? Is it not the perfect pick-me-up snack for a down day? Remember to be thankful for chocolate, especially when it’s in pie or cake form on the Thanksgiving dessert table.

5. When the library has your textbooks

Or finding a PDF online. Or your roommate sharing their textbook with you. Or when the professor just copies the chapters you need and gives them to you as handouts. Or when you just never bought the book and still haven’t used it in class. Essentially, just be thankful for all the ways you’ve saved money on textbooks this semester.

6. The snooze button

Life hack: if you set your alarm(s) early, you can hit the snooze button guilt-free for your extra five minutes. Besides, who doesn’t love the challenge of hitting snooze one too many times and trying to see if you can still get to class on time?

7. Coffee

Aka your blood during finals (read: in two weeks), midterms, all-nighters, and sometimes just life in general. Without coffee, college students wouldn’t survive a week. (Really no one would survive a week.)

8. Having friends in your class

Having a friend in your class means you always have someone to do homework with, someone to commiserate with, someone to gossip with, and someone to pass notes to. All very important things.

9. Puppies

Seriously? What did we do to deserve dogs?

10. Long weekends

Who doesn’t love a long weekend? Extra time to do homework (read: sleep), hang out with friends, and just relax in general. The especially good ones last more than three days, like the one for Thanksgiving!

Enjoy your Turkey Day, everyone!

Don’t Spend Your Holiday Break Writing

In a few weeks, I’ll be heading to Arizona with my husband and our preschooler. We’ll be on vacation for 13 days, and I will not bring my laptop. That’s because I practice what I preach as a writing consultant and academic-productivity specialist: Don’t just finish your monographs and articles on time — finish them on time without compromising your quality of life.

I ask every client I work with — whether a graduate student writing a dissertation or an academic working on a book or article — to take semester breaks actually, unequivocally, 100-percent off. Decompress. Enjoy (or “enjoy”) their families. Or just spend a week or two walking around in the fresh air, lingering over a fun conversation in a cafe, or binge-watching NewsRadio reruns and eating Red Vines at 9:30 a.m. Whatever.

The secret to taking holidays off is to be all caught up on your work plan before they start. And the way to be caught up on your work plan before the holidays start is to have a work plan. You’d be amazed (or not) at the number of perpetually aggrieved academics I know who don’t. They just sort of launch themselves in the general direction of their research a few times a month, and then — you guessed it — sequester themselves miserably for a few weeks of life-ruining lockdown right before their deadline.

If you actually want to have a happy relationship with your work, you need a prescription for exactly what you want to do every day. Yes, it can feel overwhelming to executive-function intellectual labor. But I guarantee that spending a 10 minutes a day (plus about 30 minutes at the top of the week) organizing your writing projects will save incalculable time and effort down the line.

The key to a successful work plan is to start a project — an entire monograph, a chapter, an article — with a healthy work trajectory and a clear-cut blueprint. Only you know how you best impart new information into your big, smart noggin, so I won’t presume that the structure I’m about to suggest will work for everyone. I will, however, presume that it will work 100 percent better than the most popular competing “strategy”: fretting and doing nothing.

Step No. 1: Write first. Possibly the most unconventional suggestion I give clients for creating a first draft is: Write first, then read, then write again, read more, and write one last time.

That flies in the face of the general wisdom that faculty members impart to undergraduates, which is to read the material carefully before they write a word. And for them, that holds — but not for you, because you have already spent upward of two decades reading and writing smart things, and you’ve almost certainly read the primary source material of your project at least once.

Most of you don’t follow that advice when you start a project. Instead you spend an untold amount of time attempting (and failing) to read Everything — every book, article, paragraph that could ever be relevant to your topic. Then you proceed to get more than a little psyched out by the polished quality of the published work: Will I ever be as good as this? Oh, no, what if I’m not? I’m not! I’ll never be! Hey, my couch needs vacuuming.

Yeah, don’t do that. Instead, at the beginning of a project — even if you have only the vaguest idea what it should be about — I suggest you set aside a week and free-write. On each workday of that week, spend 25 minutes twice a day (two “pomodoros” a day) and write down all the things that you know, want to know, are interested in, are confused, or are excited about in your new venture. Don’t try for paragraphs or even full sentences. Revel in the mess.

At the end of that week, you may have 1,000 to 4,000 words of semi-gibberish — but it holds the key to your future brilliance.

Step No. 2: The baby bibliography. From that inspired semi-gibberish, you will then mine your first annotated bibliography. And the annotations are the most important part. You should never read anything without writing something down about it. Look up about 10 sources on your subject — the 10 best or, at any rate, the most famous, or most recent and “exciting,” or most in vogue, or most something. Just start somewhere. For approximately two weeks, spend every work session reading (or rereading) those sources carefully, creating a full bibliographic entry for each one. Annotate each entry with:

  • The source’s main thesis.
  • Its primary impact on the field.
  • Two or three representative quotes.
  • Your own opinion about the source — what you think is brilliant, what you think is flawed.

Step No. 3: A skeleton draft. Using your baby bibliography, begin to merge some of your insights with your free-writing to form a primordial outline. You know how.

  • Organize under subject headings all the quotes, summaries, and opinions inspired by your free-writing.
  • Copy, paste, shape, and cut stuff.
  • Always, always create another document to save everything you’ve cut.
  • Make note, at every turn, of unanswered questions. This is, in effect, the most important part: It’s the part you can’t write yet.

What you’ll have at the end of about two weeks — provided you work on this in two or three 25-minute sessions a day, five days a week — is essentially a skeleton. It will have the vague shape of an article or chapter but will ask a lot more questions than it answers and will have a fair share of bracketed “notes to self” (à la Find a thing that ties these two ideas together).

Step No. 4: Close reading. Your skeleton draft is also a road map. Instead of attempting to read Everything (which you will never do), you now know what sorts of sources you need to find and read in order to flesh out your arguments and fill in the gaps. To identify those new sources, look to household names in your field, to scholars you’ve met at conferences, to people with whom you already collaborate, to that one exciting new hotshot you keep hearing about. And, of course, consult the bibliographies of your first 10 sources. Get to mining!

With an expanded list of sources in hand, it’s time to read more intensely. Spend the next three to six weeks diving into those new sources and expanding your annotated bibliography. Again, do the reading two or three times a day, in 25-minute sessions, five or so days a week. Give yourself a deadline: Set a specific number of work sessions (such as 20 or 30), and when you’ve reached that number, cut yourself off. (Don’t worry, you’ll soon have time to read more.)

Step No. 5: A workable draft. At this point, you’re ready to dive into your now-massive annotated bibliography and do more surgery. All those unanswered questions you had scribbled down in your free-writing? It’s time to fill in the gaps. Extract quotes, summaries, and arguments (copy, don’t delete, them from the bibliography), and paste them into the appropriate places in your Skeleton Draft. Your writing here can still be rough — don’t trip yourself up worrying about transitions or squaring all the circles. This stage of writing is chaos. If it feels uncomfortable, you’re doing it right.

By the end of this step, you will have a slightly more fleshed-out draft. Your next task, then, is to spend another two to three weeks tinkering on the sentence level, working on those transitions and cleaning up unnecessary jargon. Follow the same basic work schedule: two to three 25-minute writing sessions a day. At the end of those weeks, you may still have more holes to fill (especially in the footnotes.) But, by and large, you will have, miracle of miracles, a real draft of a chapter or an article that’s 25 to 30 pages long.

From start to finish, the process will take 11 to 14 weeks — about the duration of a semester — of working on the project for no more than an hour or two a day. With a workable draft in hand, now is a great time to put it aside and let it breathe, as your backbrain spins its wheels while you’re on break in earnest.

I know, I know — a fat lot of good this advice is doing you now, as you’ve once again put off your research agenda until the three weeks of winter intersession that you’re already dreading. But take comfort: Spring break will be here soon — and by then, at least, you will have a plan.