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This time last year, I was sitting around my apartment and waiting for the results of my comprehensive exams. I was jittery and nervous, and jumped a mile every time my computer made the “you’ve got an email!” noise. I couldn’t focus on teaching or the zillion other responsibilities that I had, and spent most of the day in an anxious state of stasis. What saved me, surprisingly, was a ball of yarn and two knitting needles I found in the back of a closet.

Whenever I felt anxiety or worry rising, I would grab my knitting and painstakingly work row after row of careful knits and purls. I had no idea what I was doing, and had to pay close attention to the yarn I was working to avoid knots, dropped stitches, and other mistakes. I found that not only was I distracted enough by the knitting work to relax and forget about the exams, but I had more focus even after I put down the yarn and picked up my grading.

Now I am working on my dissertation (with varying degrees of success), and I find myself baking cupcakes with surprising regularity. When I am stuck on a chapter, or frustrated with my progress, nothing makes me feel better like whipping up a batch of red velvet cupcakes. Between cupcake-ing and knitting, I am able to find a calm center from which I can complete my work.

Finding hobbies to sustain you through gradate studies seems like obvious advice: find something that will distract you from the work you are doing to maintain balance in your life. But this post advocates for two specific kinds of hobbies: baking cupcakes and knitting.  (If you’re interested in other kinds of baking, check out this excellent GradHacker post from guest Allison Carr about baking in general). These hobbies provide a slew of benefits, particularly for graduate students who are writing, writing, writing.

Knitting and Baking are Number Based

I am a graduate student in rhetoric and composition. My life is spent writing, reading about writing, writing about reading about writing, reading student writing, writing on student writing, and sometimes, I play words with friends to relax. Words make sense to me. I get them. Numbers, on the other hand, are foreign and occasionally terrifying, and they absolutely make up the backbone of baking and knitting.
Baking is about science, about weighing and measuring and mixing and baking in just the right amounts, at just the right temperature, for just the right amount of time. Sometimes I feel like I should be wearing a lab coat instead of my pink apron. Likewise, knitting is about counting. Counting rows, counting stitches, carefully measuring out knits and purls, and drawing lines and patterns on scraps of paper.

These two hobbies are inescapably number based, and challenge me to use cognitive skills that often lie dormant. Although I was initially frustrated, I began to find the numbers soothing. It gave my brain a break from writing- and word-based thinking, and let me feel practiced at different skills.

Of course, if your area of study is already heavily number based, these hobbies may not represent a cognitive break for you. But for me, getting to play scientist with baking soda and buttermilk exercises an entirely new skill set, and lets me turn off the “writing” part of my brain.

Knitting and Baking Produce Something Physical

Knitting (even bad knitting) produces something physical in the world. Once I am done, I have a scarf (or dishcloth, or pillow, or stuffed cat). Baking always results in actual cupcakes I can touch (and drop on the floor, occasionally). There is always something tangible to work towards, and goals revolve around a thing I want to create. Writing work is often intangible, and goals can be nebulous (code this qualitative data; write a chapter; study for that exam). It feels good to be able to produce something that has a practical use, to see the tangible results of my labor.

They’re Easy! And Get Harder

I taught myself to knit in an hour by following online tutorials. Initially I wasn’t great, but I was able to make a scarf my first time out. The basic knit stitch is simple and easy to do, and there is a low threshold for participation. Likewise, baking my first batch of cupcakes was as easy as following the directions on the back of the box.

For both hobbies, starting is relatively easy, and can increase in difficulty by degrees. Knitting a seed stitch is a good way to learn; knitting a sweater is like running a marathon. Likewise, baking gradually gets harder as you try new recipes and techniques. The graduated difficulty levels mean that I always have something do to that falls into my current skill level, and I always have new skills to learn.

Buying Paraphernalia is Fun, Distracting, and Cheap

Generally, knitting is an inherently cheap hobby; all you need are needles and a ball of Super Saver yarn, and you’re good to go. And with baking, once you have the ingredients and pans in your cupboard, it’s cheap and easy to whip a few things up. The start-up cost is pretty low. However, half the fun of knitting is buying the right kind of yarn. Or the right size needles. Or the cute basket to carry my stuff around in. Or finding the right patterns. Baking cupcakes is all about finding the best recipes, buying cute cupcake cups, making icing bags and creating new designs.

Buying, finding, making, or reading things to support your hobby can give you goals to work towards (I get new yarn when I finish writing this chapter!), can give you excuses to browse through stores (I keep adding to my Williams-Sonoma dream list) and can distract you from the worries and pressures of grad school (I keep checking this tumblr when stressed). Building a collection of things can make your hobbies seem new and exciting over time, and can provide a feeling of accomplishment.

Baking and Knitting are Both Solitary and Communal

Grad school can mean being surrounded by dozens of people all the time. Faculty, administrators, other grad students, your own students, and the crush of people crowded into library carrells all make various demands on your time and attention. Sitting at home on my couch and knitting allows me to shut out the world. I can’t check my computer or phone while my hands are busy, and I get a restful break while mixing icing to just the right color. These hobbies allow you space to take time for yourself.

Conversely, graduate school can be an incredibly isolating place, particularly if you are writing a thesis or dissertation. It is possible to go days without seeing another person, and surprisingly, knitting and baking provide a remedy for isolation as well. Baking a dozen cupcakes demands finding people to share them with, and eventually you have to start giving away the scarves you make. Once it gets out that you bake or knit, others will come to you, asking for treats, for lessons, for gifts, or your time. There are knitting clubs and baking groups, recipe swaps and pattern sharing, yarn collections and cupcake shows. Sites like Ravelry are perfect for promoting discussion and an exchange of knitting ideas, and both of these hobbies have a built in social function, if you want it. This solitary activity produces communal goods, and it provides an easy excuse to spend time with others.

These hobbies have worked for me, and absolutely made a huge difference in my grad-school life. Are there any hobbies that you would suggest GradHacker readers adopt? Sound off in the comments!


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