I’m about to write a 900 word blog post about guilt, and I feel guilty about it. Why?

Because I could be spending this time working on my dissertation.

In fact, this is how I feel about most things that aren’t my dissertation. I feel guilty when I’m hanging out with my friends, out to dinner with my fiancé, doing laundry, watching March Madness, or reading…*gasp*…a book for fun. It’s not a particularly healthy way to go through life, and it places a great deal of stress on every moment of the day, since even when I’m trying to relax, I know I could be working.

This has a lot to do with the structure of graduate school, in that there isn’t much structure. There’s no such thing as a forty hour work week, or a nine-to-five work day, or “leaving work at the office”. For a lot of us, our office is at home, meaning that the “end of the day” doesn’t mean you can lock everything up and walk away from it for a while. Instead, you walk into the other room: I often feel like I’m always at work. The dissertation is always there, within reach. This makes it difficult to turn off: it’s constantly nagging you, just in the other room, saying, “hey, shouldn’t you be working on me instead of watching Big Bang Theory?”

Adding to this pressure is the fact that a dissertation is not written in a bubble. There are a number of people and institutions that are depending on me to finish. There is pressure from my faculty and my department, since there are expectations that I finish and do so in a timely manner. There is pressure from my family and fiancé, since finishing means that I may actually get a “real” job and pull a regular paycheck. There’s pressure from the institutions that are currently supporting me, since they have made literal investments of time, money, resources, data, and space in my success. There is the pressure from the academic community, to produce something that, while it doesn’t have to be groundbreaking, will at least contribute. There is the pressure of the people I study, to ensure that my scholarship is as accurate as possible, and represents their lives in a dignified and respectful way. And, of course, there is the pressure I put on myself, to finish something that I’ve started, and to do it in a way that I can be proud of. These things weigh on me: it’s hard for me to work without taking note of how many entities I am responsible and indebted to. It’s also hard for me to not feel guilty when I’m not working, since I feel the weight of their investment.

The one time when grad school guilt is held at bay is after a day of quality dissertation writing and research. Even though my day isn’t technically structured by work hours, I try to make my day a standard 9-5. If I hit 5 o’clock and feel as if I’ve made solid progress, then I feel like I’ve earned my keep, and that the various entities listed above would approve of me taking my evening to relax. Unfortunately, these days don’t happen every day. I have a tendency to get distracted, or can spend a good portion of that day working on other obligations I have taken on. And while I’ve tried to build in strategies to make sure I can get to work and keep working, they don’t always work. If that’s the case, then you can cue up an evening filled with guilt.

So, the trick is to make sure my days are full of dissertation work, and making progress. It doesn’t work all the time, but it’s the best way to avoid, or at least mitigate, grad school guilt. One strategy is to be diligent about setting and maintaining daily goals: I try to set up three things each day that I want to accomplish by 5 pm. If I can check those off the list, then I feel better about what I’ve done that day. Another strategy I’ve used is to spend a couple minutes at the end of the day reflecting on what I did do. Sometimes a day that feels unproductive may have actually been a full day, you just didn’t realize it. The final strategy is one that I still need to work on, and that’s saying no to new things. This has been a definite weakness for me, since I tend to see the value and upside in most opportunities: but the biggest downfall of new things is less time for the dissertation. And that means more guilt.

Do you have trouble with grad school guilt? How do you mitigate its effects? What ways do you ensure each day is a productive one?

[Image courtesy of Flickr user TerryBrock with Creative Commons License]

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4 Responses to Grad School Guilt

  1. Myra says:

    Amen! I often love the unstructured nature of grad school, and the fact that I can take a walk in the middle of a beautiful day and then return to the books, but the spring sunshine can seem only so enjoyable when thinking about how I should make this quick in order to get back to work.

    The one thing that I’ve found comforting and different when going back to school after some time in an office is that I know (hope!) I don’t waste so much time in the 9-5 schedule that I attempt, since I don’t talk to anyone at the water cooler or shoot the breeze during an afternoon meeting. Maybe you can do in five hours of solitary work what someone else can do in eight hours of collaborative work. Or at least that’s what I tell myself to soothe the guilt. . .

  2. Matt says:

    The guilt about not doing research can be worse for postdocs and untenured assistant professors.

  3. vanessa says:

    Dear Terry,

    I could see myself through your post. This is for sure something that almost all of us graduate students share: guilt. I often feel guilty when I go to the movies, watch TV and all the other things you mentioned. I am always thinking I should have done more…

  4. Dustyn says:

    THANK YOU for writing this! I was feeling an overwhelming sense of grad student guilt when I Googled the term and stumbled upon this page and your posts. More than anything, it’s nice to know that I’m not alone.

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