This post walks a fine line, somewhere between spiritual advice and bad decision-making.  It just depends on your point of view.  I want to share this philosophy to my fellow grad students, especially the newer ones.  The topic: Grad School guilt.  Disclaimer: This is all based on my own experiences, and although I am sure that some grad students have lives filled with sunshine, puppies, rainbows and not a care in the world, I have the feeling that this advice is for the majority of real world grad students out there.

I will start with a story.  When I first came to grad school, we sat down in our intro cohort class, which meet once a week for 3 hours, and began with introductions.  Introduce yourself, your area of concentration, and who is your favorite anthropologist (seeing as how I am an anthro grad student).  I had no idea who my favorite anthropologist was (still don’t to this day, but I can say there are a few I don’t care for).  Being the clever lad that I am, I pulled something out of my…lets say hat…which sufficed and pleased my instructor.  The thing was, everyone had some excellent answer of some great anthropologist who has written a million ethnographies, and they have read them all, and love their work, and so on.  I soon became aware that I was the least knowledgeable in class, and began feverishly trying to get a handle on becoming a better anthropologist and student.  Not only that, but there seemed to be a one up’s manship that occurred in class, and although mild, some competition between peers.  I started to feel guilty that so-and-so stayed up until 3 in the morning reading, while I was selfishly asleep!  I spent hours in the coffee shops.  I tried to gauge how I stacked up against my peers in terms of hours spent studying.  I later realized that you can’t possibly read everything assigned in grad school…and personally, I don’t think you are meant to.  I think its some secret “quality over quantity” lesson they are trying to instill, I just wish they would have told me that sooner.

As time went on, and I became a second year, I quickly associated doing anything for myself as selfish or wrong.  “I can’t go to the movies…isn’t there a book I should be reading?”  Or, “Oh well, I will date when I’m in my forties!”  Or the famous, “No way I can take a trip this weekend, I have an important something or other on Tuesday!”  What grad school does to us is that it makes us feel guilty about taking time for ourselves.  We are expected, by some unseen force, to always be working, always be reading, and always be writing.  What are we supposed to be writing?  Who cares…write dammit!  We look at some of our professors and try to model our work ethic off of theirs.  Or we try to out-compete our fellow classmates.  By my third year, I found out it wasn’t worth it, and picked up some hobbies.  I took more trips, I dated, I traveled (and not for work).  And I still got things done.  The ultimate lesson, and this may seem backwards, was that by dividing up my time more between my work and myself, I learned how to manage it correctly.  I’m not saying I became a slacker (which most of you are probably thinking).  No, I merely became an average human being…you know, 9 to 5, some weekends off, holidays.  Not only is there this work until death mentality in America, but in the higher education systems as well.  I simply broke the cycle.

And the number one thing I learned from all of this…not to feel guilty about it.  I would come in on Mondays, feeling refreshed and energized, while the bags under the eyes of my classmates shone in the florescent classroom lights, and told me the story of their weekend.  I learned how to just have fun again, and not worry or feel guilty about what was awaiting me on my desk, or in my email inbox.  I learned how to support my peers, not compete with them. My final nugget of wisdom: there will always be work waiting.  There will always be deadlines.  It is inevitable, for that is the life we have chosen.  But if you don’t learn how to take time for yourself now, you may never.  And then this will become the norm, and that isn’t okay.  A healthy mind begins with a healthy soul…( I think I read that in a yoga studio or something…sorry for the cheesiness).


(Image by Flickr user celine nadeau / Creative Commons licensed)


14 Responses to Taking the Guilt Out of Grad School

  1. Alex Galarza says:

    It is important to have a reward system for yourself that keeps your mind balanced between feeling productive and feeling fulfilled. After all, the nature of our work is likely to stay the same after graduate school, so you might as well try and find a balance now. Excellent post, we have all been there.

  2. Katy Meyers says:

    Great advice Chris! It took me three years of grad school to realize that it was okay to take one day off every week and that I could still be a great student without going above and beyond for every single task and assignment. I think its a hard lesson to learn. We have it drilled into us that we need to push ourselves, we need to attend every conference or brown bag, we need to do every volunteer activity- but its not realistic, nor is it a balanced life. Thanks for sharing, always nice to know I’m not the only one!

  3. I’m here to tell you – that sense of guilt doesn’t go away when you are a professor (perhaps it even intensifies). So, its really good to learn how to mitigate it (and negotiate with it) when you are a grad student.

  4. Emily says:

    Hey Chris, sounds like solid advice and I’m working on being able to follow it. My question, though, is how do you walk in Monday morning and talk about a fun weekend without incurring the resentment of workaholic colleagues?

  5. Alex H. says:

    I did see movies as a grad student (more than I do now as a parent!), but I doubt that I ever took a full weekend off. And now, as a tenured prof, it is very rare that I do.

    Part of the reason you do this in grad school is that the competition within your school is nothing compared to the competition on the job market. Those who write (and write, and write) are better situated for the job market and for tenure.

    Part of the reason is that it is what is expected of the job. In my first TT job, the chair welcomed me by saying that being a professor is great: you get to work any 14 hours of the day you want. That’s funny, ha ha, until you realize that colleagues who went the non-academic route often leave their jobs behind at 6pm and on weekends. And they make more money than you do.

    There are ways of working smarter, and allocating your time more wisely. And of course it’s necessary to take some time off to prevent complete burnout. But the truth remains that those who put more time are often those who do better when it comes time to find a position and stay in it.

    And some of this is whether you really consider it work. If you would rather be at the movies or travelling, both of these are potentially open to you as an anthropologist as fields of study!

  6. […] the rest of the blog HERE. GA_googleAddAttr("AdOpt", "1"); GA_googleAddAttr("Origin", "other"); […]

  7. Lena says:

    Here, here! The problem is that this type of “work 24/7” mentality extends after grad school! Thanks for saying what needed to be said.

  8. Jennifer says:

    Thanks for this! I thought I was alone in feeling this way!

  9. My friend sent me this link and I smiled. I’m not in grad school but I work as a journalist and our worlds are very similar – late nights, deadlines, yeah, it’s pretty rough out here.

    At least you know it ends at graduation mine ends when I find another job… or never if I stay in this field!

    Happy relaxing to you! ?

  10. Tansey_K says:

    Yes, I think our work ethic can be a bit grueling at times. However, while facing increasingly steep competition during an economic slump, we seem to flirt with a dangerous cycle that neglects what I think is one of the more important elements of our work: intellectual curiosity and fun. Sleepless nights and relentless pressures to spread ourselves thin can really cramp the imagination. This intellectual imagination is further cramped by pressures to be “marketable,” to prepare ourselves for the market from the moment we enter graduate school.

    I have been fortunate to be mentored by strong, successful women who are driven by curiosity and by the fun of intellectual pursuits. Of course, this fun is more relative some times than others. However, in my experience it makes what we do sustainable. It makes curling up with a cup of coffee on a Saturday morning enjoyable. It reminds me that what we do is not only for ourselves and our future jobs. Perhaps, it is in forgetting this that we should feel guilty.

  11. […] Taking the Guilt Out of Grad School: Chris Stawski writes that “We are expected, by some unseen force, to always be working, always be reading, and always be writing”, and it is time to break the cycle. Our lives are defined by various deadlines and due dates, but its important to not feel guilty when you take time to enjoy life. By taking a weekend off, or giving yourself a break one night, you’ll be more refreshed and productive the next day. […]

  12. […] on to a new job in the fall. Like many seasoned grad students, though, I’ve learned that I’m more productive, work-wise, when I take breaks to indulge in “hobbies.” So, to keep myself on track, I’m resolving to blog about the pursuits on this list. Check […]

  13. […] to put yourself out there and take advantage of them. Whatever you do, don’t let the dreadful ‘grad school guilt’ hold you […]

  14. M.R. says:

    Lecturing other people on the “right way” to be a student, and you’re convinced *everyone else* is the graduate student stereotype? Lol.

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