Wellness, Productivity, Balance for Graduate Students and Beyond

A Letter to My Past Self: Before Starting My Fellowship

Dear Past Katy, on the eve of her fellowship, 

This is the only four month stretch that you have without teaching obligations or your own courses during your entire graduate school career. You've been asking everyone you know for advice for weeks about how best to structure your days, how to be productive, how to get up every morning and do the work. You have all the books about writing every day, writing stylishly, writing in 15 minutes a day: none of it is resonating. And you're freaked out. 

Instead of picking the most appealing program and forcing yourself to stick through it through sheer force of will, treat the whole semester like an experiment. Test out different hypotheses: does writing a set number of words no matter whatever, every day, produce a finished chapter faster than writing while teaching did? And instead of using "chapter draft completed" as the only metric, start measuring other factors: does this routine support regular exercise? Does it support regular meals of mostly vegetables (and a few cookies)? Does this routine improve my sleep? Make notes. Track changes. See what works. Progress looks like more than just completed drafts. 

Say yes to the opportunity to volunteer at the shelter down the road. It will do you good to have someone expecting you, and to see the visible impact your hours make. 

Break the habit of working during lunch as soon as you can. Your lunch breaks with a novel, magazine, or TV show away from your desk will stop feeling luxurious eventually, and start feeling like the needed break they are. 

You initially imagined clocking in at 9 am and clocking out at 5 pm, spending the hours in between in quiet, fulfilled productivity at your desk. But you forgot that your brain makes connections and puts things together on its own rhythm. Reading in the park, drawing out an outline in your notebook before yoga class, having revelations in the shower and hopping back on your computer to write them down before bed are things to be embraced, not to be embarrassed of. Give yourself the space to think, because that's a big part of writing too. 

You're more productive when you work with other people. Your ideas get better when you talk them out with friends and writing group colleagues and your partner and your cats. Find your communities and build them up - they'll eventually hold you up, as you will them. 

You don't stop being a teacher because you're in a period where you aren't in front of a classroom. When you get blocked, imagine making slides to explain the concept to a class. Actually, make the slides and record the narration. It will be the most clear first draft you've ever written. 

Set out clear expectations and timelines with your chair as soon as you can. Even when it's uncomfortable, stick to your agreed communication schedule. Deadlines are guidelines, but when all the parties are in the loop, everyone can adjust their calendar and workflow. 

Even when the chapters are behind - they will be behind and, rarely, ahead of schedule - don't work through planned yoga classes, volunteer hours, family dinners, TV nights with friends, or sleeping hours. The work rhythm will eventually even out, but the ebbs in self-care and connection are much harder to correct. 

Your mind will eventually start wandering to other projects. You will daydream about other books, articles you could write, blogs you could start, a bakery you could open. This is a natural by-product of staring at the same ideas all the time, and not a sign that the dissertation isn't working. So write a few pages on those ideas! Read a few books! Talk to friends about it! Your dissertation will still be there, and the thrill of new ideas and the hope of a future beyond the dissertation will be sustaining. 

You will feel like a bad colleague and friend for not attending every talk, presentation, or panel on campus during the semester. Faculty will imply that your fellowship does not excuse you from participating in the department culture. Strike the balance for yourself. If you were taking the semester to do field research, no one would expect you to be an irrelevant talk just because your department was a co-sponsor. So pretend that you are. And remember to extend the same courtesy to other colleagues who disengage during their fellowship periods. 

Have fun. Play around. Enjoy the flexibility. But then let yourself off the hook for not loving every minute of your "academic life" as a "scholar engaged in writing and research full time." There are many ways to write a dissertation, and many ways to be an academic. There are even more ways to use a PhD. This is just one model. 


Future Katy