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  • Writer's pictureBecca Dzombak

Relaxing in grad school is a learned skill

Last week, our geology department club hosted a trivia night as a fun way to end the semester. Of course, we extended an invitation to everyone in the department (well, the students, anyway), and got a small but decent turnout. But we heard something from some of the first years, something that troubled our (perhaps tired and jaded) third-year minds.

"I'm too busy," they'd say. "I really should be working."

Keep in mind, this was 7 p.m. on the last day of classes. The point of this event was to kick back for a couple hours to celebrate the end being in sight. Second-year and above students were pretty well-represented, as were local brews and even a few Irish beverages. We hung out for two hours, answering a mix of stupid and stupidly difficult questions and generally having a good time. It was, in our minds, certainly worth it - and we all knew we wouldn't really be working anyway. It's the end of the semester and we're all a little burned out - and we know it. So in turn, we know that purposefully relaxing and counting social time as Time Well Spent will only benefit you in the long run.

But how do you teach that skill?

Relaxing in grad school, and probably in academia as a whole, is a learned skill. It shouldn't have to be, but it is. You're surrounded by people who, at least superficially, appear to be working harder, being more productive, and potentially being more successful than you are. (This is why comparisons are never a good idea.) You get those 7 a.m. or 11 p.m. texts from people in the office while you're at home or out on the town. You pop by work on a Saturday to pick up a forgotten charger and see your PI's car in the lot. And this image is perpetuated: the haggard, workaholic academic, always checking their email and putting in long hours in the lab, slaving away over paper after paper in a coffee shop. Overcaffeinated and under-slept.

[a cup of espresso]

It's a culture of overwork; that's what we're told when we first consider grad school, and when we start. It's just what to expect. You'll be miserable, but you'll... like it?

This expectation is why it's so important for departments - from grad students to faculty and support staff - to provide a clear and healthier alternative. There's no point in lying, grad school is hard, but you should never put the feeling or appearance of 'productivity' or 'working hard' above your own sanity. There are a couple of key things that everyone can do to help counter the 'academia overwork' perception.

Some general advice on relaxing:

  • Be realistic about your working hours, what you can and should get done in a day, and when you are most productive. If it's 6:30 p.m. and you started at 7:30 a.m. and your brain is fried but you feel like you should stick around because other people are still in the office - that's a terrible reason to stay. Leave! Leave now!! Go for a walk, cook a nice meal, go watch a movie, meet a friend for a drink. Don't try to force work; it won't be truly productive time, and you'll fulfill the prophecy of misery.

  • Check in on each other! Older students, keep an eye on the first years. (And each other, but especially the first years.) First years, be open and honest with each other about how you're feeling and how much you're working. You're all probably working hard, but knowing that everyone else is in the same boat as you - worried about being an imposter, feeling like they're behind, wanting to make a good impression on their PI and the other students in lab - will take some of that pressure off. Plus, it'll start building the support system that is so critical to success in grad school. (Cue "We're all in this together" from High School Musical.)

  • Have clear communication with your advisor about expectations for working hours. This will vary a lot between PIs and the type of work you're doing in lab. Maybe you have instruments that need to be run 24/7, and sometimes you'll have to take the night shift. Maybe they only work 45 hours a week themselves and think you should do the same. They might also be old-school and expect students to be in every day, including weekends, and work sixty hours a week. (Though hopefully this is something you picked up on during interviews! This is why it's important to talk with current grad students to get a feel for the lab!) Knowing that you've worked hard enough and can 'safely' relax, or take time off, will help get rid of the stress and/or guilt that can haunt you when you should be chilling out.

  • Participate in department events! And interact with as many grad students as you can. As I just mentioned, you're all probably feeling more or less the same way - somewhere on the spectrum from "My paper just got accepted!" to "My instrument caught on fire in lab today and also my computer crashed and lost all my progress for the week." Realizing you're not alone in feeling this way goes a long way for making grad school less miserable - maybe even fun. (What a wild concept.) And, you'll see other grad students who are also out, who are also not working, and that will reinforce the idea that not working is okay.

  • Comparing yourself to literally anyone else is a terrible idea and a waste of time and emotional effort. Everyone is going through different stuff, working on different projects, and is at a different stage in their work. Even if you're in the same cohort, in the same lab - it doesn't matter. Work how you work best.

  • Take your time off/vacations seriously. Don't try to justify time off by thinking, "Well, I'll work in the mornings and hit the beach in the afternoons," or over a break saying, "I'll just do some lab work and relax otherwise!" Like everything else in life, don't half-ass two things, whole-ass one thing (-Ron Swanson). In this case, commit completely to relaxing. Otherwise, you won't be able to turn off the mental spigot of work-related thoughts.

  • If you can't turn off the spigot, take five minutes to write down everything on your mind, stream-of-consciousness style. No planning, no organized list-making, just spewing everything out so you can come back to it the next day or a week later. If they keep coming back, try some meditative techniques: recognize the thought but don't engage, and don't feel bad for having the thought. It's brain training.

  • If you need an intermediate step, pick up a hobby that's not work, but still feels productive. Read nonfiction books, listen to science podcasts, spend time on Duolingo so that green owl will stop pestering you. You can work your way up to full-on Netflix binges.

  • DEPARTMENTS: SUPPORT YOUR STUDENTS. Host fun events, have weekend getaways, and make sure the vibe they get is, "You are here to learn and be trained to be a scientist. We care about your success and your well-being." Actively work to make sure this is the message your grad students get. Encourage their vacations! Re-gram their cool hiking photos (with permission) and share articles about working efficiently, not killing it with long hours and not actually being productive.

In the end, just listen to your mind and body. If your brain is fried, go home. If you're burned out, take the weekend completely off. Pause your inbox. Take time for yourself. And don't let yourself get caught up in the frazzled, harried, miserable grad student stereotype.

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