Sometimes It's Good to Get Away

Grad school brings its own anxieties, and when they are weighing you down, a retreat may be what you need, counsels Victoria McGovern.

March 11, 2019

Graduate school’s uncertainties aren’t easy to live with. Will your project work, and when? Will you get scooped? Do you have enough data to write a paper? If you do, will your paper get hung up in the editorial process for an extended time?

Are the papers you’re working toward going to tell a big enough story to become your dissertation? Can you write a dissertation? They seem so large. And if you write a dissertation, won’t you have to defend it?

What if you oversleep on the day of your defense and never, ever, ever get out of graduate school? If you somehow do get out, will you get a job? Will it be an academic job or something else? If it’s something else, what’s it going to be?

Are you going to be able to afford to pay your student loans, eat your fill of ramen and retire someday?

Is life passing you by?

It’s a lot to think about.

These are the inherent anxieties of this season of your life. When they preoccupy you, they can themselves create new problems: sleeplessness, procrastination, dark moods and feelings of isolation. When they are weighing you down, sometimes it can be helpful to get away and take a new look at the challenges that are unsettling your mind. A retreat may be what you need.

A retreat is a purposeful withdrawal from your everyday routine, meant to help you clear your mind and do some orderly thinking about the way forward. Some companies, universities and even individual laboratories use retreats as an opportunity for team building, strategic thinking and growing personal connections among people who may normally only see each other in the workplace.

Writing retreats, where participants gather with writers or editors to improve their skills and make headway on projects, are popular. At spiritual retreats participants ponder, in silence or aloud, questions about our place in the universe or life and how to live it.

A retreat involves a shift in mind-set more than it does a change of place. You step away from your preoccupations and focus your thinking on something complex, specific and defined. If you have taken your laptop to the library or a coffee shop to work but found yourself derailed by the same thoughts that distract you at home and at your desk, you haven’t had a retreat. But if you have taken a day to relax in the library’s music collection or people watch in the coffee shop, you may have reset your attitude and productivity without doing any apparent work at all.

It may be that what will do you the most good is some alone time. But if what’s on your mind is fairly universal, like changing careers, or if it’s a common graduate school rite of passage like defining your project or writing it up, planning a retreat with a handful of college friends or current colleagues might help you re-energize and move forward.

Not Just a Change of Scene

Whether your retreat will be at home for a weekend or out of your normal environment for a day, think through how much time you have and how you will spend it. First, pick something of the appropriate scale to work on and then make an agenda. If you’re feeling generally stuck across many areas of your life, don’t worry, this isn’t a test: pick a subject that is big but well defined. Look for one where a few hours of focused work will set you up to continue making progress once the retreat ends. For instance, if you have been procrastinating on writing your dissertation, a retreat can help you settle down, put your thoughts in order and finish eager to keep on writing.

Here’s what should be on the agenda. Whether you’re planning to retreat for a day or a few, you won’t be spending the entire time on work. Make sure you include some time for appreciating the environment, whether that means going on a hike or to a different floor of the library and looking through beautiful books you don’t ordinarily have time to browse.

Also include some time for learning something you don’t know how to do -- for instance, using a YouTube video to learn a magic trick or doing something more formal, like a cooking class, that takes more time. Why? To shift your mental gears and take yourself away from your daily routine.

A large part of your agenda should focus on working on the retreat’s big issue. Divide the agenda so that the active work doesn’t form a single long, potentially panic-inducing chunk. You can separate intense work sessions with time outside, physical activities, group discussions (if you’ll be doing a retreat with other people) or unstructured time for relaxing.

For a retreat focused on a writing project, you might have five project sessions. The first three include: 1) a long one to mind map or jot down ideas, 2) a shorter one to organize the first session’s thoughts into a rough outline and 3) a very short one to write a tweet-sized description for each of the outline’s major sections, fast as you can.

In the fourth session, give yourself an hour or two to expand on whichever of those tiny descriptions you feel most ready to run with. To keep yourself from getting bogged down looking for the perfect words, aim to write something from beginning to end in the time allotted. It’s more useful to complete an essay presenting the core ideas of one chapter of your dissertation, for example, than to start writing the beginning of that chapter.

If writing is so hard for you that an extended writing session is itself a barrier, just record yourself talking. If you transcribe the recording later, you may be surprised by how good a writer you actually are.

Immediately after this writing-intense period, finish with the fifth session: another five or 10 minutes to write the first two lines of the next section and a few notes to help you regain your train of thought when you next sit down to write.

For the end of your retreat, plan something that will bring the final work to a close, for example scheduling time the next week to move forward from what you have accomplished, and then schedule a final activity, something you’ll enjoy doing after the hard work is finished.

You don’t have to center your retreat on a writing project. Thinking about what you really want to do with your life, or about moving in a new career direction, or about trying to get on or off the fast track are all good subjects to consider. Whatever the central issue, break the retreat’s working time into smaller sessions to help move from big-picture thinking toward an action that will help you keep moving forward after you return to your usual work.

If the core of your retreat won’t be one of the major grad school rites of passage, planning some paper-and-pencil time is still useful. Maybe you’re thinking about alternative careers, or about how to make an academic career work in the context of your personal life. Spending time writing, mind mapping or drawing your feelings can help you find your way. Putting some structure, like an outline, around the ideas that come out of the first session can help you move on toward ordered, practical next steps. Putting down a few words about each major element will help you consolidate your thoughts.

Scaling Up

For a one-day retreat, you may only have time to do a few work sessions with short mind-stretching activities in between. Try to make the nonwork moments true departures from your routine. If you’re a scientist, don’t use the time to run into the lab and get an experiment started. If you’re a TA, don’t grade papers. Give your mind a break.

You can plan a retreat of any length at home for yourself or for multiple people, but planning a multiday away-from-home retreat for three to five people has become relatively affordable thanks to the rise of short-term house rental services like Airbnb or HomeAway. A multiday group retreat gives you opportunities to get peer feedback on your thinking, as well as to enjoy time with friends or bounce ideas off near strangers. If you look at off-season prices, it may be tempting to plan a vacation/retreat someplace fabulous. But I recommend letting your vacations stay vacations: a retreat is about something else.

Look for a few affordable listings with the appropriate number of available sleeping spaces in peaceful settings nearby. Narrow down the list by looking for rentals with plenty of space to break out and work alone, as well as social spaces for gathering together. Find out what kind of natural beauty or opportunities for cultural exploration are close to them. Then you can pick a place for your retreat and start planning.


Victoria McGovern is a senior program officer at the Burroughs Wellcome Fund and a member of the Graduate Career Consortium -- an organization providing a national voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.


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