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Today marks the first day of our "Share your Workspace" GradHacker photo contest. From now until Nov 21st (11:59 pm EST) you can submit photos of your workspace(s) to win one of five fabulous prize packages from our sponsors. Winners are selected based on number of public votes, so be sure to share your workspace with friends and colleagues. 

Photo of L-shaped desk with chair.


Emily VanBuren is a PhD student in History at Northwestern University. You can find her on Twitter at@emilydvb, or at her blog

Famous minds have created some wonderful thinking spaces. One of J. K. Rowling’s former homes featured a detached, split-level office where she could write in solitude. Winston Churchill and Ernest Hemingway were both proponents of the standing desk. Dr. Richard A. Macksey, Professor of Humanities at The Johns Hopkins University, has a home library that boasts more than 70,000 volumes.

While a lavishly-furnished study is beyond the reach of most graduate students surviving on a stipend, we all need a place to work and think. If you’re lucky, your university might offer a private workspace in your department or your library (at my institution, grads are able to secure an open study carrel, with closed carrels available after achieving candidacy). But if your university doesn’t offer this perk, or if you simply prefer to do your thinking away from campus, you’ve probably considered setting up a workstation at home. Here are a few pointers:

1. Set boundaries. Not everyone has the same amount of space to work with. If you live alone, you might get an entire room for an office. If you live with roommates, perhaps your office is a corner in your bedroom. Whatever its size, establish boundaries for your workzone and stick to them. Do not allow stray papers, folders, sticky notes, notebooks and the like to escape these borders. And do your best to work only in this space (not in your bed or at your kitchen table). Preventing your workspace from taking over your entire home will help you to relax when you’re not plugging away at your work, and to locate materials more easily. For example, a friend of mine lives in a studio apartment and uses a large area rug to define the boundaries of her workspace. Even when her place is a mess, she doesn’t allow her books or materials to scatter beyond the edges of the rug.

2. Collect inspiration. This is the fun part. You can gather inspiration tips and photos via sites like Apartment TherapyHouzzLifehacker, or Pinterest. (Have a favorite blog or website for inspiration? Share it below!)

3. Make your budget work for you. Setting up a home office on a grad student stipend is a daunting task. When deciding how much you can spend on your space, think carefully about the type of work you’ll be doing there. Will you be mostly reading? Writing? Sketching? Consider saving as much money as possible on basics, like your bookshelves or filing cabinet, in order to splurge on one or two items that will make your day-to-day tasks more comfortable. For example, if you’ll primarily be planted in front of your computer, you might snag your desk on the cheap from a thrift store and indulge in an ergonomic chair. Spend less in one area to get more in another. Also, I’m guessing that most grad students are already savvy bargain hunters who can sing the glories of Craigslist, local thrift stores, and garage sales. But if you can’t find what you’re looking for or prefer to buy new, take advantage of free shipping and discount codes when doing your online shopping for your workspace furnishings. I love Amazon Prime for this, and have also had good luck online with OverstockTarget (especially the clearance section), and Cost Plus World Market. Before making a purchase, be sure to scope out a deal site like RetailMeNot to check for promotions and free shipping codes to save a little extra cash.

4. Display a visual reminder of what excites you about your work. Here at GradHacker, we’ve featured several posts on how to slough through discouraging moments during graduate school. Give yourself an extra motivational boost by keeping something in your workspace that reminds you why you’re interested in your field or research topic to begin with. For example, I work on performance history and have managed to track down vintage theatre programs from one of the plays I’m writing on, which are displayed near my desk. When I’m glowering at my laptop and don’t feel like writing, these programs remind me how much I love my project and motivate me to sit down and get thinking. Fellow GradHacker Kaitlin suggests placing the title page of your dissertation on a nearby bulletin board.

6. Keep a memento nearby to remind yourself how far you’ve come. You didn’t just get to walk into your graduate program. You put in a significant amount of work first, whether it was a BA, an MA, or an earlier career. You spent considerable energy researching programs and potential advisors. You agonized over your application materials. And now you’re here. For the days when you’re feeling overwhelmed with how much you still have to conquer, add an item to your workspace that reminds you how much you’ve already accomplished. Maybe it’s your diplomas. Or maybe it’s a card you received at graduation from someone you admire. One of my friends has his PhD program acceptance letter matted and framed above his desk. Choose something that reminds you of what you’ve achieved so far.

7. Schedule time to keep your space organized. Grad school is hectic. You will be juggling coursework, exams, research, conference papers, teaching responsibilities, and all of the paperwork that comes with these tasks. And sometimes this will make your head spin. Create a routine for re-organizing your office area on a regular basis, so that your workspace makes you feel a bit more in control. Maybe you take 15 minutes every Friday to file the mountain of papers that has consumed your desk or to re-shelve stray piles of books. It doesn’t have to take much of your time, but it should be consistent.

Proud of your workspace? Submit a photo via Facebook or share a photo on Twitter, or Instagram using #GHspaces to enter our GradHacker workspaces photo contest. We’ll be awarding five prize packages including items from some great online retailers to help you set up your workspace (see the contest page for more information). The winning entries will be announced here on the blog, this Friday, November 22.

What are your favorite resources for workspace inspiration and shopping?

[Image by Flickr user Jeremy Levine used under creative commons licensing.]

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