• GradHacker

    A Blog from GradHacker and MATRIX: The Center for Humane Arts, Letters and Social Sciences Online


Don’t Be Bummed Out While School’s Out

Strategies for making good use of your summer "break."

April 17, 2018

Florianne Jimenez is a PhD student in rhetoric and composition at UMass Amherst. She tweets via @bopeepery.

Remember when you actually used to look forward to summer vacation as a kid? The last day of school always felt like the sweetest day of the year: the sun always shone a little bit brighter, and the snacks always tasted a little bit better. For graduate students, our last days of school are more bittersweet. For many of us, summer means no funding and relying on on part-time jobs, loans, or significant cutbacks to our lifestyles to survive. It also means losing the structured environment and community that we’ve had for nine months: all of a sudden, all the things that we work towards, all the commitments that structure our time, are gone. What’s a grad student to do?

I’ve been there: when I was still in coursework, I had no idea what to do over the summer. I felt a constant pressure to work, but no one ever told me what I was supposed to be working on during those early stages. At the comps and prospectus stage, having a project to work on has made things easier, but it can still feel way too loose and unstructured. I’ve always felt like I could have made a better use of my time.

As a veteran of some rough, lonely, unfunded summers, I’ve resolved to make the summer of 2018 a productive and healthy four months. While I’m wrapping up the loose ends of this spring semester, I’m also putting some plans in place to make my summer less of a bummer. Here’s a peek at my growing list of summer life hacks, which I hope will also get you through those long summer months.

Accept that you have free time and stop feeling guilty about it.
One of the downsides of graduate school is that you could always be working. While you’re spending 20 hours a week on your research (and that’s plenty!) on top of your other commitments, in the back of your head, you’re always wondering if you could churn out that article quicker, or write that chapter faster, if you did 30, 40, or 50 hours instead. For the summer break, you have to quit this mentality: don’t push yourself to be 100% productive 100% of the time. You just can’t do that. Give yourself reasonable daily, weekly, and monthly goals instead of imposing that the summer is ALL about work. That’s a surefire way to feel bad about yourself all summer.

Write out your work goals and stick to them.
Summer is a great time to really focus on your own research, especially when you’re out of coursework and working on milestones like your comps, prospectus, dissertation, and job market materials. Whatever work you have for the summer, take some time to actually set down specific goals and timelines and hold yourself to them. For the summer, I’ve found that it’s really helpful to quantify goals, give them arbitrary deadlines (e.g., read 10 articles/book chapters by mid-June), and break them down into specific steps rather than to have a big task (e.g., FINISH COMPS!!!) hanging over my head.

For those of us still in coursework, your tasks will be smaller and shorter than for someone with major milestones ahead. However, there are still things relevant to your research that you could work on. Summer is a great time to look back on the year you’ve had and update your CV, and to practice tailoring that document to different kinds of jobs. Summer is also an opportunity to ask for guidance: you could ask a professor or advanced graduate student to coffee, and pick their brains about their research and ask questions about yours. You could also read up on the state of graduate school in general: pick up a book like The Professor is In or Air & Light & Time & Space to get a broader view of academic work. Better yet, enlist a friend to read along with you and discuss it over snacks!

Do everything that you say you haven’t had time for.
We all have that list of hobbies and good habits that we say we would do if only we had the time. For me, that’s reading more young adult novels, foam rolling consistently, and baking treats worthy of The Great British Bake-Off. This summer, commit all of those things to a list and do them at least once, because guess what? Summer is nothing but time. If you’re bored or unsure what to do one day, don’t overthink it: check your list and start one of those activities.

Expand your (non-ac) horizons.
There’s been increasing talk about the declining academic job market and the need for graduate students to have a non-academic career plan. The summer is the perfect time to see what’s out there and to reflect on what you could do with your skills outside of academia. Use the summer to do research on non-academic jobs, pursue internships, volunteer positions, or part-time work in your area for your non-academic resume, and acquire skills (e.g., coding through Udemy) that could supplement your CV. For me, I’m going to use the summer to learn about graphic design, which could help in my work as a writing teacher, but also help me pursue my side interests in corporate communications and advertising.  

Build in routines.
The hardest part of summer is that a lot of our soothing rituals and routines – the coffee you grab on the way to your office, the podcast you listen to on your way to work – suddenly disappear. Fight the urge to roll out of bed whenever you feel like it by having a small routine. What’s something small that can start your summer days off on a happy note? Maybe it’s making coffee while listening to a comedy podcast, lacing up your sneakers and going for a run, or watching the morning news while you make eggs. Whatever it is, make it easy to do everyday in the summer, and you’ll feel a little more grounded.

Be social, and do it for free.
Summer can be a time to form writing groups or job market groups, and those are definitely helpful for your professional life. But remember that connections in graduate school don’t have to be all about work! Find out who’s staying in town and come up with some fun things you can do together on a budget: hikes, gym days, movie nights, and board game nights are some great ideas. You could also rotate planning and scheduling duty among members of your group so that socializing doesn’t become a chore. Isolation tends to creep up unexpectedly, so be proactive about staying connected to people!

What’s on your anti-summer bummer list? Let us know in the comments!

[Image from Flickr user Alan Levine and used under Creative Commons Licensing.]


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