• GradHacker

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

Title

Get a Hobby!

The importance of extracurricular engagement in grad school.

January 26, 2020
 
 

Jordan McNeill is a doctoral student in special education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Follow her on Twitter at @jordanmcneill89.

Much has been written about the importance of maintaining a work-life balance in graduate school (and life in general). I recently came across a Twitter poll asking if academics participate in hobbies and was disheartened to see less than 75 percent responding “yes.” It can be easy to get caught up in the narrative of graduate school as all-consuming, with no time left for anything else, but that mind-set can quickly lead to burnout and, potentially, struggles with mental health. It’s vital to build up your strategies for avoiding the busy trap by saying no, delegating tasks and developing task-management systems, but that’s all for nothing if you never take a breather and focus on something other than your academic pursuits. Taking up a hobby or two can be an easy way to ensure your life is more than graduate school -- Twitter users responding to the poll endorsed everything from photography to gardening to learning the ukulele!

Before I returned to graduate school, I was a public school teacher, a career that can easily dominate your time and energy for far more than a 40-hour week. Establishing hobbies at that time in my life served many purposes, and those same purposes have continued during my graduate school years. Beyond helping me step away from academic demands, I have found that actively pursuing hobbies has served at least five other functions in my life.

Staying active: Let’s be honest: as students, we spend the majority of our time sitting in front of computers and books. An active hobby can break that cycle, benefiting both our physical health and our mental well-being. It can help to try building fitness into your graduate school life. Some people can handle scheduling gym time themselves, but many of us benefit from something a bit more planned and predictable. If you’re especially goal-oriented, train for a half marathon or a triathlon. If, like me, you’re just looking to build some good habits, sign up for a weekly yoga or barre class at the gym. Or try an adult league in soccer, kickball or even bowling for a little camaraderie and friendly competition. Getting your blood pumping and your muscles moving is a perfect way to avoid getting stuck in a sedentary student rut.

Exercising creativity: Academics are some of the most innovative thinkers, but, unfortunately, the structure of graduate school often limits creative opportunities. Following research protocols and adhering to the scientific method can easily become mundane, but creativity is nonnegotiable for asking novel questions and seeking cutting-edge answers. Scientists say creativity benefits everything from mental health to physical immunity to cognitive function, so it’s worth our attention! Personally, I enjoy making Pinterest-inspired crafts, but maybe you’re inspired by music, photography, creative writing or dance. Whatever the medium, allowing your creative juices to flow helps you see the world in a new light. Don’t be surprised if you’re in the middle of a creative pursuit when you suddenly have an aha moment about your studies!

Building relationships: Academic departments are often small and insular, so finding a hobby with a social aspect introduces a chance to meet new people. Student organizations are a great way to pursue an interest while getting to know students from different fields and disciplines. Who knows, you might just find your way into an interdisciplinary collaboration or a new way of thinking about your scholarship. Further, venture outside your campus for community groups and activities. Don’t fall victim to the idea that no one outside school will be able to relate to you or understand your life as a student. My nonacademic friendships have been so important for keeping me grounded and in touch with the world outside graduate school.

Structuring time: There is no shortage of excellent advice to be found on time-management strategies to help survive the unstructured environment of graduate school. Organized hobbies can be a part of that management, too. If it becomes too easy to stay late in the lab, scheduling an evening fitness class can be motivation to leave on time. Committing to a volunteer role on Saturdays allows me to disconnect from school mode for a few hours and focus on something entirely different. Especially as I move into the dissertation phase of my program without any scheduled courses to plan around, I’m finding that I need to start by blocking off time for hobbies first, then fit in more flexible work hours around them.

Feeding a passion: Most graduate students are pursuing an advanced degree because they feel passionate about their field or topic of study (or not, for some, and that’s OK!). But more than likely, your research area isn’t the only thing you feel strongly about. Perhaps you care deeply about a particular cause or population or political issue or religious group. I have always been an avid animal lover, so I have dedicated hundreds of hours to volunteering at a local zoo for years now. Many folks I meet there are surprised to find out that my graduate program is in no way related to animals, it’s just an additional interest I choose to make time for. To me, there’s simply no good reason to stop engaging in one passion just because you’re studying a different one.

The demands of graduate school can be overwhelming, but it’s essential to have a life outside the lab and set aside time for other interests and activities. All work and no play makes the grad student a very dull scholar, after all!

What hobbies have you taken up during grad school? Share your tips for finding and maintaining them in the comments below!

[Photo courtesy of Giulia Bertelli via Unsplash]

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