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Danielle Marias is a PhD candidate in Forest Ecosystems and Society at Oregon State University. You can find her on Twitter @danielleemarias or at her website.


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Grad student guilt or grad school guilt (GSG) is a term well known to grad students everywhere and discussed in depth in previous GradHacker posts by Terry Brock and Chris Stawski. In case you don’t have time to delve into the details of those posts, I will briefly define GSG here:


Grad student guilt (GSG) (n) is the feeling that a grad student experiences when he/she does any activity that is not related to grad school work and does not make progress on his/her thesis/dissertation (e.g. classes, literature reviews, data analysis, writing).


After starting my first year in grad school, I quickly learned that sitting at a desk gets old and I lose focus. This is where I discovered my need for work-life balance and the value it has on my productivity (look for a future post in which I discuss this in more detail). To balance out my time spent at my desk or in lab, I realized I needed to do other activities I enjoy (e.g. exercising, reading for fun, catching up with loved ones in different time zones, baking, getting outside, spending time with my dog) to unwind and keep me sane and connected to other aspects of my life besides grad school. However, GSG would always set in.


For example, I often took a break from school by adventuring outdoors on foot, ski, boat, or bike. As I was about to embark on an adventure, my mind would spin as I thought about the pile of papers I had not yet read, the R code errors that needed to be fixed, the data that had not been entered, the uncooperative instrument that needed troubleshooting, the thesis draft that was not completed, the samples that needed to be analyzed. The list of progress that I could have been making toward my degree seemed unending.


Despite the mounting GSG associated with my laundry list of things to do, I never turned the car around or backed out of a trip last minute. Mostly because I had done this enough times to know that I always felt better after doing something other than grad school work. I needed a break.


Once town was out of sight and I refocused on the weekend’s adventure (as there was no way I could cross off anything on my laundry list now), I reveled in every moment of doing what I enjoy in inspiring and unique places with good company. Feeling refreshed after a weekend away, I felt rejuvenated and motivated to attack that laundry list of things to do. I also never regretted taking a break to go on a trip.


Now, in my fifth year of grad school, I have repeated this cycle enough times to know that making time to pursue my hobbies and interests and taking a break from work will successfully get me through grad school with my sanity and health in tow. Nonetheless, GSG always bubbles up. Here, I offer a few tips that help me overcome GSG:


  1. Be social. Plan dates with friends to hold you accountable to make sure you do something other than work. Bailing on a dinner date alone is easier than bailing on a dinner date with friends.

  2. Set deadlines. It can be easy to feel lost in grad school because there aren’t many hard deadlines (except maybe when funding runs out). So set your own! Grad students can accomplish amazing feats under pressure (this is how I completed the first draft of my MS thesis), although I couldn’t sustain this long term. I will often set my own deadlines prior to a trip to ensure that I get my work done and reward myself with a well-deserved break.

  3. Get organized. I’ve found that if I keep my house, calendar, and inbox organized, I have a better grasp on the work I need to accomplish and how much time I can spend doing other activities.

  4. Enjoy your time doing other activities. I’ve learned that carrying GSG with me on my time off is distracting, stressful, and burdensome to me and others around me. I am at a point where once I leave for a trip, I don’t think about work at all so I can fully unwind and enjoy what I’m doing. I’ve learned that worrying about my laundry list doesn’t make the list any shorter.

  5. A reminder that being in grad school is still ‘real life’ right now. Often we think we’ll have more time to have fun when we finish school and join the ‘real world’ but we risk working away this time in life. Enjoy every day because this is your life. Additionally, working all of the time is not sustainable and can lead to burnout. So far, this has been my favorite time of my life and I intend to keep it that way. How many other jobs provide a schedule that is this flexible?


How do you manage grad student guilt? Please share!


[Image by Mauro and used under Creative Commons Licensing.]