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Meltdown and Move On

Setting and achieving realistic goals.

March 24, 2016

Jonathan D. Fitzgerald is doctoral student in English literature at Northeastern University. You can find him on Twitter at @jon_fitzgerald or at his website www.jonathandfitzgerald.com.



A month ago, as the spring semester began to ramp up, I found myself on the edge of a minor meltdown. While attempting to create reading lists and schedules for the two comprehensive exams I’m working on this semester, my second-born—who had just turned nine months—woke up crying three times in the span of an hour. My wife has a full-time teaching job and so I usually take the night shift. As I tried for the third time to rock him to sleep, I began to panic. How am I going to get through these reading lists on schedule, not to mention write the required papers, if I’m constantly pulled away from my work?


He eventually fell asleep and so did I, and the next morning the panic subsided a bit and it occurred to me: the goals I was setting for myself were unrealistic. They were arbitrarily created based on the hope that I could finish my exams ahead of schedule and move into the dissertation phase. They didn’t account for my real life.


While you may not have a teething infant pulling you away from your work, we all have to balance academic goals with other responsibilities. Setting goals—even slightly overambitious ones—is a good thing, but we also have to be realistic.


With that in mind, I’ve set out, in the weeks since my minor meltdown, to come up with some ways to set and achieve realistic goals, and I want to share a few of those ideas.


Be ambitious…


Let’s be honest, if we weren’t ambitious we wouldn’t be graduate students. Consider all the work it took to get to this point: after four years of college and perhaps several years in the workforce, to decide to keep working toward academic success is proof enough of this ambition. That’s not going to stop in grad school, nor should it. If your program, like mine, offers a timeline for completion, I think it’s a good idea to strive to work harder to move ahead of schedule. By all means, be ambitious.


…but also be realistic.


We all know people who have burnt out along the way. Maybe you’ve even been that person. Ambition is great, but the fact is, things don’t always go the way we’ve planned. Being realistic means being flexible. When you’ve set ambitious goals and it’s just not working out, it’s okay to slow down, take stock of where you are, and adjust your goals accordingly. If you’re like me, you might feel a slight tinge of failure in having to temper your ambition, but this feeling is far better than finding yourself burnt out.


Nurture a healthy sense of competition…


I have a friend in my cohort who is in a similar phase of life as me and for that reason she, like me, has been intentional about working hard to keep ahead of our program’s suggested timeline. Whenever we talk or I see her post on Facebook about her progress, something wells up inside me that I can only describe as a fierce competitive spirit. Generally, I’m not a very competitive person—I’m not what you’d call athletic or even remotely into sports—but when it comes to academic or professional goals, I can get pretty aggressive. My friend’s success spurs me on to work just a bit harder, and by and large, I think this is healthy.


…but don’t succumb to jealousy.


There’s a fine line between a healthy competitive spirit and flat out envy. Whenever I find myself moving beyond feeling motivated and inspired by my peers’ success into what could honestly be described as a jealous rage, I make myself remember that grad school is not a race to the finish. (Okay, my wife is usually the one to remind me of this, but still.) The fact is, our peers can be great motivators and pace setters, but ultimately we are all on individual paths that, especially as we progress in our programs, bear less and less resemblance to those of our colleagues. By all means, seek out people who can inspire you to work harder, but don’t let their success discourage you.


Ultimately, cut yourself some slack.


Be ambitious. Be competitive. But accept that often life doesn’t turn out the way you planned. My wife and I always knew we wanted to have a second child (my daughter was one and a half when I started back to school), but we thought we’d wait until I was at least through coursework. When we found out we were pregnant with our son a month into my first semester, I knew this would necessarily change the goals I’d set for myself. But that’s life, and sometimes you just have to roll with it. Lately I’ve come to recognize, as my son nears his first birthday, that when all's said and done and I look back at my grad school experience, this will have been one of the hardest years of my life. Realizing this helped me to not succumb to guilt, cut myself some slack, and ultimately set some more realistic goals.


I’m willing to bet that, by now, life has thrown you a few curveballs too. But you’re still here. You’re still working toward your goals and setting new ones. Keep at it, and when the inevitable minor meltdowns happen, get some sleep and, if not the next morning then some morning in the near future, you’ll wake up and realize that you may need to adjust your goals to accommodate real life. There’s no shame in this. In fact, learning how to be flexible may just be the greatest lesson you’ll learn in graduate school.


Have you faced some adversity that caused you to adjust your goals? How did you move past it and keep going? What advice can you share with the rest of us?


[Image via pixabay.com and used under Creative Commons.]


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