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The Myth of Summer Break

One GradHacker reflects on the struggle to balance rest and responsibilities during the academic holiday.

August 27, 2015
 

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

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Last Spring, as the weather warmed and the semester began to wind down, I, like many of you, began to look forward to summer vacation. This break was particularly exciting for me this year as my wife and I were expecting our second child in May. Sure enough, one week — almost to the day — after my last paper was submitted, our son was born. Free of my academic-related responsibilities, I would be able to devote all of my time to my children. Or so I thought.

 

Within the span of a couple weeks, I found out that I had been hired as a research assistant for my advisor and as a managing editor of a journal hosted on campus. These new jobs, plus my desire to get a jumpstart on my reading list for comprehensive exams, quickly jolted me out of the dream of summer. I quickly learned that, for an academic, summer break is a myth.

 

So, with that in mind, what follows is a kind of demythologization: my version of a wake-up call, particularly for those who might be just beginning their grad school journey this fall.

 

There’s always something you should be doing.

This is the eternal burden of grad school life. Every hour of every day we are plagued with the feeling that we should be using our time more efficiently. At first, this will feel overwhelming. By the time Christmas break approaches, though, you’ll begin to feel like you finally have a handle on your schedule and you’re actually being productive and efficient.

 

But here’s the bad news: this feeling doesn’t go away when the semester ends. Even as I spent time holding my newborn son this summer, I lived with the sinking feeling that I was falling behind on my academic responsibilities.

 

There’s always something you could be doing.

Very similar to the burning sensation that comes with the knowledge that you should be reading instead of doing whatever else it is you’re up to, there’s also the feeling — reserved for those rare moments when you’re just about caught up on the things you should be doing — that you could be doing more. This feeling is most acute in the summer.

 

Maybe it’s brought on by a chance meeting with a fellow grad student who tells you how she’s nearly completed her reading list for her comprehensive exams. Or perhaps your Twitter feed is blowing up with tweets from a conference that you’re not attending. Or maybe you read a post here at GradHacker encouraging you to use summer break to create a website, apply for a grant, or pursue an internship or job. The summer is the time when you’ll feel behind on getting ahead.

 

So, get to work. And have some fun. But get back to work.

As with all things, there is a balance. It’s true, summer is a great time to catch up and/or get ahead. But after 9 months of classes, papers, readings, and exams, you’ve earned a break. My advice is to create a schedule for yourself, but make it a bit more lax than your regular school year work schedule.

 

If you work five days a week September through May, make it three days in the summer, or just work half-days. Create some goals for yourself, but don’t beat yourself up if you don’t accomplish them all. If you’re supposed to be working but someone invites you to the beach, go to the beach!

 

I’m still working through this. My summer, particularly with its special circumstances, has been an exercise in balance. I allowed myself a paternity leave and tried not to let the feeling that I’m falling behind bear on me too much, but, once my wife and I felt like we were beginning to get a grip on the two-child family life, I was eager to get back to work. I didn’t accomplish everything I wanted to this summer, but I did get some important work done (and even managed to have a lot of fun!).

 

What do your summers look like? Do you give yourself a break or do you work even harder?

 

[Image by Pixabay user makunin and used under Creative Commons Licensing.]

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