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Megan Poorman is a Ph.D. candidate in biomedical engineering at Vanderbilt University. You can find her on Twitter, @meganpoorman, or documenting her travels on her website.


Ah, the holidays – a time of festive music, delicious food, and warm cuddly feelings. Every year I get excited to return home and meticulously pack up my suitcase, but I often end up with an unwanted stowaway in my luggage: stress. The holidays are a minefield of well-intentioned questions such as “How is research going?” and “When do you graduate?” that bring back the overwhelming stress and graduate school guilt that I’ve gone on holiday to avoid. Is it possible to enjoy the holidays as a graduate student while avoiding the holiday inquiry? Here is how to navigate the holidays in a way that allows you to talk to others about your life without inducing a ton of stress.

The first step to solve this problem is to admit that you have a problem. It’s particularly easy to take out our stress on those we love most, because we know they will always be there. When Great-Aunt so-and-so is asking you how classes are going for the umpteenth time, it’s hard to remember that as graduate students we make up a very small percentage of the population. Even the most involved friends and family are probably not aware of the exact details of how your program works, so how could we expect distant members of our family to be. Most likely, your friends and family are not trying to interrogate you, they are asking because they care about your life. While it can be extremely difficult to not interpret these questions as nagging or inquisitive, try to remain calm and empathize with the fact that they are likely doing their best to try to connect with you on your level.

Now that you’ve taken a deep calming breath, reword the question into something you can answer. For example, let's say you’re stressing about not knowing exactly when you’ll graduate and a family member starts asking you about buying plane tickets to your graduation. When you say you may not walk in the spring graduation ceremony like the one they attended a few years ago, they might start questioning why you aren’t working harder. Instead of getting angry at the pressure they are putting on you, pretend they asked you about how graduate school thesis timelines and defense dates work. Then you can explain about the factors that go into deciding your graduation date without feeling attacked. Giving them the benefit of the doubt will help you remain calm and might even spark a conversation about life in higher education.

When you field questions about your work, give detailed but understandable answers. Leave out jargon and speak slowly and clearly. Use effective science communication strategies and pretend you are explaining the topic to your grandmother – bonus points if she’s in attendance. This is not to say your family is incapable of understanding your work or that you should “dumb down” your thesis topic. Try to distill the key points of your work in layman’s terms and convey an overall sense of enthusiasm. There’s no need to get bogged down in the details while at the dinner table. However, if you get follow-up questions don’t be afraid to drill deeper. Just stay observant of your audience’s interest level and don’t dominate the conversation at the expense of others.

If the bombardment gets to be too much, it’s okay to find an escape. This could be as small as diverting the conversation to another family member's work or as big as going for a walk by yourself. Perhaps you can offer to take the little cousins to the park or play holiday songs on the piano. Put yourself in charge of running errands for the family, queueing up the party playlist, or taste-testing all the appetizers. Worst case, grab your phone and find a quiet corner to just relax and unwind for a few minutes, though I don’t advocate for doing work assignments as an escape from your family. If there’s something that you absolutely need to get done then go ahead, but try to enjoy the time you have away. It’s better to look back on the holiday happy that you got a lot out of it instead of regretting spending the whole time locked away on your computer. There will always be more work to do but you won’t always have unlimited, overwhelming, and sometimes-way-too-much access to your loved ones.

Even with the best of intentions, questions from relatives over the holidays can bring on a huge case of graduate school guilt. If handled the right way, these conversations can lead to much-needed encouragement from family and help put your work in perspective. Try to enjoy your holiday and de-stress, no matter how much else is going on in your life.

Happy Thanksgiving!

[Image by Flickr user Jim Lukach and used under Creative Commons licensing.]

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