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Take Yourself Out on a Scholar Date

Advice for fighting intellectual burnout.

March 17, 2016

Heather VanMouwerik is a doctoral candidate in Russian History at the University of California, Riverside. Follow her @hvanmouwerik or check out her website.



“Are you experiencing burnout?” Katie Shives innocently asked in a recent GradHacker post. I sort of chuckled as I read that question, because burnout is that thing that happens to other graduate students. It is an important component, of course, in understanding graduate student mental health, but it wasn’t something I needed to worry about.


Then I read the symptoms: 1. Chronic physical exhaustion: check. 2. Depression and/or anxiety: all the time, check. 3. Cynicism: I mean, who isn’t a cynic in grad school? Check. Each symptom Katie listed, I had it. I dropped my tablet on the floor like it was red-hot, because, over the last eight months, I had slowly accumulated a set of symptoms that added up to something rather serious, to something that had a name: burnout.


There are a lot of reasons for burnout, but mine is rooted in an increasing sense of isolation. Not only am I one of the few remaining students from my cohort, I am currently a T.A. outside of the department, which makes me all but a ghost to the newer graduate students. More than just this physical isolation, I am also increasingly isolated from my intellectual self. Like most people, I came to graduate school because I was smart, curious, and inquisitive; however, now that coursework is over, I spend most of my time grading essays, writing emails, communicating with administrators, and writing grant proposals. None of my day-to-day labor is particularly intellectually rewarding, and I am suffering because of it.


Most advice about combating burnout justifiably focuses on the physical self—get more sleep, drink more water, eat better food, and get more exercise. But burnout affects the intellectual self, too. How can we heal the smart part of us along with the physical?


In her workbook on creativity, The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron argues that there are two habits artists should adopt to reignite their creative self: 1. morning pages and 2. Artist Dates. Although the former has been discussed extensively in the academic setting, the latter has been largely ignored. Artist Dates, a “once-weekly, festive, solo expedition” to “feed [your] creative work by replenishing [your] inner well of images and inspiration,” is a commitment to spending time with your inner artist, to experiencing the creativity of others, and focusing on your interests.


This got me thinking: Could the same principle be applied to an intellectually stagnate academic? Maybe instead of an Artist Date, a Scholar Date?


To see if Cameron’s advice held true for academics, too, I conducted an experiment. For the last two months, I took my inner scholar out on a date every Thursday afternoon. Although it was difficult at first to make this sort of time commitment, it has changed my relationship to graduate school in ways I could not predict. Not only have I been much more productive during the week and less stressed dealing with administrative issues, but I am excited about my dissertation again. For the first time in ten months, I feel like I am actually making progress on my research! I have no objective proof that my Scholar Dates have helped me address burnout, but subjectively I feel more fulfilled in my teaching, researching, and working life.


If you are feeling intellectually burned out and want to try your own Scholar Dates, a few guidelines to set for yourself:


1. Schedule it. This time must be the same each week and guarded fiercely. So write it in your calendar and say “no” to any other commitments. For me, this was hard to do at first; however, as I started to understand how important these weekly intellectual check-ins were for my productivity and creativity, they became just another part of my work week. I discovered that, to be a good instructor and student, I need to keep my intellectual side engaged, so I keep my Thursday afternoons sacred.

2. Leave your apartment. The goal of these dates is to get out of your normal rut and experience something new. This cannot happen in your pajamas within sight of essays to be graded and dissertations to be written. No exceptions allowed.

3. Do it alone. You are not trying to impress anyone on your Scholar Date; you are doing exactly what you want to when you want to do it. The goal is to get reaquainted with the intellectual side of yourself, so focus on that and not on what your friends or partners are experiencing.

4. Set a budget. I am just as broke as any other T.A.-funded graduate student, so I have to stick to a pretty strict budget. Rather than setting aside a certain amount of money each week, I budget $50 for the whole month. This allows me a bit more flexibility on when and where I go each week. One week might be more expensive, like a trip to a botanical garden, but the next may not cost more than a cup of coffee. Regardless of how you set up your budget, make sure you stick to it.

5. Follow your bliss! It is up to you to define what intellectually replenishing is, so cast your net wide. Be creative! Try new things; experience new perspectives.


Here are a few ideas to get you started:


1.   Movie night: I love everything about the movie theater, but when I am stressed or tired, I don’t feel like taking the time or spending the money on going out. That tiredness is actually counterproductive, because I thrive on the sights, sounds, smells, and community that the theater provides. Although I recommend that you seek out films that will feed your intellectual self, it is your outing! If you want to spend an afternoon thinking about the gender and sexual politics of Magic Mike, then have fun! The editing style of Star Wars: the Force Awakens? Go for it! Alternately you may be able to find theaters that occasionally show “throwback” films or host alternative programing, like the ballet or the opera. The only requirement is that you think about what you are watching, that you engage with the material in a critical way, and that you treat yo’ self to popcorn or a box of Whoppers.

2.   State park: On a lark a month ago, I took my parents to the California Citrus State Historical Park. For all of $5 for parking, we took a tour of the citrus varietals, visited the museum, tasted freshly picked citrus fruit, and wandered around the orange groves. Though I didn’t do this on an official Scholar Date, I couldn’t help but think that it would have made for an amazing outing. Not only does it allow you the opportunity to learn more about your local community, but being outdoors reduces stress and increases your overall well being. Just visit your state’s park services website, where you can also check out upcoming community events.

3.   Museums! Art galleries! I am lucky to live in one of the densest concentrations of art in the world. In Southern California, you can’t throw a rock without hitting a museum of some sort, so I try to avail myself of them whenever I can. Studies show that looking at art has a profound effect on your brain, and I know that experiencing the creative work of others makes me feel more creative. Take an afternoon and explore a museum, a gallery, or a botanical garden. Plus, don’t forget to bring your student ID, since many places offer discounts. (If you are wondering around LA, I can highly recommend the wonderfully bizarre Museum of Jurassic Technology. It’s an… experience?)

4.   Self-guided walking tours: I love making themed walking tours for myself when I travel, with my artist studio tour of Montmartre being a particular favorite. Until I started these Scholar Dates, I had never thought to create this type of thing for my own neighborhood. Yet, as it turns out, researching my city’s history made for an interesting exploration of shingle-style Victorian architecture. All that you need is a map, a little research into your local area, and a pair of walking shoes. If you don’t want to create your own, then reach out to your local tourist office or history club. Often they already have a walking tour prepared and would be more than happy to share it with you.

5.   Beer. Yes, beer is a Scholar Date when you visit a brewery, take a tour, participate in a tasting, and ask the brewmaster questions. The same goes for wineries and artist studios, too. Any sort of artisanal experience has the potential for learning, so cast your net wide and look for learning opportunities in any skill that interests you and enjoy some beer along the way.

6.   A “smart” book and a cup of coffee: This is actually one of my favorite Scholar Dates, because it combines my love of reading with my love of coffee. When was the last time that you read without a highlighter in your hand? Or post-it notes on the table? When was a the last time you read something that pushed you intellectually without trying to figure out how you could use it in your dissertation? Remember what it felt like to just read? Recapture some of that on a Scholar Date. Select a scholarly book, one which is not remotely connected to your dissertation or specific field of study, buy a fancy cup of coffee (or a beer or a cupcake, whatever your vice may be), and read for the pure pleasure of it. I have done this a couple of times, once with Lisa Randall’s Dark Matter and Dinosaurs and once with Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis. Both were fun to read and made me think about life outside my small academic bubble.


Hopefully these examples give you some ideas for starting your own weekly Scholar Dates. Remember, your smarts got you into graduate school, so take time connect or reconnect with that part of yourself. And follow your bliss!


Do you have a regular check-in with your intellectual side? Do you have any ideas for interesting Scholars Dates you would like to share? Please let us know in the comments! I am always looking for new ideas!

[Image by Flickr user Saff’s Photography and used under Creative Commons.]


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