Wednesday, April 24, 2013

How to Keep (at least some of) Your Sanity During Graduate School

I have had very little time to update this blog because I have been busily preparing manuscripts and hard tissue samples. But I want to write about a very important topic that MANY graduate students overlook when beginning their careers in academia, their sanity.

Many graduate students think (maybe not consciously) that the path to success in graduate school is working 24 hours a day, seven days a week. In my experience, this approach only leads to exhaustion and resentment. But how can we publish, attend conferences, and finish our theses on time without working 24/7?!

It's all about EFFICIENCY. "Great Dani, all you have given us is a buzz word." But it's true!

1) Make to do lists

This seems really simple but many people don't make useful lists. For example, making a list of things like "write thesis" will not help you become more efficient. These lists are nebulous and not achievable on short timescales. Here is an example of one of my daily "to do" lists.

A) Read So and So et al. 2010
B) Email Dr. Awesome about samples
C) Write two paragraphs of thesis introduction
D) Add acid to samples
E) Create an outline for that upcoming manuscript

I would normally have more on my daily list, but you get the gist.

Note how specific my list is. These are all goals that are achievable in a single day. Using my approach, you will experience an increase in overall productivity and meet your longer term goals sooner.

2) Move on to something else

If you just can't look at your paper anymore, work on something else for awhile (an afternoon or a couple of days). You're doing yourself and your productivity a disservice by paining over one project at a time without making significant progress. A bored mind is an unproductive mind! You'll find it easier to come back to the project after a short break.

3) Don't wait until the day before

Hopefully, most of us learnt this during our undergraduate years. I certainly did! My grades improved a full letter grade once I stopped leaving things to the last minute. So don't wait until the week before your comps to start studying or the day before your proposal to start writing! You won't be able to enjoy points 1) and 2). You will also likely have a miserable experience in graduate school and disappoint your adviser.

So far, I have told you how to maintain efficiency but not necessarily your sanity. Naturally, following the three steps above will help, but there are some very important things that are often overlooked.

Rest, relaxation, and fun are all an integral part of the successful academic life.Working 24/7 will only lead to burn out (even if you're working efficiently). Going to a movie or getting a good night's sleep can actually benefit your research! I am lucky because I have a partner who does not work in academia and he keeps me engaged in non-academic activities like dog walks, barbecues, and date nights. The power of leisure activities cannot be understated!

I recommend a hobby that is not directly related to your research. I am a film fanatic. I also enjoy playing racquetball and walking my dog. I know others who enjoy knitting, role playing games, guitar, hiking, biking, and camping. These activities are not off limits because you're a graduate student.

*Disclaimer* I do not mean that you should spend all of your time in leisure. If you want to be a successful academic, you will need to work long days and long hours (I work between 8 and 10 hours a day because I am efficient but many people work longer). But breaking up your week with fun activities will help you keep at it!

A mentally healthy graduate student is a good graduate student!

Sitka and I at puppy training class, maintaining our collective sanity!


  1. If possible, I would recommend committing whole days on focussing on your thesis writing - or any writing. That is so much more productive than writing two paragraphs and then do something else.

  2. It really depends on how you work. I usually devote a morning or afternoon rather than an entire day. But different things work for different people. The point of the list wasn't to say "these are the exact things that should be on your list" but rather to suggest that the list should be specific enough to be achievable in a single day. Of course, your list will be different as you get closer to your defense etc.