How Not to Suck at Graduate School Over the Summer


For most graduate students the summer brings a bit of a break. Summer classes rarely run from June 1st to August 31st. Even in a year-around lab, summer is the time when supervisors go on vacation, and some of those vacations are quite extended. When post-docs and other contracted students are to work full time, there are still two weeks vacation built in to these employment contracts. Summer is typically the time when there are few grant deadlines or proposal deadlines for conferences. There are also the fortunate few who actually have completely flexible time for 13 weeks over the summer. Nonetheless, how the summer is spent will go a long way toward determining how quickly and effectively you move toward achieving your degree and professional goals.

The key word describing the summer is investment. Even a short lull in summer represents a pause from constantly reacting to course assignments, research demands, proposal deadlines, unreasonable supervisor expectations, last minute requests, and other urgencies. Summer is the time to reflect thoughtfully on your needs and goals. This is when you invest time in the activities that you said you would do when you have time.

The first part of your investment plan is to conduct a self-assessment after the difficult academic year. Did you fall behind on your research? Are you so stressed that it is difficult to function? Does your relationship with family and significant other require mending or renewing? Has it been more than 6 weeks since you have socialized with friends? What activities can you achieve over the summer that will bring your graduate date closer? What is your financial state? What things do you want to do, but never had a chance do with your hectic schedule? What events are coming up in the fall that you can make easier by preparing in the summer? And many more. You need to have a firm grasp of your current status in order to know what the direction of your investment will be. In order to read any map or receive any directions, you need to identify exactly where you are.

Planning your summer allows for priorities and perspective. If you have a good summer, then these plans will probably change due to fun and interesting opportunities that arise. In the summer, your wellness goals can take a high priority. Exercise, catch up on sleep, improve diet, schedule e-mail free weeks, decompress from stress, read a novel, take a vacation can all be top priorities and great investments. The next parts to schedule are the events, specific programs, and research milestones required by your graduate program and supervisor. Remember that you can rarely count on faculty members to meet over the summer. And getting two or more faculty members together for a summer meeting is like herding cats. However, catch up and meet the required deadlines. The next component to plan is the preparation work required for fall. There are often grants due, conferences to prepare for, and data collection events that take place in the fall. What can you do over the summer to make fall deadlines a bit easier? Finally, plan to make gains. While we are all struggling to keep our head above water in the fall and spring, summer can be a chance to make real progress. This is the time to publish an extra paper, get an early start on a thesis, or begin preparation for comprehensive exams. Students who take the most initiative are noticed by faculty members and by fellowship and scholarship committees.

There is a sneaky part of summer that no one really tells you. That is, you do not need to work all that hard in order to make progress. Because there are fewer places that you must be and people are not around the office or lab as often, less time is spent commuting, attending classes, going to required meetings, and the like. Therefore, concentrated time can be spent pursuing summer goals. So putting in a six-hour day of work is a long day in the summertime. Every day that you do a little bit of work in the summer will save a lot of work in the fall.

I am not a graduate student and seem to have no need to take vacations. But here are my summer plans.

  • Self-assessment: there is a massive backlog of manuscripts and a book to write and fall data collection projects to prepare. There is also a need to upgrade the graduate program handbook and website. The journal I edit could use a lot more attention. Recruiting outstanding students for 2015 needs to begin. I need to prepare my lab for a visiting professor, who is starting in the fall. Mental health status is good. I am excited and refreshed after a busy fall and spring. Physical health status is improved. I gained weight and stopped exercising when work became stressful (big mistake) and I experienced some injuries that slowed me down. Although I am in good health, it is time to regain fitness.
  • Planning: Vacations are not something either my wife or I do well. But we are planning a few four-day weekends, several Saturday hikes in the mountains, and an APA conference/family trip to DC. Although always fair complected, my wife has commented that since we moved to Montreal, I have become positively glow-in-the-dark I am so white. So getting a little sun is also a priority.
  • Typical work day:

6:00 Wake up and walk dog
6:30 Yoga and coffee
7:00 Write new material
11:00 Make late breakfast for family (we do intermittent fasting—it’s my wife’s thing)
12:00 Take a short run (4k-5k)with the dog
1:00 Administrative work and editorial work for journal
4:00 Answer e-mails, read novels, and goof off
6:00 Make dinner with family
7:00 More family time
9:00 Workout
10:00 Maybe (likely) an adult beverage to end the day
11:30 Bed

Not every day will be like this, but this will be the typical day for 6 days per week for the summer. It will be nice to wake up a little later than usual and make an effort to get to bed early. Mostly I am hoping to catch up on my research productivity, which was woeful this last year; and get my weight down quite a bit. Another good part about summer that is that there is no real stress when the typical day is disrupted. Friends and family will visit, we suddenly decide to catch a matinee and go out to lunch, or the weather will simply be too nice to work (in Montreal it is a sin to waste the few great weather days we have). That is okay. Follow the plans more days that not and you will be making an excellent investment in reducing graduate school stress, improving your productivity, and moving closer to graduation (with your health and sanity intact).



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