Well, I was originally going to title this post “How to Survive Grad School” but then realized, to be honest, that for the past couple of weeks I feel like I’ve barely been surviving my own graduate school experience. You see, mine is probably a little different than others – I am currently in year four of my Masters of Divinity program, a program that typically takes three years if you’re going full time but because of finances and other resources, I’ve only been going part time. The plan is to graduate next June 2017 and oh boy it can not come soon enough. And so, I remind myself of these truths today in a desperate attempt to reset my mindset, to reiterate some of what I’ve learned, and to hopefully encourage anyone who might be struggling with staying afloat in school.
I love school, I really do. I’ve always been a good student, one who enjoys a productive to do list and rarely struggles with procrastination or forgetting assignments. But after four years of the endless papers, endless readings, endless trips to Pasadena, endless task manager systems, and endless early mornings, I’m quite tired! It’s a tough thing to try and keep your motivation and focus constantly at a 10, especially in a quarter system where you only have ten weeks of classes and then finals.
But, after four years, I’ve picked up a couple survival tips and tricks that I thought I’d share with you today (and remind myself of!).
1. Find a scheduling system and make it your best friend.
This has taken me a couple quarters to really settle into a system but I think it’s really important to figure out how best you can keep track of all of the assignments and think in advance for. One of the things I prefer to do is taking some time at the beginning of each quarter with the syllabi and map out the reading and assignments. I often find syllabi to be too robust and difficult to quickly track down readings or assignments so I like to pull all of those together in one word document or task management software like Trello. This is where I will put when readings need to be done and what dates assignments are due. Then, each Sunday when I sit down to schedule out my week, I’ll plug in the readings or assignment prep that I need to do each day. I find it much more manageable to schedule one chapter to read a day on my calendar than to know by Friday at an unspecific time I need to have seven chapters read.
2. Take a day off. Seriously, do it.
I’ve written before on the significance of Sabbath, especially when it comes to your emotional and mental health. Regularly devoting one day a week to Sabbath rest has made a huge difference in my ability to stay on top of work the other six days. I recently heard writer Annie Downs explain Sabbath by comparing it to parallel parking with a car that has rearview cameras – she could still parallel park without the cameras on the back of the car, but those cameras make the process so much easier! This is part of what having a day off does – we can still get the work down without, but often times we’re more stressed or exhausted and the work feels that much harder. So give yourself 24 hours to rest, to hang out with friends, to take a nap. Trust me, you’ll feel better.
2b. A subpoint – Recognize you probably can’t get all of the work done.
Unless your a student who has absolutely nothing else going on in your life (in which I would seriously challenge you to join a Bible study, volunteer somewhere, and gain some new friends), you probably simply can’t do all of the work that graduate school demands. It’s just not realistic. And professors seem to understand this, yet things rarely change. Learn the discipline of discerning what is important to read and what you can skim. Figure out how long you can read in one setting before giving into distraction – maybe adapt the Pomodoro Technique. Give yourself boundaries and a “shut off time”. And grace, oh boy, grace. Basically, learn yourself – know what stress looks and feels like and know when you just need to shut the computer, go for a walk, and take a deep breath. It’s okay. Foregoing the reading for one chapter won’t destroy you.
3. Do something other than school.
This is sort of like point 2 but it is so important that you have hobbies, activities, and relationships outside of school. It’s healthy to spend time with people who aren’t in your classes and aren’t stuck in your coffee-induced study coma. So join a Bible study, take a yoga class, meet a friend for coffee, bake cookies, watch a cheesy movie. Give your mind a break and remind yourself of this – your identity, your self-worth, your purpose in life is incredibly more than what your transcript says. Yes, apply yourself in school. Spend your money wisely. Show up for class and work hard. But also know that you have so much more to offer than what classes you are taking.
4. Repeat after me: One day at a time. One day at a time.
Finally, remind yourself of this: one day at a time. People often remind me to not lose the big reason that I’m attending graduate school. While this is incredibly well-meaning and helpful at times, I also find it incredibly overwhelming. For as long of masters program as I find myself in, thinking of the “end goal” feels like too far away and too much to process when I’m in the thick of papers, library books, and empty coffee cups. Instead, I know I need to think smaller, focusing on one class at a time. Focusing on one week or one assignment at a time. And sometimes, when anxiety and stress is high, I just need to focus on one day at a time.
So focus, work hard, show up for class, take a deep breath, and laugh. Teach yourself how to keep track of your assignments and work ahead. But also train yourself to take a break, to sleep when you need it, and to care for yourself. Because your masters degree will of little use if you end your program sick, burnt out, and hating yourself and your program.
// Any other tips? What has helped you survive seasons of stress, busyness, or extra responsibilities?