The Importance of Making Time for “Real World” Activities in Grad School

Guest post by Angelita Williams, who writes on the topics of online college courses.

As any graduate student knows, the world of academia is an insular and somewhat bizarre one. We don’t dress up, we sleep at odd hours, and our meals, if prepared at all, are last-minute affairs that usually involve a microwave. This sort of lifestyle perhaps explains why, in Diana Davis’ recent post, we tend to flock with others of our kind. But, like she mentioned, there is value in the possibility of a “fuller life” that goes beyond the graduate school niche.

As an undergraduate, I learned to cope with the stressors of school pretty quickly, but making the transition to graduate school is an entirely different beast, one in which your specialization virtually consumes you. Initially, I allowed this to happen, but I soon realized that even though I was spending almost every waking hour focusing on (or worrying about) your usual grad school anxieties, or spending time with other grad students commiserating about such anxieties, I wasn’t actually getting much done.

I’m convinced that while we try to rationalize our tendency toward extremes (i.e. “I work better under pressure”), these are what they are just rationalizations. I, too, was a student who justified my imbalanced grad school life by simply telling myself that this is how I function best. But after willing myself to make some time for things that people do in the supposed “real world,” I’ve found that my grad school experience had shifted dramatically for the better. Here are a few activities I think every graduate student can benefit from:

1. Cooking

But I mean real cooking. Jokes about the Mac ‘n Cheese student diet aside, I wouldn’t spend much time in the kitchen when I first started graduate school because I felt that it was yet another drain on my time. However, after trying a couple of simple recipes I discovered how therapeutic cooking can be. Taking joy in the process was the central advantage of cooking. It enabled me to take my mind off graduate school worries, if only for an hour. And my diet became both healthier and far cheaper. Even if it’s just a few meals a week, cooking is a not-too-often tried but true antidote to anxiety.

2. Volunteering

Every community needs volunteers, and most endeavors won’t take more than a couple of hours of your time each week. It’s a great way to get to know people beyond the confines of your school, and, like cooking, it allows your mind to focus on something else besides your research.

3. Sleeping regularly

We all know how important sleep is to optimal functioning, but as students, we tend to dismiss the benefits because we don’t feel the effects of sleep loss immediately. “The experts” usually proffer some sort of formula, like getting eight hours of sleep a day. However,  using my own experiences and talking to other grad students, everyone’s body is different, and some thrive on more than eight hours while others can get by with as little as six. The key is getting consistent sleep in every single day. A few all-nighters may seem harmless, but eventually they catch up with you.

4. Exercising

You don’t have to be a gym freak to exercise. Even if it’s just half an hour of walking a few times a week, some heart-pumping movement is good for both the brain and the body.

I’m sure this isn’t the first discussion about the importance of seeking balance amid the rigorous rollercoaster of grad school life, but I don’t think it’s a discussion that is brought up often enough. Our bodies and minds are carefully tuned machines that crave balance. If, despite hours of hard work, you find yourself still not making much headway in your research, or you’re struggling with your TAship, but you aren’t sure why, take a look at your life outside your work. You’d be surprised by how simply adding some normalcy to your life, taking a few hours a week to unplug from the academic Matrix, can give you a renewed focus and drive in school. It certainly worked for me.

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