Ah, the good old days as an undergrad when you got your summers off.  I wish.  Summer for a graduate student is often as hectic as the rest of the year, and if some things (teaching) are reduced that merely means that other things (research) are expected to step in and make up the difference.

These melancholy thoughts are due to the fact that today is August 1st.  Classes begin again on August 24th.  Almost every grad student I know is having that “OMG I GOT NO RESEARCH DONE ALL SUMMER” panic attack at this point.  And maybe that is true.

But here is a piece of advice that I wish someone had told me my first summer:

This is a marathon, not a sprint, and that means you need to take rest breaks from time to time.

It is really easy to think in terms of graduation as a specific goal, and that you’ll “rest” after you graduate.  What you quickly learn is that you can’t rest then, because you have to find/start a new job, prepare to teach classes you may never have taught before (not insignificant as you will see below) and start to build up publications toward tenure review.  So really, it’s more like you can “rest” after you get tenure.  That’s a minimum of 10 years from the start of grad school.  Do you REALLY think you can run flat out for 10 years?

More importantly, this is your career; your life; the pattern you will be in for many many years.  The semester schedule is, to some extent, an artificial layer on TOP of your life and work.  It’s important to get OUT of the habit of letting it determine your goals. There will always be projects, and there will always be the temptation to think about summer as down-time since there is less teaching and advising to be done.  But perhaps that down-time is better used as down-time; time to recharge the batteries so that you can come back to your research fresh.

My goals for this summer reflect this type of new attitude:  I wanted to work on my literature review and to prepare for the new course I will be teaching this fall.  This 2nd item is more work than it sounds.  No amount of expertise in a subject gets you out of:

  • reading through the textbooks the students will have to read
  • writing up lecture notes/slides that add something to the material
  • devising exercises/assignments that encourage them to learn rather than regurgitate
  • organizing any supplemental materials you will need (videos, equipment, etc)
  • setting  up said class on whatever course management software the school uses (blackboard, webct, etc)

For me, I am finding that it takes 8-10 hours for each week of class (2 classes per week, 1 chapter per week) to adequately prepare the material, plus another 2-3 hours to chose questions from the test bank for the exams (about every 3 chapters).  (If you have to WRITE those questions from scratch it can be much more time consuming.)  Now imagine starting at a new school and having to prep 2-4 classes for your first semester.  Summer will be busy.

Would I have liked to get more done on my lit review this summer?  Maybe.  But more important was recharging my batteries and being properly prepared.  I will have my notes all complete prior to the start of the semester so that each weekend I can review them to refresh the material in my mind, add any new references I may have found and go into a new chapter with the relaxed confidence that comes from knowing my material AND knowing how to deliver it.

In between I’ve spent a couple of weekends out of town with my husband, the occasional day shopping instead of working, and baking some amazing stuff, all things that relax me.  Not what an undergrad would consider a break, but all in all a productive time.