The Marathon

Me, first day of grad school, not knowing what's about to hit me...
Me, first day of grad school, not knowing what’s about to hit me…

Grad school is a stressful place; don’t let anyone (including your pre-grad-school self, *cough* Meghan *cough*) tell you otherwise. Some of it, if you’re coming straight from undergraduate, will be stressful because you’re managing several facets of ‘real’ adulthood for the first time; some of it will be stressful because it is your seventeenth year of continuous coursework and that wears on a person no matter how much you love, or are good at, school work. And even if you’re not coming straight from college, grad school will still be stressful because you are being pulled in several directions at once – teaching, classes, and multiple research-related objectives require your attention.

I have just finished my second quarter at Drexel which means I have another 1.5 years of classes to go, then my qualifying exam, and then 3-5 years of continuous thesis work to complete. Thinking about the process is exhausting, and stressful, in its own right. And a lot of my stress comes from the fact that grad school, as the fifth year graduate student in my lab often says, is a marathon and not a sprint.

A lot of my work prior to graduate school was a sprint; you sprint through stage-managing or lighting a college play, for example. It’s a stressful two to three months, but it is only two to three months. A hard sprint, but you can power through. The same thing goes for coursework: a semester (now I’m on quarters) is sixteen weeks; the end is always within sight. Even the big writing projects I’ve completed – my play, Experimental Ambiguity, my gamebook app, The Burning Trees of Ormen Mau, and my only completed novel for NaNoWriMo 2011, Jheym’s Silence – all of those were projects that I completed in sprints of less than four months.

Which means that I am now facing something unlike any of my other big projects – a marathon. Unlike my prior work, I can’t just push through this with a reasonably close end in sight. This has been difficult for me to realize – at first, I wanted to treat graduate school like my previous work and ‘sprint’ through it. I stayed late each night at the lab, gave up breaks and weekends in the first four to five months, in order to push through our research projects. But the research was bigger than that – even that one project still isn’t close to done despite all that time input. Science is very slow, and if I try to treat it like a sprint I’ll end up, well, where I am now: stressed and overwhelmed.

Graduate school is forcing me to re-evaluate how I manage my projects. For a sprint, making a to-do list of easily definable goals that I can cross off and watch the list grow ever-shorter is helpful and motivating. For a marathon, a to-do list that seemingly never ends or gets shorter is more of a burden; instead, making a got-done list is more helpful for keeping motivated and reminding oneself that, yes, you are accomplishing things even if it seems like your work is at a standstill. Making sure to praise myself for taking time for me – reading books, going on dates with my fiance, etc – is also critical to staying sane; for a marathon, you must pace yourself, and remember to take care of yourself throughout the race.

A lot of what I’ve been learning about myself in my graduate program reflects on my writing issues; it’s funny to me that, always, my science seems to be so tightly intertwined with lessons about writing. All of my successful writing projects were completed for a deadline; I was sprinting, with a defined finish line in sight. I’ve yet to write a novel, make a game, or even jot down a creative nonfiction piece without a date in mind where the work will be ‘finished’. It seems in both science and writing, internal motivation and balance are critical skills I’m sorely needing to learn.

Have two seemingly disparate parts of your life ever interacted to teach you valuable, cross-disciplinary lessons? How do you manage the ‘marathons’ in your life? Tell me in the comments – I could certainly use your helpful hints!

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