practical phd

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Summer is a precious time for academics and graduate students.  Even if we have some teaching load over the course of summer, we often have a longer period of time with fewer obligations than during the semester.  But with the grading done and final grades submitted, it is also a time with no schedule imposed by anyone else.  The lack of structure can be particularly daunting for graduate students still in coursework who normally have a structured schedule of course meetings and deadlines throughout the semester, so let me share a few suggestions that have helped me manage my unstructured summers.

First, I do some planning.  This includes planning for a break somewhere in my summer.  I look at my deadlines and commitments and figure out when I can take some time off to do anything but work.  For me, it doesn’t have to include a trip or even any travel, but I like to take advantage of the fact that I can take multiple days to turn off my brain at some point in the summer and do something that is not work even if that something is decluttering my closet.

The other planning I do is to figure out what I have to get done and what I would like to get done over summer.  The “have to” is tied to deadlines such as the big sociology conference in August, but the “would like to” is anything that will push forward my research pipeline. As I’ve mentioned before, I am not wedded to starting with what is closest to out the door when it comes to prioritizing my research work.  In fact, summer is the one time of year I usually manage to consistently balance data collection and analysis with writing, which means taking on some early on projects with some almost done project to balance my love (data) with my like (writing).  Being able to include more data collection and analysis work is what makes summer one of my favorite times of the academic calendar.

Second, I set up some accountability where I need structure.  Writing without a deadline can sometimes allow me to linger in black holes longer than I should.  For instance, I might continue to go back to the literature over and over again without a deadline because there’s always something more to read.  That’s where connecting with others through writing groups and accountability groups can be helpful.  Knowing I promised to send a draft to my writing group by a certain date, forces me to stop and get words on the page.  Similarly, if I tell my accountability partner/group that I’m STILL reading, I’ll get pushed to really assess if I need to read any more or if I’m just procrastinating in the literature.

Given the isolation of living in a global pandemic, writing and accountability groups can also provide social contact at a time when many of us are not seeing many people.  But social contact can often be something that’s missing during summer even during “normal” times.  With fewer people in the office, no departmental events, and no set times when people are milling from one commitment to another, summer can be quiet and isolating.  I try to purposefully schedule social contact during the summer, reaching out to friends to set up times to connect even if that’s a phone call with a friend who is far away.

Third, sometimes I set a schedule.  I don’t always use this approach, but it can be helpful for making sure I balance the work on data collection/analysis with the work on writing instead of just focusing on the data or writing until it’s done.  As a graduate student, I used scheduling to split my time between my own work and RA work (20 hours a week) to make sure that I was sticking to my paid hours without having to document every hour I spent on the project.  I use a similar approach during the semester to split my work days into teaching and research days with the goal to keep teaching work to those allocated days as much as possible.  This summer, I’m planning to try splitting my hours so that I spend mornings doing data work and afternoons doing reading and writing.  Historically this approach hasn’t worked great for me, so I may switch back to divvying up my days in a couple of weeks, but I write better in the afternoons when my brain is fully awake, so I’ll start by trying to center that time for my writing.

Finally, I try to approach assessing how summer went with grace.  With what feels like so much free time, I inevitably plan for WAY more than is physically possible more summers than not.  But I try to look back on what I accomplished rather than what I didn’t, knowing that any forward motion is progress towards my goals.

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