At first, it seemed like a dream come true to not have any classes after the first two terms of my master’s degree. Finally, I have four terms of no classes so that I can just focus on my proposal, research, and thesis! I imagined a daily routine of sitting at my desk working, going to the library and reading in the silent section, having meetings with my supervisor, meeting up with my cohort to do work together and catch up, and hitting checkpoints in my research at scheduled intervals.
That, however, was my imagination. Reality has turned out very differently: I got an academic high from going to a conference, but it died down quickly. I was burnt out from the conference and so I spent some time vacationing to try to recover. Once I finished and submitted the first draft of my proposal, I lolled about for a week or two and did some reading, but not a lot of work. It was very relaxing, but I tried to cram in a lot of relaxing which resulted in me exhausting myself by being too social. After that, my brother came to visit for a week from Ontario and once again, I didn’t get any work done while we were touring the island. After he left, I transitioned directly into a grassroots Pride festival (Peace Love n Pride) that I decided to run with some friends.
It turns out, running a week-long festival is a lot of work and saps up all your time and energy. During the week I was constantly preparing for events, having meetings with my group, attending other people’s events, setting up, taking down, and worrying about the events to come. In other words, I didn’t get any school work done. However, I did grow a lot as a person during that week and I made so many amazing connections in St. John’s queer community. I discovered new words, new friends, and new things about myself – unfortunately, it was at the cost of productive time. I emerged from our Pride festival week into the regularly-scheduled St. John’s Pride week and so continued numerous events and not doing school work. I thought, “Hey, maybe now that Pride is over, I’ll finally get back to doing stuff for my Masters!”
I was wrong. After being “on” constantly for a week and a bit by attending, running, and socializing at events, I was exhausted. I still am exhausted, and I’ve had a week to recover! I spent the month draining all of my energy and putting it into anything other than my proposal and research. Was it amazing? Absolutely. Did I grow as a person? You bet I did! Did I make the amount of progress on my school work that I should have made in a month? Not even close. Regardless, I don’t regret it.
This month of school-work-avoidance has taught me not only about myself, but about how difficult it is to do work when you have no strict schedule or due dates. Once your classes are finished in grad school, your only due dates are self-imposed, and the due dates for grants. If you want to, you can avoid having meetings with your supervisor(s) until the cows come home!
Honestly, I don’t have any tips or tricks on how to motivate yourself to do work or stay on schedule when you’re in a structure-less, non-academic environment. It’s hard to drag yourself to campus when you’d rather stay home and snuggle with your pets, or watch Netflix with your roommates. Sometimes, it feels impossible to wake up early for no earthly reason other than to wake up early – it’s the beauty of being an academic that you get to sleep in and make your own hours! It turns out that academic work flexibility only succeeds if you make yourself make your work hours.
I’ve tried it all by now: drawing up a calendar, scheduling your week by the hour, working on the couch, working at cafes, working with friends, going to the library, meeting regularly with my supervisor, doing research that I love… all of it works for a bit, but then my motivation to work on my thesis gets overshadowed by life and the mountain of unwashed dishes in my kitchen. It always seems like there is something more pressing to do than my research. Right now, I’m going to the extreme and shopping for a used desk and chair to put in my spare room so that I can convert it into a “I’m busy working, go away and leave me alone” home office. Will it help? Who knows, but I sure hope it does.
The moral of the story here is that being in grad school is hard and it takes determination and self-discipline. It gives you the flexibility to focus on life when you need to, but you must keep in mind that you’re here for a reason: to do your research. It’s difficult to conceptualize the commitment needed to complete your research when no one discusses the hardship that is having an irregular schedule. You’re not being paid by the hour to do your degree. You don’t have to be at the office from 9am to 5pm. Your grants don’t pay enough to allow you to live without working on the side. You still have to cook your own food and clean your own home. You have pets to care for, friends to see, places to explore and tour. It’s unbelievably frustrating and difficult to maintain a productive research-life balance while in grad school.
It may seem bleak with regards to my academic progress and I may not finish my master’s degree in the two-year goal window… but I’ve grown so much through this process. Sometimes, grad students get bogged down by other people’s expectations for how quickly we should make progress – but they don’t think about all of the other things in our lives and what our priorities are. Why did I come to grad school? I didn’t just come for the degree and to be finished as quickly as possible. No, I came to experience life in St. John’s. I came to make new friends and create a chosen family in the queer community. I came to learn about myself and grow. I came to explore, play with my dog, and be happy. For me, grad school isn’t all about the degree at the end of the rainbow, it’s all about the journey and what I do on the way to getting there.
I think, for now, I’m going to enjoy the turmoil and difficulty that is living without a strict schedule of classes and work. I endeavour to enjoy every bit of this adventure along the rainbow of the time spent doing my master’s degree. After all, I’m paying to be here and I’m sure going to get my money’s worth in personal growth!
Best of luck, and I hope y’all can learn to enjoy the long road ahead that is grad school. Embrace the bumps in the road and the possibility that it will run long!