A phrase from one of my graduate school professors that really resonated with me was this: that everyone struggles in grad school, but everyone’s struggle is different and begins at a different time.
My current struggle is with guilt- with feeling like I need to be doing more work, no matter how much I’ve already done in a given day or week. If I find myself trying to relax, some thought immediately comes to mind of what I could be doing related to studying, reading papers, or being in lab. This feeling is worse if I am actively doing something fun, whether it be reading, shopping, cooking, watching TV; the thought then is that if I can spend time and energy on something fun, I should be able to spend the same time and energy on something productive.
The balance here is tricky. There are sometimes when I really should be working, and in those cases trying to convince myself that it’s okay to not be working is also dangerous.
In observing my peers, it seems as though establishing this balance is easier for students who are in relationships or living with roommates, as they have another person whom they are- for lack of better terminology- required to spend time around. That person can serve as a gauge of when they’ve worked too long, when they don’t look well, and when they need to take a break. The requirements of being in such a situation, though I’m sure can themselves be stressful at times, seem from an outsiders point of view to counterbalance the stresses of grad school well. Alone, I quickly feel guilty for taking any time to deal with personal issues or simply take care of myself, when without anything besides my own desires to worry about, I could just as easily be spending that same time in the lab. I feel like I don’t have a good excuse not to be.
At the same time, I’m acutely aware of when I need a break. The problem for me is not that I’m not aware of when I should step back, but the actual act of not doing work for a period of time in order to get the break I need. It’s guilt that at least partly stems from the way it can be perceived in grad school to want to not be in the lab all the time- especially when there is a culture of working long hours and/or on weekends. I’m trying to embrace the mentality that hours spent working and productivity are not completely correlated (and I do, truly, believe that), but it is difficult to break through the sense of implicit pressure to always work and the judgement I feel when I’m not working as many hours as other people. It goes the opposite way, as well- when I lose sight of that truth and work extra (often fruitless) hours, I get frustrated that others around me are working less and getting just as much accomplished.
So I suppose the lesson in this is what I’ve been trying to hold on to throughout my entire graduate school career thus far: that I’m happiest when I listen to myself and what I need, but that at the same time I need to still work on a way to better process how I react to the feelings of others to avoid feeling guilty for taking care of myself.