Breaking the Shackles of Freedom

shackles There is a widely-shared perception that life as a graduate student is relaxed, romantic, and carefree. Sure, we might face the occasional stress-inducing deadline, committee meeting, or funding application, but what else do we really have to do? Of course, not all graduate programs are created equal, leading to a valued stress gradient, ranging from those in the Sciences, with their rigid laboratory schedules and tedious calculations, to those in the Arts, who may choose to go to a cafe to work, if they work at all. Life as a grad student (in the Arts), it would appear, is easy-breezy beautiful.

Why then do grad students seem to be so stressed out?

I propose that there is a paradox underlining grad student life: while you’re meant to have all the freedom in the world—to read books, take seminars, engage scholars near and far—in actuality, a multitude of factors keep this freedom tightly constrained. Within the academy, you are constantly challenged to know your field inside and out, demonstrate your knowledge through presentations and publications, and seek acknowledgement through highly competitive and limited funding pools. To the outside world, you need to justify your state of arrested development, as seen most markedly through your lack of job or possessions (e.g., house, car, family), the markers of a “real life.”

This September I entered the 26th grade. Eight of those years have been as an MA or PHD student at McGill, so I have had my fair share of experience dealing with the tension caused by this paradox of freedom. What I have come to realize is that while I cannot indulge in the perceived happy-go-lucky grad life, lest I be too burdened with the associated guilt, I try to make spaces, however small or seemingly insignificant, everyday where I’m free from my academic commitments, as well as enjoy the freedoms afforded to me by my grad life. Here’s several of my favorite.

Eat. One of my favorite activities is closing my laptop and heading to the PA on Parc to casually stroll the aisles. I do this at least three times a week. My food budget ranges from about 40-60 dollars a week, which though small serves to inspire creativity in my cooking. Much of the time, cheaper produce also means that it’s in season, and ready to eat. Shopping, preparing, and cooking food gives me much needed free time from my work, and an opportunity to connect with friends by hosting dinners.

Walk. I have recently started getting into a groove of dissertation writing from my apartment in the morning, and coming to my office on campus only for the afternoons. At first, I felt guilty that I was not making the most of my office space, something that can be in short supply and for which I am extremely grateful. As the weeks have passed, however, I find that I am more productive working first thing when I wake up (instead of after the delay caused by the sheer act of getting to campus), and feel better about being distracted in the office once I arrive. Best of all, I get to enjoy the freedom of walking on the Mont Royal trails for a nice 30+ minute mid-day break. The people I pass on my way are invariably much more smiley than those I pass in the mornings.

Watch. I need mental breaks all the time. While television and movie watching can be a great way to unplug, they can also be a slippery slope where one episode of the latest series to come on Netflix turns into a day of binge watching. My solution: go to the movies. Movies, or performances of any kind, offer a securely time-limited distraction. And going on cheap-ticket-Tuesdays provides a nice mid-week escape, without breaking the bank: Cinema Du Parc is only eight dollars! $9.25 at the beautiful Excentris! 3D movies at Scotia Bank Theatre are ten bucks! Be sure to ask for student discounts.

Run. Or exercise. In any case, MOVE! I find that after the initial 15-20 minutes of “WHY AM I PUTTING MYSELF THROUGH THIS?!,” my mind is freed up to think about challenges, academic or otherwise, that I have encountered throughout the day, and an opportunity to think of solutions. Also, it helps in getting me ready to enjoy my other favorite activity, eating.

I guess in the end, freedom is always restrained, no matter who you are. The challenge, then, is finding the spaces that our lives provide that ultimately make us more productive and happy.

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