So, what is it you do all day?

Too due list, from everyone’s favourite cartoon of academic life, “Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham

Everyone knows that graduate students are overworked, underpaid, and busy, busy, busy. But what exactly do they do all day? Myself and another graduate student that I live with were recently posed the question by a houseguest, who was amazed by our laid-back morning style: breakfast and coffee over the morning paper, eventually deciding that it was time to get out the door, and making it to the office by 10am. It has to be said that this isn’t necessarily a typical day – after all, we had a visitor! But graduate studies are definitely not your typical 9-5 hours.

A typical day for myself involves catching up on emails (from supervisors, from students, from volunteers, from collaborators, and from friends and family), which usually segues into checking Facebook and other non-productive websites; spending time with the snails whose development I am studying; running experiments in the laboratory or on the computer; teaching and associated tasks like grading and preparation; keeping on top of administrative tasks; and making time to relax or meet up with friends. In the evenings there is often reading and some writing (which is when this particular blog post is being created), before winding down with a nice cup of tea and a novel before going to bed.

This is a pretty standard kind of timeline, but it can change drastically depending on the time of year. Now, with less than a month until Christmas, the pace of everything accelerates. Courses are ending and grades need to be entered, and conferences are coming on fast. Presentations need prepping, and there is a push to finish the experiments that you should already have finished earlier in the semester. Nobody wants to bring work home for the holidays, least of all lab work! Summer too, alters your schedule. Every year, I have a long list of things I plan to accomplish over the summer, while I have all the time in the world to get things done, and every year I fail miserably.  The fall is even more difficult, as you get back into the rhythm of regular school hours, and balancing teaching with research and regular life.

Beyond these seasonal patterns, different points of your graduate career are focused on different things. Early on, as you are developing a proposal or preparing for qualifying exams, you are probably spending more time on reading and getting up to date on the literature than anything else, but this should be an ongoing process. Whatever your field, you need to keep abreast of new developments. The number of articles published grows every year, and you need to at be aware of what is out there. This is of course, easier said than done, but automatic trackers and emails can help you keep on top of the tsunami of new publications.

Once you have a proposal worked out, if you are doing empirical research, you should get used to spending much of your time in the lab. Your job is to produce results, which may mean running overnight experiments, making observations at regular intervals, running protocols over the course of several days (which makes it all the more tragic when something goes wrong), and if you are working with live animals (as I am), organizing your life around the habits of your study organism. Which includes working evenings and weekends in many cases. This is where I become jealous of my friends in palaeontology – rocks don’t do much once you get them to the lab! And don’t forget the field season, when all of your time becomes consumed by getting the most out of the limited time you have to collect data, often to the detriment of sleep!

No matter the season, regular life continues at the same rapid pace, even if your research moves more slowly. There are the boring things we all need to do – laundry, grocery shopping, showering, eating, sleeping. When things get busy, laundry and housecleaning are probably the first casualties. Unless you’re writing, in which case, you absolutely need everything to be spotless, which includes re-organizing everything in your house, and spend a few hours cleaning out your junk drawer or dusting the top of that shelf that hasn’t been cleaned since the day you moved in to your apartment. There are also unexpected life challenges – getting sick, needing to find a new place to live, family emergencies, all of which can throw even the best organized of us off track.

So how does a grad student handle it all? It is a challenge, and I don’t claim to be some kind of super-human who can do all these things without breaking a sweat, or even occasionally breaking down. One thing that I have found to be of utmost importance in balancing all these challenges is taking care of my physical and mental health. This last one is probably the most important thing of all. Cramming in all that work just isn’t possible if you don’t feel like a happy human being. Taking a day of rest, getting out and socializing, stepping away from the lab bench or the computer for some physical activity, or even just taking a few minutes a day to luxuriate in a piece of high quality chocolate and a cup of tea go a long way towards maintaining your sanity. Just remember that you aren’t alone in this journey, and that all grad students face similar challenges.

One thought on “So, what is it you do all day?

  1. Thank you for this glimpse into your grad life! It’s eerily similar to mine. I remember it taking me a few months to get used to the ebb and flow of moments of stress where everything is due, and others when I didn’t have a care in the world. I find this pattern alarming sometimes, especially when I am going through a quiet period, and I can’t help thinking that I’m forgetting something crucial…


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