Stay on Target During the Summer

It’s June, and summer is (almost) officially here!

While many undergraduate students will take the next few months to work part-time jobs, complete internships, take summer classes, and work on their sun tan, many graduate students will try to get tasks done that they couldn’t finish during a busy semester. Free from weekly seminars or a heavy teaching load, many graduate students will use their available time to advance master’s or doctoral research, write for publication, or prepare for qualifying exams.

Even though you may have additional time during the summer, that does not guarantee you will meet your goals. You can make your goals too big and grandiose, create goals that are imprecise, burn out from stress, or easily become distracted by the myriad fun things to do in the summer.

Below are three suggestions for keeping you productive during the summer months.

Build Structure into Your Schedule

Some people work best when they follow a routine. Others prefer to work only when inspired or motivated. Still, many think they work better with a deadline. In the summer, you may lack the daily structure of a course schedule, defined obligations, lab duties, or a teaching load. Plus, your writing or research deadlines may be few and far between—especially if an advisor or faculty mentor takes a summer vacation!

Faced with unstructured time in the summer, you may be tempted to spend your time swimming, playing sports, hanging out with friends and family, or binge watching your favorite shows on Netflix and Hulu. All of these activities are fine—you do deserve down time and a vacation (see last suggestion). But, it may be easy to put off work for tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow, or the day after that.

It is up to you to build structure into your daily or weekly schedule. For some people, that might mean planning out hourly schedules, drawing up detailed to-do lists, and assigning deadlines to each task. The resulting schedule might be an attempt to mirror a 9:00 to 5:00 workday. While this may work for some people, others may find it too rigid.

Instead, take some time to learn about your own work tendencies. Are you productive in the morning? Do you do more writing in the afternoon, but find emails and other administrative tasks easier to do one or two mornings a week? Reserve time in your day for work, but don’t feel like you have to micromanage to the minute. However, once you reserve time for work, make sure to protect it and follow through with tasks you set.

Set SMART Goals

Setting goals and following through are crucial for staying on track academically and professionally. However, setting the bar too high, or being vague about what to accomplish can undermine the best of intentions.

One way to make meeting goals easier is to adopt the SMART Goal model. SMART Goals are specific, measurable goals that can be completed within a reasonable amount of time. The specificity and feasibility of the goal is important, so when setting goals, consider the following questions:

  • Is my goal specific? If a goal is too vague, or too big, then try breaking it down into smaller components.
  • Is my goal measurable? Determine a standard for what will count as progress toward the goal, such as amount of time spent, number of words written, total pages read, etc.
  • Is my goal achievable? Develop goals that are do-able. If goals are too big, then scale back to manageable steps.
  • Is my goal relevant? Consider how the goal will bring about desired progress or results. Even short-term goals can, over time, contribute to long-term plans.
  • Is my goal time-specific? You might set a deadline or a series of dates for evaluating progress and, if needed, revising goals.

When setting SMART goals, it’s possible to misjudge any of the above components. It’s perfectly fine to pause, take stock of your approach, and make a course correction that keeps you moving. Allow yourself room to grow when setting and reaching for goals.

Finally, to increase the likelihood that you will follow through with your goals, consider checking in with a trusted friend, peer, or colleague. Developing this kind of relationship is a way to build accountability. Plus, you do not need much of the other person’s time. For some people, building accountability is as simple as exchanging a text message, sending an email, or making a quick call to their check-in person.

Allow Yourself to Have Fun

Yes, you can take time during the summer to swim, play sports, hang out with friends, visit with family, read for pleasure, or catch up on shows and movies. As a graduate student, you may face a lot of pressure to focus only on your work.

For example, someone might be telling you

  • To spend the summer doing all the writing that you could not do while taking classes, teaching and meeting with students, and writing seminar papers.
  • To spend some of your spare time reading for your qualifying exams or research projects, and the rest of your spare time writing for publication.
  • To hold off on hobbies, part-time work, or visiting with family and friends, because all of that can wait until after you finish your dissertation.

I heard very similar advice when I was a graduate student, too. These messages may come from a well-meaning place, and the people spreading them may be trying to motivate you. At the same time, the way they are delivered (e.g., through tone of voice, as a way to discipline or embarrass) can instill in graduate students feelings of anxiety, guilt, or even shame. If you are not always working, then you must not be a good graduate student, right? And if you are not a good graduate student, then maybe you are a failure, right?

Wrong.

Do take time to do what you enjoy doing and to spend time with the people you want to spend time with. You will still have obligations and deadlines to meet, but it’s okay to step away from your work without feeling guilty. You may need the time away from work to regroup. Practice appropriate self-care for both your physical and emotional well-being, and embrace the activities that let you unwind and bring you pleasure.

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