What I learned this semester, part 2

Reflection is a funny thing. I don’t have any idea how our minds decide what to hold onto and what to forget (though I’m sure there’s some good psych/neuro research on salience that I should probably read), but at a certain level all reflections are inaccurate. In the past seventeen days, which coincides with the time between this post and part 1, I have probably forgotten important details that would help me reflect more accurately on the semester. Oh well. I’ll continue the numbering from the previous post:

4. Big projects are just little projects in disguise. I think feeling overwhelmed is a normal and necessary part of graduate school. The sheer volume of reading required on a weekly basis seems staggering at first. The idea of writing several twenty-page papers feels like a smooth, steep rock you’re being asked to climb. But the key to beating the feeling of being overwhelmed is to look at big projects as a bunch of small projects. For my big research paper this semester, I knew there were going to be three phases: research, writing, and revision. Each of these were further subdivided into tasks that needed to be completed, because the research I was doing was pretty intense and required a lot of work. So I further subdivided into primary and secondary sources, and then made tasks by source. Rather than say to myself, “I need to get my secondary source reading done in two weeks,” I would say, “I need to get Samuel Flagg Bemis read in the next three days.” I know this is far from unique, but the approach of breaking projects into discrete amounts of work saved me from feeling like a totally unfit grad student this first semester. 

5. Days off, though infrequent, are mind-saving. I didn’t plan to take many days off this semester, and for the most part that was true. I worked over the Thanksgiving break and passed up lots of opportunities to hang out with people in order to study. But at certain points, after fairly intense weeks of studying, my mind told me that I needed a break. It wasn’t a conscious thing, where I looked over the work I needed to do and decided that I could survive a night without working. It was sheer mental exhaustion. When I stopped being able to decipher words on pages, it was time to give it up and sleep or watch a movie. I almost always came back the next day with increased focus and drive, and most of the time made up any ground I had lost to taking time off.

6. Sleep is absolutely, fundamentally crucial. I was good at sleeping this semester. I know enough about myself to realize that my productivity takes a sharp, sharp turn for the worse when I am not properly rested. No amount of caffeine can turn my sleepy self into a productive student. So I decided from the outset that I was going to resist the urge to run all-nighters in a pinch or work late into the night and wake up groggy the next morning. I was successful in this endeavor, not pulling a single all-nighter, and only working past midnight on one occasion when I was really in the zone while writing a paper. The key to this was planning – how much work can I reasonably get done before 10pm on a given day? How long will it take me to read this book given its density and page count? How effectively can I use my commute to study? Getting at least eight hours helped me to have lots and lots of productive days in a row, and probably helped me keep from getting sick (at least until the semester was over – I’m just getting over a pretty nasty cold that started the day after I turned in my last paper). 

I have more to reflect on, so see part three of this post for the rest of the list.


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