From the Science Student Council

Making the most of summer in graduate school

Research and teaching and travel, oh my.

By Lisa Velkoff

As the spring term comes to an end, the unstructured months of summer can loom ominously for graduate students. During the school year, we rush from classes to meetings to office hours, constantly fretting over not having enough time. When summer begins, graduate students often set ambitious goals to write several manuscripts, prepare for classes we plan to teach in the fall, and finish our master’s thesis/comprehensive exams/dissertation. Yet every fall, my fellow graduate students and I complain to one another about the summer, saying that we “had so much time but seemed to get nothing done.”

This academic summer slump can come about when the structure of the academic year falls away. Meetings and classes slow down or cease, and graduate students can feel isolated and directionless. The message that summer should only be used for summer comes from many directions, but it is important to remember that summer can be used well in a number of ways, including research activities, professional development and self-care.

Research activities

The summer is an excellent time to devote to research activities which can take many forms. Often, graduate students use summer to make progress on milestone projects such as a thesis or dissertation. Summer months are a great time to analyze data and write up results. If you plan to collect data in the fall, use the summer to plan the study, submit an application for IRB approval, or collect pilot data, ensuring that your research is ready to go when the semester begins.

If your summer goals focus on writing, consider arranging a writing group with fellow ambitious graduate students. Plan to meet regularly, usually on a weekly basis, to help establish and maintain accountability. Each meeting should consist of setting goals for each member, as well as checking in on progress toward the goals established the previous week.

Summer is also an excellent time to catch up on reading. Revisit those emails your advisor sent with recommended readings, or take a look at the articles you have starred on Google Scholar or Research Gate. With a little less pressure on your time, it might even be possible to expand your reading a little. Check out the latest issue of a journal outside your area, pick up a textbook in a related field that you are curious about, and wait for the new and creative research ideas to emerge!

Professional development

In addition to research, summer can be a good time for professional development. Consider attending a summer workshop or taking an extra course to gain a skill that will support your training, such as learning new statistical methods or software, basic programming skills, or new research methods. APA offers several Advanced Training Institutes each summer that may be of interest. Some departments will be able to provide funding to support these training opportunities, so ask your advisor or department chair if they are able to contribute.

On a related note, many fellowships, scholarships and grants have application deadlines in the fall. If you do your research and begin drafting these documents during the summer, you can save yourself some stress when the fall term begins.

If you have an interest in teaching, consider asking your department if there is a summer course that you could teach. Summer courses are sometimes shorter or smaller than those taught during the school year, so you might have a chance to practice teaching in a different format than you are accustomed to in your typical teaching rotation.

Finally, you may have opportunities to work an internship or other training position during the summer. In one of these positions, you will have an opportunity to gain skills outside those typically taught in academia, and you may find inspiration for research projects, collaborators for future work or a potential career path.

Personal goals

The pressure to be productive during the summer can contribute to feeling overworked. It is critical to maintain balance between work and your other needs. While self-care may seem eternally elusive during graduate school, cultivating healthy habits can be slightly easier once the time pressures of the school year abate.

To combat the isolation that can occur during the summer, foster connections with your peers at work or elsewhere. For example, schedule a weekly lunch with other graduate students or other social activities. Also consider engaging in volunteer work, which may provide connections outside of your department, and could develop into a rewarding way to spend time during the school year as well.

Summer can be a good time to try new hobbies, travel somewhere you have always wanted to visit, or reinvest in the leisure activities that you enjoy. Establish an exercise routine, whether that means going to the gym regularly or simply walking to work when you have the time (and the sunshine). During the academic year, self-care is often neglected, but taking care of your own needs is a skill that requires practice, and summer is a good time to do it.

If you find that the stress or isolation of summer contributes to problems beyond a slump — if more serious depression or anxiety begins to set in, or is lingering from the school year — use this time to attend to your needs. If it feels right to you, seek treatment for these concerns, so that you can be back to your best and ready to re-engage in study in the fall.

General tips and tricks

You may be wondering how you could possibly get all of this — research, professional development and self-care — done during the summer. The key is to change the way you work in order to be more productive during work time. Once you’re working more efficiently, free time will be just that: free. Free of work, free of guilt and free of anxiety.

The best way to do this is to inject some structure into the otherwise-unstructured time of summer. Schedule your writing time in a planner or online calendar, and stick to it. If you find yourself producing more at a particular time of day, plan to reserve that as a time to write. In his book How to Write A Lot, Dr. Paul Silvia has suggestions on how to schedule your writing time during the times when you are most efficient in order to make timely progress toward goals.

It can be tempting to set high goals for yourself at the start of the summer, but practice restraint. Identify the few major tasks you would like to accomplish, and break them down into subcomponents. If you plan to write a paper, set separate and reasonable deadlines for conducting a literature review, completing the analyses, outlining the manuscript and finishing a first draft. Check in on your progress at each deadline. Hopefully, if you have maintained a disciplined writing schedule, you will end up being far ahead of the curve.

One issue with summer tasks is that it can be easy to engage in avoidance. Graduate students have many creative ways of avoiding important tasks. For example, do you decide to update your CV every time a deadline approaches? Do you start analyses on a new project, even when there is a manuscript revision request waiting in your inbox? Identify your strategies for avoidance, and implement a plan to overcome them.

Many of the approaches outlined above can help with productivity throughout the year, but may be especially helpful during the nebulous time of summer. The more you can establish good habits during the summer around scholarship and self-care, the easier it will be to maintain those skills into the busy school year.

References

Silvia, P. J. (2007). How to write a lot: A practical guide to productive academic writing. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.

About the author

Lisa VelkoffLisa Velkoff is the clinical science representative to the APA Science Student Council. She is a third-year clinical psychology graduate student at Miami University.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or policies of APA.