On Having a Life in Grad School

Veterani of a survey course I took a few years ago will probably remember our professor advising us to “read all the Latin you can now, because after grad school you will have a life.”

Now, I doubt that the professor—who on other occasions has counselled me to make sure I leave time for friends, health, and fun as well as Latin—meant anything more than “life gets busier and busier the longer you live it, so carpe that diem now.” But the statement reflects a broader cultural expectation about grad students: we should dedicate our waking hours to our work with monastic discipline, or risk failure in our programs or on the job market.

Eighteen hours a day is a number one of the senior faculty members here has given as an ideal.

Eighteen hours a day.

Far better minds than mine have written about the tendency we have in the ivory tower to be competitive about long work hours and unhealthy habits. After all, in a publish-or-perish environment, it’s natural to fetishize productivity. The academic system rewards people who are available to students, active at conferences and on committees, yet still manage to produce a steady stream of good research.

All these things take time. People with less time—those who don’t have partners to help them with housework, meals, or childcare, those with temporary illnesses or long-term disabilities, those facing the daily wear and tear of any kind of discrimination—are at a disadvantage that the academy is only just beginning to address.

To prepare for the job market, grad students in my field usually have to publish several articles in addition to their dissertation, have a steady conference record, and a lot of teaching experience.

Oh yes, and we also need to do all of this in five years.

It’s no wonder we and our advisors start rushing around like the White Rabbit—we’re going to be late with everything!

We’ve just finished the annual general exam season here, and the competition around working hours was more evident than usual.

“Did you get some time to relax after your exam?”

“Nope! Too much work to do.”

“Have you seen the library copy of [text] around anywhere? It was here when I left at one last night, but I can’t find it this morning.”

When conversations start to sound like this all the time, I start to avoid my ordinarily lovely department. I work from home, from coffee shops, from the local public library—anywhere my working hours can’t be observed. I’m getting everything done, but I’m ashamed of not working more.

You see, my dirty secret is that I work 6-8 hours a day, 5 or 6 days a week. Sometimes a little more. And sometimes a little less.

If someone finds out about this, I find myself frantically trying to justify what I expect will be interpreted as laziness. Usually I end up either oversharing about my various health problems or condemning myself as weak.

“Welcome to the humanities,” a professor in undergrad once told me. “Where you always associate leisure time with guilt.”

I’m not saying that academia is the only place which encourages unhealthy work habits—heck, I live in Silicon Valley—or that grad students necessarily get the worst of it. But the pressures of going through rigorous training for a competitive job market find a particularly convenient outlet in our cultural stereotype: the quasi-nocturnal grad student who works at all hours, is too busy for social occasions, and neglects basic self-care.

And while the self-neglecting grad student is relatively low on the list of negative stereotypes I’d like scrubbed from our cultural imagination (let’s start with “boys don’t cry” or “ambitious women are bitches” first!), it’s one I feel especially ashamed of buying into. Even knowing that I do more and better work when I sleep, take care of my health, hang out with friends, read a novel before bed, knit to a 90’s sci fi show with my cat purring beside me, I still feel like a worse student when I fail to conform to the cultural stereotype.

So my challenge to myself for this academic year is this: I will not try to justify my working hours to anyone. I’ll do the best work I can and let it speak for me.

Because really, it should be normal to have a life in grad school without feeling like it’s a double one.

2 thoughts on “On Having a Life in Grad School

  1. This is a smart, thoughtful piece – one that manages to critique the current climate of academia without piling further shame (or mockery) on the people so devoted to it. I look forward to reading more – and indeed, hearing any strategies for navigating the often unspoken stresses of work and home as a professor.


    1. Thank you, Jackie! It’s certainly a work in progress for me as for others, and I’m glad that so many conversations are starting to open up. I’m fascinated by how ingrained the system is in so many of us, whether students or faculty: as evidenced by various professors telling me in public to work eighteen hours a day and in private to take a break, there’s a party line that we’re afraid of straying from even though many of us disagree with it…


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