Hitting the Wall: The Graduate School Marathon

The statue of the Tired Man

We’ve talked a lot about resources that are all available for new students, in terms of settling in, finances etc. What we haven’t talked about are things that might affect returning students or those who are approaching the end of the degree. Given that we all hope to be at that point in the near future it’s worth discussing it here.

About half way through your degree you might realize that you put in a long time and effort but have very little to show for it. In marathon running this point is known as “hitting the wall” – the point where when you run out of energy to continue your race.

Graduate school is no different: about half way through your degree you might feel exhausted and that you have very little energy. You’ve spent countless nights working on your projects; an infinite number of Tim Hortons cups (or Starbucks if that’s what you prefer) and the pillow you use to sleep in the office that show you put in the effort. However you don’t have any results and don’t feel any further along in the thesis process.

These are the doldrums of grad school. The No Mans Land of higher education. The Bermuda Triangle of your post-secondary life.

I’ll share a few things I find useful here and things I think that you might find useful as resources to consider when you reach this point.

First off, celebrate the small victories. Often we get focused on the big things like finishing of chapter or manuscript. However these take months to achieve. Break each objective down to smaller goals: finishing the methods, finishing the table or even just writing up part of the discussion. This will keep you motivated and will show you exactly how far you’ve come since you started the project. Morgan over at Live it Active wrote a great post on goal setting, and although it’s geared towards physical activity goals, the same principles apply.

Second, meet up with other grad students. Going to SGPS social events and other events like that where you can talk to grad students is a great way to keep yourself motivated. Talking to people about your research can highlighted exactly how far you’ve come.

Third, learn how to use reference management software. Queen’s offers RefWorks for free, but there are many others available online for free including Mendeley and Zotero. Yes this is kind of unrelated but you really should learn how. You’ll thank me later.

Finally the most insidious form of hitting the wall is when you can’t get words out onto the page. You’ve done your research, you have your results and now you just have to focus and write. Personally I find closing the door to my office, loading up some classical music and having a large cup of coffee handy is enough to help me write. Others find they need to set goals: five pages a week or one page a day or some other milestone. Yet another way of tackling this issue is by joining the Thesis Boot Camp. This was offered through the School of Graduate Studies and the Writing Centre last year, however, if you really want to do this and you can find two or three others who will join you this no reason why you can’t book a room in the library and do this yourself. Similar to how a gym buddy can motivate you to go to the gym and will ensure that you won’t miss a workout, a thesis buddy will do the same except for writing. I’ll talk about this in more depth in a future post, so stay tuned!

What do you think readers? What advice do you have for fellow grad students approaching the mid-degree No Man’s Land?

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3 comments on “Hitting the Wall: The Graduate School Marathon
  1. Viet says:

    I couldn’t agree more about learning reference software early on. Go through the growing pains now instead of during thesis writing crunch time. I was fortunate to have started writing a manuscript in advance of my thesis–so I learned the ropes and started building my bibliography.

    As for your last point about motivation, some writers/bloggers/gradstudents on Twitter have had success using #madwriting, a form of positive peer pressure consisting of “30 minute writing sprints, report your word count, or other measure of productivity at the end.” (read more here http://madwriting.posterous.com/)

    On a more personal note, when I “hit the wall” I found that it was adversely affecting my interest in science as a whole. As grad students, we tend to narrowly focus on the literature and research that directly impacts our thesis projects and lose focus of the science happening outside our expertise. Sometimes missing the forest for the trees. As a way to reengage and reinvigorate my interests I started blogging, which has been very helpful in climbing over “the wall.”

    • Atif Atif says:

      Great points Viet. I’ve not used #madwriting myself, as I prefer to just close all distractions when I write, but I’ve heard good things. And I agree – sometimes you need a break to clear your head and to be able to see clearly again. Thanks for the comment!

  2. Great thoughts Atif. In fact Bracken Library are hosting two REFWorks,workshops on the 11th & 30th October. Sign up via the Library.
    Also Boot camp will be on again next January. stay tuned for more on that.
    You may also be interested in a panel discussion hosted by Stauffer Library as part of the expanding horizons workshop series. This discussion is on “Research across the disciplines” and we have faculty, students and librarians on board. Full details on the SGS website in the Events section

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