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You never write alone: how to (re-)prioritize your grad work

Boxer dog making note on vintage typewriter

It is a little bit weird to write this down, but sometimes I need to remind myself that I am doing a PhD. Working 40 hours a week, volunteering, diving, trying to set a new PR in weightlifting, and seeing friends sometimes takes the upper hand, and especially with all the academic deadlines gone now that I am in the last stage of the writing process, it can be difficult to sit down and get work done. Based on my pool of unknowing volunteers – sorry friends and colleagues – I am apparently not the only one who struggles with prioritizing my research. As I am out of funding, my parents lovingly keep asking me when I am going to graduate, and my supervisor sometimes wonders when they are going to get the next abstract, it is time to figure out how to prioritize my PhD. 

 After a good session in the gym, me and two friends decided that we should meet up to write together, and to my own surprise, this was highly effective. Although we are all in different programs, the fact that we are all in the writing stage of our dissertation, helps to force each other to do work. As I am an easily distracted person, we set the rule that we would work for 50 minutes and then take a 10-minute break. During our break, we talk, go for a walk, or grab a coffee. Anything to relax our brain again from focusing and getting ready for the next round. And this is important. We often try to overdo things and having others around us makes it easier not only to hold yourself accountable, but also to relax when you need a break. 

 As we cannot always rely on our friends and colleagues, it is a good thing that Queen’s offers multiple tools for graduate students to focus on their research. For the lucky ones who are going next week, every year the SGSPA organizes Dissertation on the Lake, where those in the later writing stages of their research go to Elbow Lake to write in a relaxing environment. I was lucky enough to go 4 years ago during my Masters and both me and my dog Jay loved it! If you are unfortunately not going next week, please know that the SGSPA is also offering Dissertation Boot Camps in the Fall (online), the February Reading week (in person), and at the end of May (in person). If you have children, you can also attend the PA Day Writing Circles, where children will be cared for by Athletics and Recreation Staff, while parents get to work on their dissertation. 

Sitting down and working on your dissertation is easier said than done. Although there are many opportunities for graduate students to work on their dissertation, sometimes you need to take a step further back and find a way to get started in the first place. For those of us who are at this stage – or who need to go back to this stage – the Student Academic Success Services (SASS) is a great place to start. Not only do they offer workshops for students to learn important skills, they also provide online guides and tutorials for a wide variety of topics. Even more, SASS also has staff who are highly trained in assisting students meet their academic goals, specialized both in undergraduate and graduate writing. Through appointments with staff, you can explore a variety of new ways to work on your research, while keeping up with the rest of life. 

If you really do not know where to start, but feel uncomfortable talking to someone about it, you can also look at the Individual Development Plan (IDP) program offered by the SGSPA. An IDP is not only helpful for your academic work, but also prepares you for the next step of your career. To participate in the IDP you can go to the SGSPA website and download the guidebook or attend one or more of the SGSPA workshops created specifically for graduate students. 

So, although I can still sometimes run out of time in a day, having writing sessions with friends, attending workshops, and participating in boot camps have all helped me refocus on my dissertation. No matter how much I love my research – I do so much, I even have my research topic tattooed on my leg – life sometimes takes over, and we all need a little bit of help to reprioritize our work. And this is maybe the most important lesson that I have learned in the past weeks; it does not matter how much it sometimes feels like you cannot do it all, you can definitely never do it alone. 

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