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Tackling Non-Academic Challenges and Self-Improvement in Graduate School

Graduate school has a tendency to creep into every corner of your life, taking away time from hobbies and goals that you held previously. I often have struggled doing other non-academic hobbies because I feel like everything should be devoted to my overarching goal of finishing my thesis. I love creating art, but I will easily go six months or more without picking up a brush because of this productivity guilt. I also know that I am not a ‘good’ artist, so it feels like a waste of time when I create. This is a harmful mindset though, and I have to remind myself that hobbies and non-academic goals are so important to maintaining a balanced life in graduate school. Especially in a long degree like the PhD, where milestones are so few and far between, which strips you of reasons to celebrate.

One of my hobbies, which sounds boring, is walking. I gained a deep appreciation for walking in 2020 when I broke my knee and lost the ability to walk. At first, I just took the time I would usually take to go outside to work more on my thesis, and I congratulated myself on my improved productivity despite my injury. I did not realize how serious a toll this took on my mental health though. Previously I had taken walks to clear my head and take in some fresh air. Now I was inside staring at my laptop and ignoring my physical and mental needs. 

After I had reconstructive surgery, I had to devote a certain amount of time to my recovery. As I pushed myself to re-learn how to walk, I came to really appreciate the mental break that walking represented, alongside my newfound freedom that this activity provided. Soon I started making time every day for walking not just because I needed to practice my gait, but because I was setting new goals for myself. These goals were not focused on my thesis at all, but on my new hobby. I was just having fun for the sake of having fun, even if it cut into my work time. And I was doing something that I was not ‘good’ at – I was slow and awkward, but I was still celebrating myself for it.I made a goal in 2022 to complete my first 5 km run, which I did this past weekend in the Toronto Waterfront marathon. I walked most of my 5 km and finished close to last. I completed it in 50 minutes for my time, which is objectively ‘bad’. But I still did it! And it felt so great to celebrate a non-academic accomplishment. I saw how much I had improved, even though it was two years of painfully slow progress, that had been combined with guilt for taking time away from productivity. I know that I will likely forget that I learned this lesson and have to relearn it again, but it is so important to allow yourself the time for hobbies and challenges that take place outside of your research. You can celebrate other accomplishments, no matter how small!

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