Last year on this day, I sat in my parents’ house (still my place of residence), single, and terrified. I had just spent a week working as hard as I could on my course syllabus for my students as part of my first year of teaching a freshman English college composition seminar, as part of my degree requirements for my Masters in Literature. I wasn’t even that nervous about the actual classes I was planning to take for my degree; it was all about how nervous I was about teaching. More nervous than any performance I had ever done in my life.
I quickly dove headfirst into all of it. I focused all of my energy in three areas: teaching, my own scholarship, and the gym/yoga classes (the gym to stay in shape, the yoga to calm/center my mind). I can remember a few days of one particular week last year in early November when I ran 7 miles, about three times in the span of 6 days, just because I was so stressed and needed an outlet. It worked, but I wore myself to the bone.
This year, I have a new game plan. One that will involve less killing myself in the gym and more focus on what really matters. So, I have revamped my “How To Survive Graduate School” list from last year into “How to Not just Survive, But Kick Graduate School In the Ass (While Maintaining an Actual Real Life)”.
1. Don’t be so concerned with what other people think/do/read/teach/write.
Last year I was incredibly intimidated by everyone in my department to the point that I shrank back and didn’t want to engage in debate (this was fixed by the end of the year…). Now, I have more confidence in my skills and am willing to do what it takes to make my voice heard if I’ve got something to say, and I don’t plan to sink my head down in defeat if someone disagrees with me. I’m smart, I’ve written several very well-received seminar papers, and my students have given great evaluations. With the students, I don’t need my students to like me (although that’s fun, let’s face it…I bonded with a few students last year and they were fantastic). I need them to write strong academic papers in correct MLA format. If they hate me, they hate me. But I’m about as intimidating as a bar of Lindt dark chocolate, so I don’t think I’ll be getting any haters. (although Haters Gon Hate…)
2. Take care of myself (physically). AKA, put in work at the gym but don’t overdo it.
My stress relief is exercise. Always has been, always will be. Now, more than ever, I rely on exercise to bring focus and strength to my day. Plus it makes my biceps look great and I don’t want to fall into the “I’m a stressed graduate student, therefore Butterfingers have no calories!” trap. I want to be healthy. But I don’t want to just get up at the butt crack of dawn and plug out 7 miles because I’m stressed and need to run away, or plow out 60 minutes of random cardio on the elliptical. It wears me out and causes the muscles I work so hard for in the summer to disappear. Because all of these seminar papers and exams and grading and my students’ output were so out of my control, I used the gym and my diet as my constant. This year, I want to maintain healthy eating (read: no protein bars for lunch unless I’m running around and seriously cannot sit down to eat) and a healthy muscle tone, while not going insane. I want to get up, go to work, do a Jillian Michaels DVD and a bit of cardio, and then get the hell on with my day. Or, do a bit of cardio and then a Power Yoga class, and that’s it. Whatever I’m in the mood for that day, no set pattern except no two days in a row of the same muscle groups. Also, the stress of the semester aggravated some of my history with disordered eating and exercise patterns (and my really ass-backwards schedule, with classes very late in the day instead of first thing, didn’t help matters.). Note: With my earlier classes this year, I can push my workouts back until either mid morning or early evening, which have always been my preferred times of day to work out rather than the morning because I feel stronger and can tackle heavier weights, but also I’m not as inclined to just plug away on the elliptical for an hour and not really do a ‘workout’. I want to be in ‘shape’, not just ‘skinny’.
3. Take care of myself mentally. AKA: More fire pits with friends, less sitting alone in my room freaking out about my library orders.
I wish I had done more leisure activities last year. I wish I had gotten more pedicures, and not just because running has absolutely destroyed my feet. I wish I had just sat in a Starbucks and drank coffee and read for leisure, although reading for leisure doesn’t exist when you major in English. I wish I had celebrated the fall more, because it’s my absolute favorite season. I wish I had hung out with my classmates more. I wish I had seen my nephew a little more often than I did. I wish I had waited until mid-morning to go to the gym with my sister more often, because we’d just talk on the elliptical the whole time. I wish I had gone to more football games, not just because I love tailgating and everyone I tailgate with, but because it was back when I was first starting to date my boyfriend and it killed me that I was excusing myself out of hanging out with him when that’s all I wanted to do. Truth be told, I was worried it would take away from my schoolwork – the thing I wanted to make top priority – and closed off. I wish I hadn’t excused myself out of so many opportunities to see him during the fall, because our time is so fleeting together during the school year. This year I plan to take as many chances as I can get to see him as well as my friends. My calendar is packed this fall, most of it nothing to do with school and everything to do with living a healthy social life that will also contribute to my success and efficacy inside the classroom. Living life will lead to better papers, because experience breeds knowledge. Plus, more excuses to land face first in Pumpkin Spice Lattes can only be a good thing.
4. Keep in mind the GIANT Terminal MA Exam in January.
I’m technically done with my coursework in December (thanks, year long credit accumulation ‘trial’, for allowing me to basically coast through my grad degree with no more than two grad seminars a semester!), but that leaves one last giant hurdle to leap over: the six hour Terminal MA Exam in January. The exam covers criteria on the MA Reading List, which spans Beowulf to Beloved, and covers about every single topic in theory you can think of. It scares the absolute crap out of me but at the same time I want to ace it. Also I don’t want to turn into a quivering pile of throw-up during my holiday break, aka the crucial study time for the exam. I want to be able to have a Christmas, after all. I plan on getting as much reading done as I can, and really study everything I can, and then just let it go and see what happens. At the same time, I also have two seminars this year that I really have a lot of work for – think up to 50 pages of revised prose by the end of the semester – so I have to be cognizant of the time I’m allotting to those as well. But I won’t be directing my focus towards that exam until the weeks leading up to Christmas, then the week directly following the holiday season. When the tree comes down, the books come out. I’ll of course take time off to celebrate my favorite holiday.
5. Be a Human Being. Not a Greendale Human Being, just a Human Being.
Show up. Do the work. Keep myself in good physical shape. Spend quality time with my family and friends. Take time for myself. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. I pushed everything down last year and told everyone I was fine, and then ended up having a complete breakdown mid-March. I’m not going to let that happen again. I don’t want to overthink it. I just want to show up.
Alarm is set. Breakfast is prepped in the fridge. My outfit is sort of finalized but it’ll probably change when I get up.
Last four months of official graduate study. And here. We. Go.