Grad Student Guilt: Taking Breaks

Disclaimer: Though this article mainly talks about grad school experiences, this topic is applicable to many different types of people and the advice is applicable to anyone who feels the expectation to be constantly working. 


Grad school is an interesting beast. You’re neither a student, nor an Adult(TM) and as such, you really get none of the benefits from either category. That is, you don’t have the surplus of free time between classes that you once had in college, nor does work limit itself to 40 hours a week like it tends to do in Adult World.

Rather, as a grad student, it feels more like you’re constantly working. Between juggling class assignments, research tasks, grant proposals and lit reviews, work just never seems to stop. Not to mention, there’s also the added bonus that, in this part of your life, hard deadlines are a thing of the past. There is simply little to no structure in grad school.  You’re given a set of tasks (e.g. answer this hypothesis, look up literature on this topic, write a publishable paper, find funding…) but there are long stretches of time before any of the tasks actually have to get done. So, in other words, the amount of work you do on a daily basis is completely dependent on how much you can motivate yourself to get things done.

And let’s face it, throughout most campuses, there’s a secret expectation that you work constantly, without complaint; a suffer in silence mentality I’ve talked about in previous posts (see here and here). After all, that’s what you signed up for when you applied to grad school, right? Your life now belongs to the Gods of Academia and a work-life balance is a fairytale. However, this expectation is not only completely unreasonable but it also leads to very unhealthy, yet unfortunately common, mindset.

I find that it’s very common amongst the grad student population to have feelings of guilt during those few moments we can actually stop and catch our breath. Guilty that we’re not finishing up that assignment. Guilty that we’re spending time with our friends instead of writing up that paper. Guilty we’re not checking or answering emails in a timely manner. Guilty. Guilty. Guilty.

But why are we feeling guilty? Are these not normal things that people do to unwind and calm down? Avoiding having some “down time” and continuously working is very bad for our physical, mental and emotional health. In the worst cases, it also damages a lot of relationships with friends, families and significant others.

I have a bad case of this “Grad School Guilt” right now. The need to work 24/7 is strong. So much so that when I took the weekend off last week, I was filled with lot of stress and anxiety pretty much the whole time I was away from the lab. It was horrible, and definitely not a good way to unwind. In fact, even taking a few hours off after work to eat dinner and relax a bit is something I dread, because when break time is up, I feel like I’ve fallen behind on work and the rest of my night is spent desperately catching up.

This mentality that grad school is all work and no play definitely needs to be reevaluated and the only way we can do that it so talk about the issues that come with it. That’s partially why I made this post in the first place. However, though I believe we can change how future students experience grad school, that doesn’t mean that we don’t have to survive it first ourselves. Though I am no means an expert, but I have been getting advice from friends, family and my therapist on ways to combat these feelings of guilt when doing anything non-grad school related. I hope one of these can help you out if you’re going through something similar.

Schedule your breaks

When I first heard this, it sounded a bit counter-intuitive. How is it a break if it’s scheduled? But think of it like forming a habit. If you set your breaks at approximately the same times each week, it will eventually just become part of your routine that you stop second guessing and by default, don’t feel guilty for.

Use breaks as a rewards

Instead of thinking that break time is something you don’t deserve, think of something that you give yourself as a reward. If you finish writing a paragraph of your paper, take a few minutes to walk outside and get some air. If your experiment goes well today, take one night to not do anything school related. Remember, you aren’t taking these breaks for no reason. You earned it.

Find some hobbies

Hobbies are a nice way to combine scheduling your breaks with doing something that you love or are passionate for. Go find a dance class. Learn how to knit. You can even find a group of friends with similar interests and combine this break time with social hour. That way, not only are you getting some down time, but you’re also multitasking and getting other important things done too!

Reframe how you think about breaks

Sometimes it’s easy to compartmentalize your life into “grad school life” and “real life” and usually, only one of these compartments gets your full attention. However, the two are more intricately tied together than you would like to think. Does hanging out with friends and family not calm you down and give you some perspective after being stuck on a problem for hours? Do hobbies not inspire you and spark a creativity that can be used in your research? In other words, try and turn your breaks and hobbies to something that is beneficial to you in the long run. That way, rather than feeling guilty, you can feel like you’re still being productive towards a long term goal.

Remember: You’re a person first

Though it might feel like it, grad school is not your life. Yes, it’s a giant bundle of work that can sometimes feel like it’s taking over your life, but you were a person before grad school and will continue to be a person after. Remember, your mental and emotional health are important and it’s very difficult to succeed in your work if you’re tired and burnt out. Breaks are not there to make you fall behind on your tasks, they’re there to help you reevaluate and be the best student you can be without falling apart?

Do you have anyways to mitigate these feelings? If you do, let me know in the comments!


11 thoughts on “Grad Student Guilt: Taking Breaks”

  1. Nice thoughts! I’m in grad school as well, and I used to feel the same way about taking breaks. I found out pretty quickly that disengaging from all the work and all the stress for a little bit of “me time” was important to my overall health. I would take an hour to write something fun, go to the gym, or head outside for a little bit. Doing something else, but something equally as productive like writing or exercising, allowed me to get over feeling guilty.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It’s day 3 of the semester and I am already feeling the guilt. I researched and read and made an outline for 2 hours, but felt bad for taking a 10 minute break. I will be trying out these tips!!


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