The Care and Keeping of your Grad Student (Holiday Edition)

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December has arrived which means the holidays are just around the corner! And for those of you non-academics who happen to have a grad student friend/family member, this serves as a rare opportunity for you to finally interact with them! Because it’s during this time of the year that we grad students find ourselves emerging from our lab/office caves to remind our friends and families that we still exist in the world. Happy times all around! Or so you think…

I find that many who are not part of the academic world fail to realize just how stressful this whole holiday thing can be for us grad students. So, in an effort to make sure you can make the most out of your time with your grad student friend/relative, I’ve taken the liberty of making a short guide of what you should and should not do in their presence this holiday season. You know, to keep everyone in the good spirits. 🙂

The Don’ts

Let’s start off with the don’ts, because honestly these have the potential to make or break your grad student’s holidays. So what shouldn’t you do this year when you’re interacting with your grad student buddy? Glad you asked!

1. Don’t ask, “So why does that matter?” when it comes to our research

I mean, sure… you may not understand every word we say and we might appear to get almost obsessively excited about some niche topic, but the second you scrunch up your face ask “why does that matter?” our desire to talk with you about our work is gone. I mean, not only do we have to answer this question way too often just to fight for funding, but does there really have to be a “bigger picture” for us to want to talk excitedly about work?

And yes, you can refer to some fields and easily see the relevance in them. For instance, I can easily talk about climate change and a cancer biologist, well…studies cancer. But for a lot of us, our subjects don’t necessarily make a big splash in the research world. It was just a subject we liked and one that we thought we could make a career out of.

So, maybe try and seem even just a little bit interested this time around. I promise, we’ll shut up eventually.

2. Don’t refer to what they do as “just school”

Yes. Technically we’re still in school. And especially if you’re on the family side of the relationship spectrum, you might be a little concerned at this fact and wonder when we’re going to get a Real JobTM. But I can assure you, what we do certainly doesn’t feel like it’s “just school”. It’s work. Hard, grueling work. And when you off-handedly refer to what we do as nothing more than “just school,” it’s just kind of demeaning and a bit discouraging.(Also, since when is “just school” that a bad thing?)

After all, I’m a professional, dammit! I do actual cutting edge research! Let’s just ignore the fact I’m underpaid, overworked, and practically live on campus. It’s a job! Or at the very least indentured servitude…

Regardless, don’t do that.

3. Don’t ask when they’re going to graduate

Before I get into why this is an overall bad idea, may I ask why this is probably the number one question that comes up every year? Do you not see the bags under our eyes and our over-dependence on caffeine? Yeah, that’s not for fun, you know. We’re also trying to get out of there. It just takes some time. And that timeline is not at all in our control.

But, that aside, you’re also not the only ones trying to encourage us to get out of there. Our advisors, our departments, our committees…even our universities want us to get out, move on and perhaps get a career that will make them look good. That’s their job. And their job tends to gives us a lot of added stress and anxiety. So, essentially, it’d be nice if we didn’t get that from our friends and family as well. Cool?

4. Don’t ask make us feel guilty if/when we work during the holidays

Unfortunately, our job doesn’t always stay at the office. It is constantly on our mind, especially when we have deadlines–deadlines that don’t really care if it’s Christmas or Hanukkah or whatever. So work, we must. But, remember, as we’re clicking and clacking away in a solitary corner, we’re already feeling super bummed that we couldn’t just relax and hang out with you. It’s not by choice. We swear.

Unless you know, we’re working to avoid all the annoying questions. (See above)

Besides, even if we don’t have an immediate deadline, there is this phenomenon called grad school guilt. You might like to think of it as separation anxiety that pops up when we’re away from work for too long. Yeah, I know. It doesn’t make much sense to us either. But it’s a real thing, so be sure to respect that and instead of making us feel bad for not hanging out with you, show that you understand through the gift of study snacks. 🙂

The Do’s

Now, if you avoid all the don’ts, everyone’s holiday will go smoothly and less annoyance will be had. However, if you proceed to follow the do’s…Well, that’s just the cherry on top!

1. Do surprise us with caffeine and food

Unless you have some rare grad student on your hands, you should know that for the majority of us nothing makes us happier than free food and caffeine. Therefore, bringing us snacks or offering to buy the nice coffee/teas that we can’t normally afford might probably be one of the best things you can do for us.

No, really. Caffeine Source + Free Food = Happy Grad Student. That’s honestly all it takes. We’re simple people and very, very broke.

2. Do encourage us to take breaks from time to time

While we don’t necessarily want to feel guilty if we’re working during the holidays, that doesn’t mean that we should be working the whole time. Grad students need to come up for air eventually. So, if you by chance notice us hunkered down, unmoving, in front of our computers for hours on end, maybe first start by making sure we’re still alive. Then, once you’re sure the ambulance doesn’t need to be called, maybe remind us that it’s still the holidays and our work won’t mind if we take a 15 minute break.

After all, it’ll still be sitting there. Taunting us…

3. Lastly, do remember to remind us that you’re proud of us

I think the thing we want most is approval. Approval from our bosses. Approval from the research gods. Just approval–something to tell us that we’re doing a good job even on those days where grad school really kicks our butt. So, aside from coffee and food, perhaps the next best thing for you to give us this holiday is a reminder that you’re proud of what we’re trying to accomplish–even if you may not understand it all the time.

That’s really all we want.

Oh, and to graduate. We want that too.


Any grad students out there have any suggestions of what your friends and family can do to make your holiday’s go smoother? Leave them in the comments below. Or, if you totally agree with all of this, you can use the buttons below to passively aggressively share this on your social media feeds for everyone to see! 😀

Happy Early Holidays!

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