October 3, 2015
By: Paige Hinson
“It’ll be just like riding a bike.”
“You’ll get right back in the swing of things.”
“Don’t worry. You’re smart. You’ve got this.”
Over the last few months, friends, family members, and even strangers have made these well-meaning statements – or variations on them – to me when I have expressed worry about beginning graduate school this fall. Having graduated from undergrad in 2007, I have not had to write a paper or discipline myself to study in over eight years. Needless to say, I have found myself increasingly overwhelmed and concerned about the length of time I have been out of the academic world as the first day of school has approached. As I write this, I am in my fifth week of classes, and I am slowly but surely learning how to navigate this “new” world.
Here are a few ways I am trying to re-teach myself to be a student:
- I try not to procrastinate: In undergrad I had no trouble maintaining an active social life. I traded peace of mind for a good time. Now that I am older, I see the folly of such a chaotic, stressful existence. Instead of being so worried that I might miss out on a fun experience, I now remind myself that the fun I would have at my friend’s birthday party in Asheville will be tempered with the stress I will feel about putting off my school work. There will be plenty of other parties, vacations, and nights out to come.
- I try to take time to sleep: My bad habit of procrastinating led to me pulling many “all-nighters” in undergrad. As an 18- to 21-year-old, I had no trouble staying up all night to write a paper, going to classes all day, going out to a concert until 2 a.m., and then getting up in time for class or work the next day. I would stay up for 48 hours straight if I had to. Now that I am 30, this is not an option. Part of the beauty of starting projects earlier than the night before the due date is the ability to divvy up my work so I can get to bed at a decent time – which in grad school is any time before 2 a.m.
- I try to recognize when to walk away: I have a tendency to make a plan and then rigidly stick to it, no matter what issues arise in the process. As I have gotten older, I have begun to realize that sometimes flexibility is necessary. For instance, a couple of weeks ago, I spent three days trying to write a paper because my original plan was to finish that writing before I moved on to other work. I ended up having writer’s block and at the end of those three days, I had only two pages written, putting me behind in work for my other classes. From this experience, I learned that sometimes I need to walk away from a certain task to help get some clarity on the work by stretching my legs or getting coffee–anything is better than wasting precious study time because I refuse to change my plan.
- I try to be kind to myself: This has probably been the hardest thing for me to learn. As a perfectionist, I expect quite a lot out of myself. I came into grad school determined to be the best student in my classes. I was going to work out five days a week, cook healthy meals every day, study until 3 a.m. every night, and take Sundays off for “me” time. Five weeks in, I’m proud of myself if I can get my laundry done and my hair washed once a week. It is easy for me to become very disappointed in myself, and I have struggled with this recently as I have failed to live up to the high expectations I set for myself. But I am slowly realizing that I need to give myself a break because I am doing the best I can. As my friend Caitlin says, “You can only eat the elephant one bite at a time.”
- I try to utilize my support system: Returning to academia after being gone for so long has definitely been challenging, but I am learning so much about what I am capable of accomplishing. I am also learning that my classmates – especially those also back in school after some time off – are my best resources for support. Not only can I talk to them about my misgivings or troubles, but helping them work through their struggles is therapeutic for me.
A few of my classmates gave me some advice on how they are re-learning to be students. Hopefully, they’re advice can also help you re-teach yourself some tricks or unlearn some bad habits.
Mercer: “I am a thirty-year-old nontraditional student in my first semester of graduate school here at Appalachian State University….my biggest tip for returning students is to focus more on creating and maintaining a balanced lifestyle than on excelling in school.”
Caitlin: “Mak[e] a schedule for yourself and prioritiz[e] what to focus on, for sure.”
Cindy: “I have to remember to prioritize my work, to socialize less, and to occasionally take a break from all this reading and writing. It’s good to do something mindless and de-stressing, like baking bread, watching TV, and playing with pets.”