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How I Write and Learn

A Day in the Life: Grad Student Edition

By a UNC grad student

Hi! I’m a Ph.D. student at UNC, and I’m here to write about how I’ve been trying (sometimes successfully, sometimes unsuccessfully) to stay productive as a work-from-home student. I’m in the dissertating phase of graduate school, which means I am no longer taking classes. As a result, most of my work had already been self-motivated before entering quarantine. For me, acclimating to working in isolation has been mostly about protecting the routine I had before and finding ways to keep support networks alive while I’m not able to leave the house.

8:30 AM:

By this time, I’ve been snoozing my alarm for 20-30 minutes while my brain makes peace with the fact that I have to get up. The mornings are the most treacherous time of the day for me. If I don’t have a specific accountability mechanism built into my mornings, whether a coffee date, a morning meeting, a class, or something else that I literally have to show up for, I’m liable to give up right away and sleep until noon.

Working in isolation has been incredibly difficult because I no longer have the same access to these accountability mechanisms. I can’t schedule a coffee date with anyone anymore, and I no longer have meetings or working groups on campus to drag me out of bed. Before the university closed, I enjoyed a longtime writing partnership where my “accountabilibuddy” and I would meet off-campus at 9 AM Monday, Wednesday, and Friday to dissertate for about 3 hours. I’ve never made so much progress on anything in my life as I did with my writing partner. When the dust settled a little bit and everyone became more accustomed to working remotely, my writing partner and I decided to resume our sessions remotely.

After I finally wake up, I feed my fish, put on the coffee, and take a shower. These are the first three things I do every single day, and that routine is incredibly helpful for maintaining a sense of normalcy. I get dressed as if I’m leaving the house (including putting on shoes), and I wear the clothes and hairstyle that I would if I were really going to a meeting. Again, these little tactics help me remember that I’m getting up to go to work. It’s not a weekend, and I don’t want to sabotage my day by dressing in my weekend clothes.

A photo of a black male beta fish in a tank with green plants and cream pebbles.

9:30 AM:

After I’m showered and dressed, I pour a cup of coffee, sit down in my office, and start a Zoom meeting with my writing partner. I’ve set up a specific place in my apartment to be my “office” so I don’t try to work while sitting on the couch or lying in the bed. I never worked in those places before, so they’re basically coded as “not work places” in my brain. I work sitting up with lots of light, which for me is incredibly helpful.

A photo of a well-lit work desk with two screens, various papers and writing utensils, and an open air water-cooled pc.
My writing partner and I have found that Zoom makes it feel as though we’re not alone while we’re working. We start the call, say hello to each other, talk about the previous night, and set some specific goals for ourselves for the morning. This all takes about 20 minutes, after which we leave our Zoom mics and our cameras on, but we basically just go off and do our own work. In this way, Zoom isn’t different from our normal accountability sessions; we work on our individual projects in a shared space, which helps us feel accountable (like someone is watching us work) and celebrate our productivity.

12:30 PM:

One thing I’ve learned about myself in graduate school is that the effectiveness of my brain is closely tied to the emptiness of my stomach. I used to try to power through most of the day without eating anything, but when I’m at home and otherwise highly disposed to becoming distracted, a growling stomach instantly kills my work energy. After about 3 hours, my accountabilibuddy and I sometimes have lunch together, or we head off to grab food while we prepare for whatever comes next in the day, whether that’s working at the Writing Center, teaching a course, or meeting with an advisor. We also try to protect our morning work routine by doing non-work errands and activities, like grocery shopping, exercising, cleaning, and so on during the afternoon.

Probably the hardest part of working in isolation, at least for me, is handling my post-Zoom time. After I eat lunch, I usually want to lie down for a nap, which I’ve been doing a lot lately. Without having to physically be somewhere in the afternoon, I easily fall into the trap of laziness. To help myself fight this tendency, I stay conscious of the kinds of work I do during different parts of the day. I still teach a class remotely, which means I need to meet with my students, grade their work, and prepare course materials. I try to leave this work for the afternoon, because there are usually deadlines associated with it. For example, if I’m teaching on Thursday afternoon, my lecture materials are going to have to be done sometime before Thursday afternoon! I can use those deadlines to help motivate me to return to work after lunch. Dissertating, on the other hand, often lacks these sorts of intermediate deadlines, so I use my morning accountability sessions to ensure that I’m making progress on my dissertation five days per week.

4:00/5:00 PM:

Depending upon the day of the week, I begin my Writing Center shifts at 4:00 or classroom teaching at 5:00. I never struggle finding the energy to show up to my jobs on time, and I’ve learned to capitalize on this drive by always scheduling my regular work shifts, when possible, during the parts of the day in which I know that I otherwise wouldn’t work. That’s why I frontload my own work to the part of the day when I have the most energy and why I cluster my shift-work toward the end of the day when I need the extra motivation the most.

8:30 PM:

After I’m finished working for the day, I’m finished working for the day. I have dinner with my partner when I get home, usually around 8:30. During this time, I often sit in meditative silence. Because my work typically requires that I talk to others, either verbally or in writing, for several hours at a time, some therapeutic quiet is an important part of my after-work routine.

In the past, especially while I was taking classes, I often didn’t spend this time on myself. I took “bringing my work home with me” to the extreme, sometimes working from the moment I opened my eyes to the minute I passed out face-first into my books. As time has passed, I’ve realized that binge-working isn’t effective in the long run. I get burnt out, work inefficiently, and generally don’t enjoy what I do nearly as much. By prioritizing my needs, which includes taking a break from work to do what I enjoy doing, I can be a better researcher, writer, and teacher during the day. Obviously, I still work a lot! But finding a work-life balance for me means leaving time at the end of the day to decompress before bed and not feeling guilty about doing what I need to feel mentally healthy.

My partner and I live pretty vibrant social lives with a fairly large group of friends online, so my evenings during quarantine are nearly the same as they were beforehand. I’m usually online chatting and gaming with friends from around the world until late in the evening.

1:30 AM:

I usually head to bed sometime between 1 and 2 AM. Like my morning routine (and for the same reasons), my bedtime routine is pretty strict. I feed my fish first, and while they eat, I change, brush my teeth, turn off my computer, set my alarm, clean up my work area and kitchen, and stage everything so it’s clean and ready for tomorrow morning. By the time all that is finished, my fish are done eating, so I turn on their night light and carry my cuddliest cat to the bed. I flip on a fan for white noise and play one game of sudoku on my phone to help shut off my brain, and I’m usually asleep within 15 minutes.

A photo of three white Molly fish in a tank with green plants and rust-colored pebbles and rock formations.

This blog showcases the perspectives of UNC Chapel Hill community members learning and writing online. If you want to talk to a Writing and Learning Center coach about implementing strategies described in the blog, make an appointment with a writing coach or an academic coach today. Have an idea for a blog post about how you are learning and writing remotely? Contact us here.

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