Semester breaks are the perfect time for some relaxation, spending time with friends and family, and filling up on delicious holiday snacks. But for graduate students working on their theses, winter breaks also mean ample time to get some research and writing done. During my seven-year career as a graduate student, I’ve spent plenty of time trying to achieve the best of both worlds. Though balancing data analysis and cookie baking can be difficult, below are a few tips to help you maximize your research time, and still have fun during the holiday season.
Take a break from your research
Taking some time away from work is one of the best things you can do—school vacation or not. Whether it is a few hours a day or a week, a break gives you a chance to rest, recharge, and clear your head. It is easy to become burnt out when you are working on your thesis so intensely every day. Taking time away from your project to visit with friends, travel, or sleep in will allow you to approach it with fresh eyes.
Find a distraction-free space to write
I am easily distracted when I go home for break. Whether it be watching a Home Alone marathon, sampling my mom’s freshly baked cookies, or playing with my family’s dog, Dudley, I can usually find something I would much rather do than work. If you are easily distracted, changing your work space can make a big difference. If you are traveling during break, you might research places—such as coffee shops or libraries—where you can devote some time to your work. Champaign-Urbana becomes a ghost town during breaks, so it’s easy to find a place to work. You can have your pick of virtually any library or coffee shop in the area!
Plan small, easily achievable goals.
With a month off from school, it is sometimes tempting to set an enormous goal that is (in reality) difficult to achieve. Not accomplishing these feats can make you feel like you’re falling behind and hurt your confidence. Instead, try setting smaller, easily achievable goals and leaving yourself ample time to complete each task. For example:
- Today, I will read and summarize an article.
- Over the next two days, I will translate this text from German into English.
- This week, I will outline my plan for Chapter 4.
For some of my friends, setting other types of goals has kept them on track. One of my colleagues finished her dissertation in a year by writing 250 words a day. Another devoted two solid, uninterrupted hours a day to his work. During break, you might scale these goals back slightly (so, 150 words a day or one hour a day, for example). Try a few different strategies and see what works best for you.
When you have completed your task, make sure to reward yourself: buy yourself a celebratory balloon, go play laser tag, or make yourself a banana split. Having something to look forward to while you work will motivate you to finish the task.
Life is unpredictable, so make sure to allow yourself some flexibility in your work schedule. For example, what if you catch a cold and don’t feel like getting out of bed, much less reading 20 pages in that Adorno book like you had planned? Take the day off from work, fix some chicken noodle soup and rest. If you are not at your best, your work will not be at its best. What if your family plans a spontaneous road trip? Go for it! That data you were entering into Excel can wait until tomorrow. Adding some flexibility in your schedule will allow you to enjoy opportunities without feeling guilty about not getting work done.
The bottom line is, make sure to take some time for yourself during winter break—you deserve it! But don’t forget to make time for your work, as well. Balancing these two tasks will leave you feeling good about your work and ready to charge full speed into the new school year.
Emily Wuchner is the Associate Director for Student Experience at the Graduate College. She holds a PhD in musicology from the University of Illinois, and her work focuses on music and social welfare in eighteenth-century Austria. In her free time, she enjoys boxing, reading, and knitting and crochet.