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Graduate Matters

Making time and space for graduate school during a pandemic

Grad students, especially in the humanities, need to structure their time in a way that allows for schoolwork and social activities.


Graduate students are working, studying, and socializing uniquely from home, compared to former experiences. Even prior to COVID-19 lockdown measures, graduate students can often find themselves isolated in a new city or a small town. At the start of graduate school, my supervisors and elder graduate students explained how easy it is to get stuck at home, staying in bed day after day because you might not necessarily have places to be. In these circumstances, your home, as small or dingy as it may be, can become your whole world, which takes a toll on your wellbeing and productivity.

I started my master’s in history in September 2019. In an effort to not waste my days snacking in bed, I tried to leave my apartment every morning even if I did not have scheduled meetings or classes. My undergraduate program required me to be on campus almost every day for classes and towards the end of the semester, for writing papers. Like many humanities’ graduate programs, I only had two days of classes a week, totalling six in-class hours. It was scary to walk into a lack of structure.

As someone who worked part-time as I studied, I always had a certain place to be at a certain time. I was now living in a 500-square foot apartment with my roommate, who is also a graduate student, without a real desk, or a real bed for that matter. Many of my friends in graduate school shared this experience: we had very little personal space and living off our scholarships limited many aspects of our lives.

Like most students across the country, I completed the last few months of school online. I wrote my final paper during lockdown, so creating structure while spending most of my time indoors was particularly necessary to be effective. This is what I found very helpful:

1. Create a desk space. Or two.

It’s not uncommon for students to live in small or crowded spaces. While some departments offer assigned desks to their students, others, like mine, did not. Pick a general area to study, either at school or at home. It can be a designated desk or a favourite nook in the library that helps prepare and maintain your studying vibe (if your university library is open). Feeling comfortable in your space is conducive to wellness and productivity. In my apartment, I used the dining room table as my workspace. Yes, we had to put aside our books before every meal, but it was the one place I could study.

At about seven in the evening, I would try to step away from those books and wander into my bedroom to start winding down. Creating space between studying and relaxing helped organize my time and my mental space. These physical distinctions become even more important now that many of us use our small spaces as gyms, conference rooms, office spaces and restaurants.

2. Create a schedule

Once you choose specific places and spaces where you study during the day, carve out times during the day when you will study, write, research, meet with your supervisor, and see your friends. One of the best pieces of advice I received about school is to treat it like a full-time job in terms of hours – that is to say 40 hours a week. In graduate school, not only did I learn the subject matter, I was also able to develop my time management skills (many universities offer formal help to students who want to develop this skill).

The flexibility grad school offers can be useful, but it can also be a curse. Having a co-conspirator helps when creating a schedule for yourself; my roommate and I both decided to get up around 7 a.m. so we could be on campus or at another designated workspace by around 9 a.m. Most mornings I did not have class, so I would entice myself to do my readings by going to a local coffee shop. I like variety, so some days I went to campus but other days I studied at the public library. Since there is currently limited access to these locations, I recommend choosing a well-lit corner of your apartment/house or a quiet park (if you live somewhere warm). But at each locale, I had one zone where I designated myself to studying, researching, or writing.

Graduate school courses are notorious for demanding reading lists. If you find this is taking up too much of your time, try this approach: read the introduction and conclusion thoroughly, then skim the bulk of the argument. Academic book reviews, found through your university library, outline the arguments in the text and are a valuable resource when trying to make it through a long reading list.

3. Book meetings

Part of treating graduate school like a nine to five job, is scheduling meetings throughout your day – whether it is for matters related to your academic work or professional exploration. Be proactive in making connections on campus. There are many study and writing groups you can join online that have weekly sessions. These types of communities hold you accountable but do not impose as much pressure as a formal academic setting, here is an example at Dalhousie University. If you cannot find a structured group like that, schedule online sessions with your friends. I set up weekly FaceTime check-ins with one of my graduate school friends to discuss what we researched that week, and what we hoped to accomplish in the following week for our final papers.

While other graduate programs, especially lab-based ones, have built-in structure, humanities students have lots of free time to do their readings. With many distractions around, it is easy to ignore your books, or alternatively, only ever focus on your books. Graduate student services and the graduate student unions at your university are a great place to check for life/study balance resources. Dividing up your time based on your responsibilities, while making room for fun, is one way to tackle the unique experience of graduate school.

Barâa Arar
Barâa Arar is a writer and editor. She holds a bachelor of humanities from Carleton University and a master’s in history from the University of Toronto. Her writing has appeared in This Magazine, CBC, and The Globe and Mail.
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