Academic Guilt: Stay Out of the Trap


Graduate student guilt? Oh yeah, I am sure you’ve heard of it and even experienced it by now. It is the guilt that many of us experience when we are not constantly working on school related assignments, writing our thesis/dissertation, conducting experiments, reading articles, etc. It is the guilt that we feel when we are spending time with our friends instead of responding to those emails or working 24/7. 

I’m trying to relax but I know I could be working

Just this past weekend, I found myself feeling “guilty” for spending time with a friend I had not seen in a long time. I suggested going to a coffee shop so we could chat and afterwards I could work on my thesis while she read a book. Am I a bad friend for suggesting such activity? Maybe not. However, I realized that probably I deserved some time off after writing and working all week.

Why do we experience graduate student guilt? Perhaps, it has to do with the structure of graduate school. There is not a set line of instructions that tell you how much time is required for reading, writing, working – there is not a 40-hour work week or 9-5. In addition, flexibility really varies among the different degree programs and within each student individually. We are in a stage where we are responsible for the balance between being a student and being an adult. On top of that, we are faced with the expectation that academia comes with busyness, high demands, and the need to work 24/7. 

Although graduate student guilt is very common in academic, below are some tips that may help you lower those guilt feelings:

1. “Busy” is not a merit badge: We often find ourselves being prideful of our busy life to measure up against others. We get it, we know everyone is smart and busy in graduate school. Instead, focus on taking a positive attitude towards those opportunities given to you and focus on those concrete goals.

2. Plan your breaks: My first year at JHSPH, a 5th year PhD student told me “Weekends are sacred and I don’t work during that time”. Although I have not been able to execute his advice, it is important to schedule breaks just like you schedule your class time. It will become part of your routine and you won’t feel as guilty. 

3. Ask for help: Some great advantages of graduate school are the collaborations and relationships you make with others. If you are having difficulties completing a task at a timely manner, ask for help. We understand people are usually busy but oftentimes they will help (or at least explain it to you).

4. Remember, you are a person: It is okay to take breaks. It is okay to take time for self-care. It is okay to spend time with friends and have a life outside of school. Your mental and physical health are important. Don’t take them for granted. 

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