I had intended to blog this week about a special colloquium we were supposed to have held this past Friday related to Human Subjects Research. But that event was postponed because of the latest big storm to dump even more flakes in what has become the snowiest month ever here in New Brunswick (thank goodness we don’t usually get 3 feet of snow in a month here!). For my kids, it was cheers of “Snow Day!” as they were out of school for two days last week. For most students at Rutgers, getting a Snow Day on a Friday when there are almost no classes anyway was likely less exciting, but still not unwelcome. For me, though, I was frustrated. Not only did I suddenly not have anything to blog about, but I also had to start over on finding a new date for an already difficult to schedule event.
Life is filled with these Snow Days. Although Snow Day usually refers to cancellations or delays related to weather, we can use the term Snow Day (perhaps better read as sNOw Day) to describe any situation where unforeseen events emerge that disrupt our plans. Sometimes these events are a nuisance because they force us to simply delay. At other times, the Snow Day event means cancelling something entirely. Maybe most frustrating of all are those events that force you to miss something while others are still able to attend and move on even without you.
My brief 16 years as a graduate educator has shown me a variety of these Snow Day events that really begin to mess with one’s ability to get admitted to a program, pass exams, complete coursework, conduct a dissertation, and engage in other activities that are part of graduate training. I’ve seen the events over which one has no control—an elderly parent or child that needs greater care, an earthquake or other disaster back home that pulls one away from doctoral work, or the demise of one’s own health that prevents her from studying. In other cases, the broader life choices we make create these “days” and seemingly take away from our ability to do doctoral level work—starting a family or adopting kids, moving away from campus once courses are done or to take a job, and allowing everything around us to become the distraction that provides the excuse for not writing and researching. These often unplanned events can have serious consequences—and they are a big part of the reason why graduate degrees take substantial time to finish (for those who are ever able to complete them).
Just as we can manage the snowy weather with a little preparation, so too can we manage the Snow Days that threaten to postpone or even cancel our graduate education. My advice is to consider three strategies:
1. When you must, plow through. Sometimes, events are too important to let them go. Like the student this past Friday who refused to let snow cancel her dissertation defense; like the person who deals with the stress of his difficult dissertation by staying focused on future goals as a way to make it through; or, like the students struggling in the required class who knew they had to study even harder to pass the class (or risk being asked to leave the program)—sometimes giving in or giving up are simply not options and in those cases plowing forward even amid life’s difficulties is essential.
2. When necessary, adjust and reschedule. When life starts throwing snowballs, we can’t always plow through unscathed. Health and financial troubles don’t mean we have to give up on the dream; but, they may necessitate adjusting our schedule for completion. Losing a committee member or two as one begins their dissertation may very well require some rethinking and repositioning—but it does not create an impossible situation. Anticipating a few Snow Days allows you to build in backup plans. And yes, sometimes life has other plans for us and we have to be willing to back away from our studies entirely if they are no longer enough of a priority.
3. When you can, sled and slide. I’ve already said I find Snow Days frustrating—but they may be less frustrating and perhaps even enjoyable if you reframe them in a positive way. Maybe the Snow Day creates a much-needed break from your original duties. Perhaps the Snow Day helps you see priorities more clearly. Maybe it is just a small blip on the radar of life and nothing that should create additional stress for you. Indeed, my kids may have it right when they invite me just to spend the day making snow friends and playing games inside.
Weather aside, we all have these days (or sometimes weeks and even months) where our plans are seemingly ruined. If we can take these and figure out when we must plow through, when we should readjust schedules, and when we can simply enjoy the occasion, we’re likely to be better for having done so. In that spirit, I’m plowing forward with a blog (because I can, not because it is that important), rescheduling the human subjects colloquium to a date when more can attend anyway, and continuing to enjoy my work and all that goes with it (as well as trying to have a little fun on these Snow Days). I hope you can approach the Snow Days of graduate school life with a similar perspective.
The Director has left the Deck.