Fordham GSAS: Grad. Life: Surviving End of Semester Holiday Blues

Monday, December 3, 2012

Surviving End of Semester Holiday Blues

     Wow, December really snuck up on me! It's now December 3rd, and, although radio stations are ringing out with cries of it being the most wonderful time of the year, it's the *least* wonderful time of year for most graduate students! I was just commiserating with a co-worker about it: while everyone else begins to slow down for a bit, to meet for holiday drinks and holiday parties and shopping trips and tree trimming get togethers, we graduate students get inundated with deadlines: lit reviews and papers are due, data need to be submitted, proposals need to be approved, committees need to be formed, topics need to be chosen, forms need to be signed, applications need to be handed in, students' papers need to be graded and handed back, grades need to be filed -- I'm exhausted just listing it all!!! You begin to feel a bit like Scrooge, bah-humbugging all the revelers.
     And while all this is going on, invitations keep coming in, as people are getting more and more into celebration mode while you slave away. December used to be my favorite time of year, but ever since I entered the graduate school world, it has gotten more and more frustrating to turn down offers to go enjoy the holiday cheer with non-graduate school friends and instead hit the books/ library/ laptop. The good news is, all of this ends usually a couple of days before Christmas, although it is not so much fun for Hanakkuh celebrators -- this year, like most years, Hanakkuh coincides with finals week! :( The worst part of it is that you feel left out of everyone else having a really good time. It sucks to have to turn down an invite for cocktails because you have to hand in a 20 page paper in three days. But it sucks even worse to give into the temptation and go out to celebrate and then realize the next day, in a panic, that it was a terrible mistake and that your seminar paper is going to suck, and that you can kiss a good recommendation from this professor goodbye. A bad performance at the end of the semester can really dampen the holiday spirit for good. It is much better to get through it, knowing you did the best you could. But it also would be nice to not have to completely ignore the holiday season until the day that your last paper is due.
    Since I've been at this game for a few years, and have had to endure many Decembers of slugging through the deadline muck while everything else around me seems glowy and cheery, I've developed a little system to get me through it, using the Premack Principle. Yes, it is basic psych 101, but it does work for me. The Premack Principle, identified by behavior psychologist David Premack in 1965, simply states that preferred behaviors (like watching a fun holiday movie while drinking hot chocolate) can be used to reinforce non-preferred behaviors (like grading a stack of papers or finishing a fellowship application.) This is pretty basic stuff -- but if you can get into a habit of doing something preferred after you do something non-preferred, you will increase the probability of getting that non-preferred thing done, for the present and for the future. It's a really good method, for me, of keeping procrastination to a minimum -- knowing that I have to "earn" my holiday treats, one at a time. And the difficulty of each task is matched to the pleasure taken in each reward -- for example, finishing a great paragraph earns me a handful of green and red M & Ms; finishing the paper earns me a Chocolate-Espresso Martini. It may sound oversimplified -- you may be thinking, you still need the discipline to do your work in the first place. That's true -- but, knowing there is a behavioral principle involved somehow makes it easier for me. I tell myself -- use the Premack Principle! -- and I feel as if I am training myself somehow to make work easier in the future. So, keeping in mind the Premack Principle, I though I might provide for my fellow wallowers a handy list of smallish scale activities and treats to reward yourselves with for each little goal accomplished this December, to get you in good holiday spirits but also keep focused on your work!

1.) Hot Chocolate with Whipped Cream -- Get a good kind, that you make on the stove top. The ritual of heating up the milk in a small silver pot, stirring in the hot cocoa mix and then topping with some delicious whipped cream -- and then sitting down to sip and savor -- will be the perfect mental reward for a few good hours spent at the library.

2.) National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation -- airs TONIGHT at 8 and 10 on ABC Family, and next week, too, on Wednesday and Thursday. (You might even grade papers or update your CV during the commercials!)

3.) Holiday Jigsaw Puzzles: It's a tradition in my family to complete the Springbok/ Hallmark 1,000 or 1,500 or 2,000 piece jigsaw puzzles released each year during the holiday seasons. Between my siblings and my parents and me, we could all easily spend hours on end sitting around the table working on the puzzle during the December months. In fact, as a child, I was told that Santa wouldn't come unless we finished the puzzle. At the time, it was an ingenious way to keep us kids at bay while holiday excitement stirred up inside of us. As we got older though, it was one of our most beloved holiday traditions. But during my years in graduate school, I have restricted myself to partaking in the fun ONLY as a reward for doing work. And it works in different scales too; spend time finding just one piece is a good reward for reading 25 pages; sitting down for the evening to finish a whole puzzle is a good reward for handing in a seminar paper. Try it this year as you hand your work in! From my family to yours -- you're welcome.

4.) Mulled Wine (also known as Glögg): One Friday night in the next three weeks, when one final project or paper is done but you still need to tackle final projects for a few other classes, invite a few other grad students over and get a pot of this going on the stove. It's a delicious treat that won't break the bank and that will instill some holiday cheer in you even when another week of writing papers looms ahead of you.
5.) Online Gift Shopping: Often, I have emerged from the end-of-semester rush with only two or three days left to shop for any gifts. And I've found that, when the big day is that close, shopping is the last thing I want to do after I hand in my last paper or submit my students' grades. I want to hang out with my friends and family, not be cooped up in a mall with strangers and food courts. So, do it on your own time, as a work-break, using the wonderful world of the world wide web. Spend some time at night, after you've done your quota of graduate school work for the evening, researching one gift for your parents, or best friend, or niece, or spouse, or son or daughter. If you want to really get wild, order it. You'll feel like you accomplished something "holidayish," and you'll feel festive for thinking of someone else instead of your own pile of work and your professor's red pen. The best part is that you can do it on your on time; even if it takes you until midnight to email that dreary lit review to your professor, the internet stores will be waiting for you, with open arms.

Just my two-cents for the beginning of December -- hang in there, everyone!And remember, you can always read this blog as a tiny reward for doing some work, too! ;) I'll be posting throughout December with fun seasonal Grad.Life tidbits and commentary on the graduate school world!
Until next time, Liza


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