What Counts as Work: Exploring What It Means to Conduct Graduate Studies in a Social and Sustainable Way

ID: An orange tabby cat sleeps curled up in the corner of a lime green couch. A black and brown dog sleeps on the hardwood floor under the couch.

My pets, Joey and Sadie, in my home office.
ID: An orange tabby cat sleeps curled up in the corner of a lime green couch. A black and brown dog sleeps on the hardwood floor under the couch.

This is the fourth post in the Pandemic Methodologies series. See the introductory post for more information.

By Emily Kaliel 

At the beginning of September, I sat down to plan out my fall term schedule and goals. Knowing that my current capacity (as both a history graduate student and as a human) is absolutely diminished by almost two years of a global pandemic, I asked myself: What work can I commit to doing on a weekly basis that is realistic, won’t leave me burnt out, and considers my responsibilities to my family, friends, and the communities I am a part of? I tried to balance knowing that I need to make progress on my PhD work with setting achievable goals.

In my #PMTC presentation this past June, I explored how the isolation of the pandemic exacerbated the isolation I felt as a new graduate student going through comprehensives and as the only incoming PhD that year at an institution across the country from my support networks. I wrote about how that isolation reinforced for me the need for my graduate research to be done in a sustainable and social way to be meaningful (and do-able, to be completely honest).

Even as I tried to keep these realizations in mind as I built the first draft of my fall schedule, I still fell into the trap of prioritizing dissertation research, reading, and my work contracts. These priorities aren’t bad. They are necessary work for completing a PhD. But this prioritization excluded a whole host of other commitments I’d like to engage in this term: organizing a writing group, planning social events, acting as a graduate student mentor, and serving as a graduate student representative on various committees. Why hadn’t I considered these service commitments, which I had originally intended to complete on top of my daily research, reading, and contract work, as work? Especially now that I’ve moved home to Alberta and away from my academic institution in Ontario, shouldn’t a writing group that keeps me connected to other graduate students and keeps us collectively excited and motivated about our research count as work? What about the hours I’ve spent prepping questions for the Graduate Students’ Association monthly virtual trivia night that I host? Or the zoom calls to help familiarize incoming graduate students with the comprehensive process?

These “extraneous” commitments help me progress as a graduate student. They help keep me engaged and excited about the process of completing a dissertation and about the graduate student experience more generally. In my #PMTC presentation I explored how isolation pushed me to prioritize building graduate student support networks. I want academic institutions to recognize that labour, and the time that it takes, in real ways too (though to be honest, I’m not sure what this looks like beyond extending funding beyond the standard four years). Even though I am the one who wrote those words, it took some serious reflection for me to even consider my socially-focused labour as “work” that contributes to the completion of my degree. Now, as I tally my daily hours of work, I do count that labour, not as superfluous but as integral work that helps me progress in my academic endeavours and aligns my actions with my commitment to carry out my graduate studies in a social and sustainable way.

While building my fall schedule, I also tried to think practically about what time I could commit to graduate studies that would lead to sustainable progress on my dissertation without burnout. Being more inclusive about what I considered work has definitely helped me in this regard. But I also committed to taking evenings and weekends off and only expect myself to complete 30 hours of work a week. Reflecting on my mental health and energy levels at this stage in the pandemic and my degree, I know that it is just not possible for me to work 40 hours a week let alone the 60 plus hours I was putting in during comprehensives. (And to be completely truthful, some weeks I don’t even hit 30 hours and I’m trying to be gracious with myself when that happens). Just like I would for contract work as a TA or researcher, I started keeping a timesheet of my daily work and stop working when I hit six hours.

I am not reinventing the wheel. There are many scholars I know who advocate for treating graduate studies as a full-time (but not all-encompassing) job. They say to sit down Monday through Friday, do your work then, and enjoy your evenings and weekends off. For me, maintaining boundaries around free time often feels like an uphill battle. I feel a significant amount of anxiety when I don’t finish my daily to-do list and I worry a lot about my funding expiring. The expectations of academic culture don’t always make maintaining boundaries around free time easy either. During my introduction to graduate school, for example, the grad coordinator shared that when they were in graduate school, they only gave themselves Friday evenings off. When an anecdote like that forms your early understanding of what graduate studies is meant to be, not working every available minute can sometimes feel like both a personal and professional failure.

I’ve tried to align my actions with my pandemic-induced realizations that I need to conduct my graduate studies in a social and sustainable way. I’m trying to reconceive what I count as work and maintain realistic work expectations and boundaries for myself. As I write this, I have the feeling that these thoughts are not necessarily original or particularly poignant. But personally, they feel quite radical. For a person who has identified themselves with the work they produce, who has a strong allegiance to academia despite the ways that my labour is devalued, and who still feels a significant amount of shame for not meeting prescribed productivity benchmarks, putting these values into actions has helped me to free myself from some of the toxic aspects of my relationship to academia. It’s helped me move away from that addictive gratification I get from the academic grind, from identifying as someone who can balance a million commitments and deliver all of them exceptionally well. Ultimately, it’s helping me flourish as a person whose status as a graduate student only makes up one part of their identity, and that feels like both a healthier and more productive way for me to approach graduate school.

Emily Kaliel (she/her) is a History PhD Candidate at the University of Guelph studying the connections between settler colonialism, nutrition science, and landscape alteration in the Canadian prairies.

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