How I Spent My Summer Vacation (and why you should be doing this, too)

Ahhhhhh, summer. After the academic year finally ends, aren’t we all ready for a break? Trips to the beach, to Mexico, camping or backpacking, heading back home to visit the family and catch up with childhood friends, or just resting by the pool or on the couch reading a trashy novel or a magazine or something else entirely unrelated to academia, catching up on TV and films you’ve missed during the year……..

Okay, go ahead. You’ve certainly earned it. But just for a week or two. And I’m not kidding about that, oh Fellow Grad Students. We’re a few weeks into the summer–do you know where your competition is?

Undergraduates can go ahead and take their summers off, if they can afford to do it–but when you are a graduate student, you are in a sort of murky space between student and professional, heading towards professional–and that means treating your summers the way a professional in your chosen field would spend those months. Sadly, most professionals don’t take June through August off, and you shouldn’t, either. Instead, I recommend cultivating a “Four Rs” approach to the months between the spring and fall terms: Relax, Refocus, Review, and Revise.

Well, we’ve got the first one down, right? RELAX. Yes, even the total workaholics need to take some down time. No one can work at full capacity and produce good results all of the time. People take vacations. So, take a vacation. Take two or three vacations. But don’t take the entire summer off. Devote a few weeks to decompressing and unwinding, and then get on with the rest of the Rs.

REFOCUS. This is a good time to think about your goals for yourself as a student, as a scholar, and as a future professional. You’ve got another year under your belt. Maybe you’ve just finished undergraduate work. Graduate school is a different animal entirely–you need to refocus your thinking towards what it will take to be successful at the graduate level. Read articles, books, and blogs about graduate school. Think about the classes you’re signing up for, the subjects you’ll be focusing on. If you are already in graduate school, re-evaluate where you are against where you want to be. What skills do you still need to attain? What courses do you still need to take? What research area(s) do you need to be stronger in? What do you need or want to get on your CV before you hit the job market? What grants/scholarships/fellowships/ other awards are you eligible for and do you want to apply for in the coming year or two? What internships or fellowships do you want or need to undertake? Don’t think “oh, I’ll worry about it in the Fall……” Start coming up with a game plan for the coming year, based on what you’ve already accomplished to date. Your focus as a grad student needs to be on what you need in order to get to the next stage, and the sooner you know what that entails, the better off you are. Take the time summer affords you to regroup, refocus, and move forward with a game plan instead of just plunging into the next term without preparing for it and assuming you’ll figure it all out somehow (hello, Stress City……)

REVIEW. The summer months are a good time to start reviewing what you have studied and read, what you have written, and what you have thought, both as a student and (if you are a TA) as a teacher. Go through your notes for the classes you took the previous year, making special note of anything you’ve studied that is particularly relevant to your own projects. Think about what you are likely to see again, either in other classes you’ll be taking, or on your comprehensive exams, or in terms of articles or papers you would like to write. Consider the bigger themes or ideas that you have been engaging with in multiple classes, and start brainstorming ways to turn those into concrete research or writing projects or conference presentations. If you’re teaching, review your syllabi and any notes you took or journaling that you did over the course of the term, and think about how the class(es) went–what worked, what didn’t work particularly well, and what do you want to do differently next year? Reviewing, or reflecting, on what you have done allows you to make connections and start to synthesize everything you’re doing in graduate school into a “whole picture” that in turn will make it easier to think and write about who you are and what you can bring to the table as a professional when you begin your job search.

REVISE. Finally, with the absence of distractions like teaching and coursework it affords, summer is the optimal time to get your work into the pipeline for publication, or out for essay awards, or revised as writing samples for jobs or further schooling endeavors. Pull out all of the papers you have written for classes and the conference papers you have given, and give them an honest read through. Choose the 2-3 that you think represent your best work so far, and send these to your adviser for review. In consultation with your adviser, choose the one that has the best shot at being published, choose a journal or award to shoot for, and spend the summer polishing that piece–read up on the journal submission guidelines, think about what your essay is currently doing and what you really want it to do, do extra research in the essay’s subject, work with a writing group, and get it to a point where you would be proud to send it out. Then–send it out. The worst thing that will happen is a rejection–hopefully, with helpful reader’s comments to help you revise and resubmit a stronger piece. In a best-case scenario, you’ve got a nice publication or essay award to add to your CV–one that you didn’t kill yourself trying to finish during the academic term.

As you already know if you have been reading this blog, I am spending this summer reading for comps (and I know I owe you a post about my lists, and it is coming, I promise–I just thought this particular post might be more important/helpful for more people.) And I assure you that reading for comps is a full-time job in itself. But that’s not ALL I’m doing. In addition to reading for comps, I’m reviewing and revising my course syllabi so they aren’t stale, rewriting my CV, working on two conference papers, and evaluating what I want and need to do over the next two years to make myself as strong a candidate for positions I’d want as I can be. I’ve also revised and sent off one essay for an essay award, and am working on an article for submission to a journal. I am far from the most industrious person I know. You should see what some of my fellow medieval grad students are up to this summer–fellowships, conferences, archival research–they make me look positively sloth-like!

In short, while it is tempting to consider “summers off” as one of the few perks of graduate school, and while I know many people who consider this “the last hurrah” before “the real world” kicks in, I think that at this level it’s a mistake to take the entire summer off and not so much as glance at your fall schedule until August. Instead, take the time summer affords to relax, refocus, review, and revise your work, and go into the fall term prepared with a game plan aimed at making you the most successful iteration of your student self that you can be. You don’t have to overdo it, but a little preparation and thinking now will pay off in spades come mid-August, and almost certainly using your summers to advantage will make a positive difference for you when you go on the job market.

So, what about you? How are you spending your summer?

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About Melissa Ridley Elmes

I am a medievalist, wife and mother of two who spends her days researching, writing, teaching, painting, singing, dancing, acting and trying to find more hours in a day.
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