What is a “slow graduate student”? That is what I puzzled over while reading The Slow Professor. Taking inspiration from the Slow Food movement, this book advocates embracing the principles of Slow, to reduce stress and reclaim faculty control over their work.
Two themes of slowing down in academia are particularly applicable to becoming a Slow Grad Student. The first is mindful, deliberate doing, which necessitates doing less. This theme is revealed in the book’s subtitle, “Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy.” Relatedly, Slow Academics also prize collegiality and community.
The authors “advocate for deliberative, imaginative and reflective thought as definitive of a professor’s work and life. Creativity and contemplation … can’t be multi-tasked,” summarized one thoughtful review. You can also read about the book in Inside Higher Ed and University Affairs.
How can graduate students adopt these principles and practices? What is “the slow graduate student?”
People who have the drive to get a PhD tend to be the people who try to pack 10 pounds of apples in a 5-pound bag. It can be tempting to carry that many apples, but sooner or later the bag will burst.
Grad students are super-high achievers. Taking on more research projects, saying “yes” to exciting opportunities, learning new skills, stretching in new directions. And doing everything extremely well. Meeting your own high standards and meeting the expectations of others. Each is an apple. Your bag gets more and more stretched.
Then it bursts!
If you are limited to those that fit into a 5-pound bag, how do you pick the best apples?
Do, do, do. I am a do-er. I have three clipboards with different To Do lists. My husband often laughs that I can’t stop “doing.” Recently, however, I paused and created a To Be list.
My To Be list outlines who and how I try to be in the world. I wrote my To Be list after the untimely death of my sister. There were ways that she lived her life that I wanted to emulate. So I curtailed the number of things that I was doing and focused on how I was being.
Creating a To Be list is important for grad students. Grad school is a time when your professional identity is developing. You are shifting from “I study history” to saying “I am a historian.” (This is one of the reasons that Grad School is Hard.) You may also feel subtle pressure to jettison or hide non-student parts of who and what you are. Many students struggle to hang on to core parts of their pre-grad school identities, or, worse yet, feel compelled to erase them. Creating a To Be list can help you to preserve the essence of yourself.
Yoda, legendary teacher of Jedi knights, famously said, “Do or do not. There is no try.” This might be beneficial for training Jedi, but it is misleading for doctoral students and postdocs. For you, it is all about “Try.”
The binary “Do or Do not” frames the world in stark contrasts. Succeed or fail. Fly or crash. Blow up the Death Star or die. For us mere mortals, failure is not that consequential.
“Do Not.” It’s the decision not to attempt. Choose against testing long odds. Play it safe.
The “Do / Do Not” choice operates for many grad students. When failure seems to be around every corner, when hard work is unlikely to be rewarded, the choice “Do Not” is much easier to make. The high risk of failure acts as a deterrent. Inaction seems prudent.
“Why apply for that Fellowship/job/postdoc? I won’t get it?” “Why offer to run the local Pint of Science festival? I have never done anything like that before. It is sure to be a flop, distract me needlessly from my research, and incur the wrath of my advisor.” “Why apply for a postdoc as a digital humanities specialist? I don’t have all of the skills that they are asking for.”
“Creativity” is not the sole purview of the artistically inclined. “Using your imagination to create something new in the world,” is the definition of creativity-evangelists Tom and David Kelley1. Researchers formulate new explanations, invent new products, conceive methods, and originate insights. Unquestionably creative.
Most of us, sadly, don’t see ourselves as creative. The truth is, say the Kelley brothers, “we are ALL creative.” We have deep reservoirs of creative potential waiting to be tapped.
Confidence, the feeling of self-assurance and trust in one’s ability, is a key ingredient. “Creative confidence is like a muscle,” they assert. With effort, experience, and deliberate practice, your confidence can grow. At the same time, your ability to be innovative and take risks will expand. In their book, Creative Confidence, (and a related TED talk) the Kelleys offer encouragement, examples, and practical tips.
Perfectionist gridlock is being stuck in place for fear of not doing something at the highest level of excellence. It plagues many grad students, perhaps especially those in the humanities. It is bred by the culture of academia, which places a high value on achievement and critique.
Perfectionist gridlock is particularly debilitating in dissertation writing and career decision making.
Traffic gridlock resolves itself slowly, inch by inch. Likewise, students can come unstuck by moving forward in baby steps.