28 Days Later; or, how to survive the summer as a postgraduate

Thomas Bray

Let’s imagine for moment (and I do mean ‘imagine’, don’t try this at home) that you were to wake up, á la Danny Boyle’s post-apocalytic fright-fest 28 Days Later, in the  middle of campus, the fifth floor of the library, to be precise. You glance at your wrist, but your watch is missing. You have no recollection of your surroundings, no idea what the HVs and the JFs all mean. Searching around for an exist, you stumble down the stairs and out past the Help Desk, deftly hurtling the barriers sans library card.

Outside, the sun is casting long shadows across campus. Save for the magpies hopping around the rooftops, you are the only soul present. Deep, deep inside your mind there is the faint recollection that this ‘Library Road’ was once filled with people…but you shake it off. That was another you, in another time. Your hands retreating into your pockets, you tiptoe through the ‘Arts Centre’, marvelling at the unpeopled chairs and sofas, so colourful, so lonely. Then, finally, out onto the piazza. Here there is the detritus of humanity, crisp packets blowing in the wind, an empty can of non-branded cola. This is a landscape recently touched by people, but no longer. This amphitheatre once held lovers, friends, pigeons, but now…just you. You sit on the cold, damp concrete, and cover your face with your hands. Your weary sobs echo around the empty chambers of the Union, the aisles of Rootes Grocery, the battered walls of the bus-stop.

an external view of the library and Café Library, with blue skies and trees.
Campus during summer can be a litter, err, scarce…. Image Credit: University of Warwick.

Now, I am not saying that campus in the summer feels like the scene of a zombie apocalypse…and yet that is exactly what I am saying.

At such a time, it can be hard to keep the motivation going. I am sure that I do not just talk for myself when I say that the hum and buzz of a campus in rude health can be helpful for the ticking brain. Take a walk around in late October, and people are doing things, social things, academic things, wandering around with lacrosse sticks and library books. The whirr of the machine oils wonderfully the cogs of the postgraduate brain. This is an environment where opinions and ideas, formulae and fun are all jostling for position, and you cannot help but get stuck in. Yes, you may have many, many more commitments, but it is all energising, it all carries you along in the pursuit of getting stuff done.

Only two months earlier, however, the deafening silence and utter emptiness of these corridors built for the masses make for an insurmountable mental block. You have time, you have space, to do all the things you couldn’t get around to during term-time. All the marking, the omnipresent patter of seminars and talks, the daily crush of the bus, these all conspired to stop you thinking, to stop you making that much-needed breakthrough. Now, though, alone in your office without anyone to come and knock and disturb, you are at peace to do your best work.

Daffodils in the foreground with blue skies, tress, and some buildings in the background.
…but can also be absolutely beautiful. Image credit: University of Warwick.

One problem, though: it ain’t happening.

Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t think so: after all, the adage goes, if you want something done, give it to a busy person. It is paradoxical that the emptiness of the summer holidays, which would seem to invite progress, are actually quite the struggle. Keeping the spirits up is half the battle, so here are some ideas which I have found useful in surviving the long summer of postgraduate life. I will freely admit, though, that I still find it difficult to keep focused, so any suggestions will be much appreciated.

First of all, the summer can be very useful to get the practical things out of the way. Your movements are less restricted than normal, so now is the ideal time for research trips. One of the most common complaints about such trips is that they often involve days, even weeks, spent in a strange, unfamiliar place, and necessitate long hours, usually waking early for travel. Relish, then, the extra hours of sunlight: raising at six in the morning is easier if it isn’t still depressingly dark outside. In addition, destinations tend to be a bit livelier in the summer: in my case, Chester proved to be much more fun in July than in November, with the result that my happy brain was content to continue apace its academic quests.

Secondly, keep the routines. It may sound trite, but keeping term-time hours will help you maintain term-time habits. This does not just mean your working habits, but also the social ones. If you and your colleagues like to head to the pub of a Thursday evening, there is no reason to drop the schedule just because it is the summer. All of this will also help you make the transition back to term-time behaviour in early October.

Thirdly, celebrate the little victories. If you set out to do something, and then manage it, this is no small achievement. One of the best rewards, in my experience, is to start pleasurable projects. If there is a book you have been dying to read for months, now is the time to start. If you and your friends fancy walking all day through the finest Warwickshire countryside, well, there is no finer time of year. The simple fact that you are keeping active, that you are keeping your mind sharp at a time when you could easily let it drift, is something to be gleefully acknowledged.         

Finally, give your brain a rest. No-one is able to go for three years without taking some time out, and sometimes you need some time away from your work to enable you to return refreshed and prepared to overcome some of the more difficult challenges. It can be difficult to find the time to step a step back during the intensity of term-time, so use at least some of the holidays to recharge your cognitive batteries. Although it may be tempting to sit and stare at a laptop screen or a journal or a test-tube all day, a good, productive rest (by which I mean absolutely NOT doing work, doing anything but work, for a decent amount of time) will be beneficial in the long run. Then, when you do decide to return to your research, you will be fresh and you will (hopefully) have fresh ideas.

All of this might go some way to helping you through the summer months. Of course, these are just some of the outcomes of my own experience, and although I have been a postgraduate for what feels like a very long time, I am still but a drop in the pool of wisdom compared to the might of the collective thoughts of the postgraduate community, so please, fire away with your suggestions.

Oh, and if anyone now feels like staging the first scenes from famous zombie movies every Friday, I sense this could well become a thing. Much improved would be the week which went: research, teaching, research, marking, supervision, fighting off the hoards of the almighty undead. It may just be my summer-addled brain talking, but I tend to think that the impending annihilation of humankind might help me to meet my deadlines.

Worth a try? Answers on a postcard, please.

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