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Toxic productivity in grad school

Hey Gaels, I hope all is well!

The school year is really flying by fast, isn’t it? I can’t believe that we’re already mid-way though the semester! It feels like it was just yesterday that I was going through my program orientation and meeting my classmates for the first time.

So, how have I been?The good news is that I have been feeling much more secure about my place in graduate school since my last blog—and for that, I have to give lots of credit to my classmates who did not hesitate to share their own experiences with imposter syndrome with me.

That said, grad school has been BUSY to say the least. I am yet to find a single moment to stand still—even if I was fully caught up with coursework (and I’m not), there would still be additional readings to review, assignments to grade, and potential topics to explore for my thesis. The irony of it all is that I only need to be on campus for a few hours a day, as the first semester of the Epidemiology MSc consists of just two core classes and one elective. The perceived ‘freedom’ of grad school sounds amazing to some (and it does have benefits!). However, the sheer number of hours I am left with to allocate for independent schoolwork places the onus on me to effectively manage my time every day. I have come to realize the importance of being a self-regulated learner and having strong time management skills.

With so much autonomy, so much to plan, and even more to accomplish, I can’t help but ask myself: “Will I ever get time to take a scheduled break?”

There is no doubt that maintaining a healthy work-life balance is essential. Nonetheless, like many students, I sometimes fixate on my academic goals, making my wellness an afterthought. Taking a break is the last thing I want to consider when I am behind in my coursework or unable to complete the tasks on my schedule for a given day. It often feels like I am yet to “earn” a break in this circumstance. If I take a break regardless, my guilty conscience may also remind me of all the work that I could be getting done if I kept working. I know that a dangerous snowball effect can follow when I make my breaks contingent on my productivity. I start skipping meals, inevitably begin cutting down on sleep, productivity slows further, I take even fewer breaks, and so on. The cycle can be endless.

Cartoon of student with head in hands staring at books

In many ways, our education system exacerbates this toxic productivity culture. Many students—myself included, at one time—simplify academic success to earning 4.0+ GPAs (and see anything else as afailure). These marks are important for admission into graduate/professional schools, but are they really everything? Can we define our success and sense of self-worth through these numbers? The grind doesn’t stop there. Even in grad school, I worry that my ability to secure limited research assistantships and grants will be based on the extent to which I produce research while maintaining a high GPA. Overall, there is a prevailing outcome-based mentality towards school that normalizes and even implicitly encourages students to place an extreme emphasis on grades—and this focus can easily detract from one’s well-being, as my experience with taking breaks exemplifies.

So, how can we go about chasing our academic goals without compromising our wellness? Here are three exercises that have helped me escape the toxic productivity trap:

Breaks: understand their value and actually implement them

Even though taking a break feels wrong when there is still work to do, I find that simply having a moment away from schoolwork allows me to return with much better focus. I encourage you to recognize that breaks are likely going to help you accomplish more of your goals in the long run. Keep in mind that a break should ideally be spent doing something you enjoy—I like to pursue my hobbies, which include playing basketball, biking, and learning the piano. Lastly, be as intentional with your break as you can. Schedule a time for your break activity beforehand and do your best to turn your ‘work brain’ off during this period.

Set realistic expectations and acknowledge progress.

In the hopes of maximizing my productivity, I tend to go overboard when constructing my daily to-do-lists. Inevitably, I am unable to complete all my tasks for the day and skip out on breaks, which just leaves me feeling tired and demoralized. However, whenever I create a more realistic daily schedule, I can accomplish all my goals and make time for something fun. That in turn helps me feel much more refreshed and motivated to continue working the next day. In addition to planning for less, I also recommend acknowledging your progress—no matter how small—because doing so will help you recognize how productive you have been.

Redefine your values and self-worth.

When school becomes your everyday life, it’s hard to look beyond it. Our busy schedules compel us to value schoolwork and not find importance in anything else. Many of us are also inclined to romanticize productivity, and subsequently attach our self-worth to our academic success. However, remember that you are so much more than what you study, how much you study, or what the letters on your transcript say. Ask yourself: “Am I focusing my energy on the right things?”

See you next time! And don’t forget to schedule your break today 😀

– Shahnawaz

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Imposter syndrome: you’re not alone

Hi Gaels!

You might have read my last blog, where I talked about how eager I was to be part of a small cohort in graduate school. My expectation was for there to be somewhere between 20–50 students in the Epidemiology MSc program.

Well, things didn’t turn out quite that way. You can imagine how thrilled I was to find out that there are only 12 other students in my cohort! I feel lucky to be able to learn with such a supportive and tight-knit group for the next two years. My graduate lectures are already much more engaging than my undergrad lectures felt by virtue of their emphasis on group activities and discussions at our tables. I also have been able to start developing strong relationships with some of the faculty members and teaching assistants in the program. Around this time last year, I remember questioning whether graduate school was the right move for me. So far, my MSc program has been great!

However, what I am struggling with is imposter syndrome.

On our first day of class, I remember being impressed by the diversity of backgrounds among fellow students in the Public Health Sciences program. Prior to entering grad school, some of my peers had spent years bolstering their work and research experience. Some have even already completed graduate and professional degrees. Almost everyone took at least one epidemiology or public health course during undergrad—and most completed an undergrad degree that seemed more relevant to epidemiology than my psychology major. My sole exposure to epidemiology, however, was in a short module in an elective course in my second year. When I met my classmates, I wasn’t just impressed. I was overawed.

I often look back at my experiences with a negative lens and catch myself dwelling on my apparent “shortcomings”—i.e., specific qualifications that I lack. My tendency to juxtapose my weaknesses with others’ strengths has prompted me to feel “out of place” and “not good enough” for graduate school a few times. In these moments of minor despair, I often wonder: “If so many of my classmates are entering the program with a baseline level of knowledge and experience that I may not have, does that mean I am already behind?” Even when things are going well, my inner critic sometimes interjects: “How long can I keep this up for?”

Many new grad students will have experienced imposter syndrome before; it is common to feel self-doubt and inferiority in academia. I would even argue that you are just about guaranteed to experience imposter syndrome throughout your studies to some extent, regardless of how far you’ve come and how successful you are with your education.  

Graphic showing spaceman and words "the imposter"

I thought it would be helpful to share a few practical suggestions that I have used to ground myself and re-gain confidence when I need it. Feel free to try them out for yourself:

Hear from others: be open about your fears

  • Sharing how you experience with imposter syndrome often compels others to do the same, which is an excellent way to normalize your feelings of self-doubt. Learning that others share your concerns can provide you with a great sense of belonging, and in turn, may help you feel understood. It becomes reassuring to hear from fellow students that “[x] is going to be a challenge, but we will face it together.” Others can also remind us that it is 100% normal (and expected) to not know everything; in turn, you’re doing the same for your classmates.

Think constructively: focus on what you CAN control.

  • Imposter syndrome can stem from the belief that your previous experiences are not good enough. Instead of ruminating on what you could have done differently, try redirecting your thoughts to what you can do now. For example, if a particular class is making you feel like an imposter, you may decide to spend extra time to review your notes, experiment with a new study strategy, or book an academic skills appointment with a specialist.

Practice self-affirmation: acknowledge and embrace your strengths.

  • When feeling inadequate, it feels natural to overlook your positive qualities. Take a moment (or several moments!) to praise yourself for what you have been doing right. Your background may have equipped you with unique strengths that others—including those who you compare yourself against—would ironically feel inadequate about not having. For example, I constantly gloss over the fact that my psychology degree provided me with lots of training and first-hand experience with statistics and research methods, which have both already been key assets for learning many fundamental biostatistical principles. I might be behind in epidemiology, but I’m ahead in these aspects at least.

Finally, keep in mind that YOU were selected for admission to Queen’s. You have already proved that you belong!

So to my fellow graduate and undergraduate students dealing with imposter syndrome: I hear you. You are never alone in your experience. Next time you catch yourself being your worst critic, I would encourage you to do something about it—whether that be one of the strategies I outlined, or something different. And don’t forget you can always talk to the specialists at SASS if you need some extra help.

Until next time,


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