Surviving Grad School: Tips for a Restorative and Productive Semester Break

Within the first weeks of graduate school, students are bombarded with a slew of readings, assignments, and directives to start formulating a research topic. The constant and intensive workload leads many to wake up during the first few days of a university-scheduled break with the feeling that they need to continue the grind of academia. Questions begin to swirl: Am I forgetting something? Am I doing enough? Should I keep working? I am no stranger to this feeling.

This piece offers advice on how to make the most of your breaks. As a graduate student in his final year of studies, I have gone through several summers and winters with each taking a different form. I hope that by sharing my experience and discussing the potentials of these breaks, it helps you to consider some of these strategies in order get the most out of your graduate school experience and make semester breaks more manageable and less stressful.


Rest is the most important thing to do during breaks. Too often people work through their breaks at the sacrifice of physical and mental health. It is easy to become jaded or burnt out from daily grind of graduate school. You need to allow yourself to relax and recharge. It’s called a “break” for a reason!

Rest can take a plethora of forms including: detaching from schoolwork, spending time with friends, picking up a hobby, reading for fun, working out, and/or traveling. Taking a break allows you to return to your work with a fresh mind and may help you with copy editing, organization, and formulating your arguments. Consider reading some fiction, which exposes you to a different approach to writing. You learn new styles, new ways to phrase things, and who knows, perhaps whatever you are reading will help inform your analysis and teaching someday. Scholarly monographs can serve the same purpose but turning your history brain off once in a while helps to reset the system.

Other experiences you have during these breaks can inform your teaching and work in other ways too. After going on a cross-country road trip with my brother, I decided to develop a course about the history of United States National Parks. I combined my interest in hiking and the wonder of the natural world with my teaching. Use your break to get out of the confines of your office or classroom and into whatever helps you rest and recharge.


If you’re adequately rested, breaks are the perfect time to conduct archival research. You often develop a research topic during the semester but teaching duties usually get in the way of traveling to archives. Your topic may change over time, especially since new routes of analysis constantly spring to life in the archives! If you’ve passed your exams and prospectus defense, you will likely conduct the bulk of your research over the summer and winter. This is particularly true for anyone needing to travel internationally. Keep an eye out for grants and departmental awards you can apply for in order to support any archival travel.


After you have completed a great deal of research, you can present your findings and writings at conferences. Many graduate student conferences and a range of regional and specialized conferences often take place throughout the regular semesters. However, some, such as my home conference—the American Political History Conference—occur over the summer months. Conferences allow you to network and develop your own research. The questions asked by scholars outside of your field can push you to think in new ways. My own research has developed because of some of the questions I encountered at conferences.

Furthermore, networking enables you to connect with other graduate students and senior scholars from around the world. If there is not a conference for you to attend during the semester break, use the time to develop a conference proposal, put together a panel, or work on a conference paper, knowing that you will likely be too busy during the upcoming semester to put the time and effort into these when the annual due dates roll around.


Teaching is another way to spend your summer or winter break. Your department may offer you the chance to teach a survey course, or, if you are lucky, an upper division course in your specialty. This is not only a great learning experience, but also a great line to have on your CV. Teaching a summer course allows you to prepare and develop your materials, lectures, and ideas for a full semester. Depending on the format, online or in person, the experience is low-pressure and allows for some trial and error. Additionally, it provides you with some summer funding to keep up with rent and any travel expenses for research and conferences that grants may not have covered.

Exam Prep

One thing most graduate students have in common is the fear of their qualifying exams. Whether they are comprehensive exams or, in some cases, preliminary exams, the process remains the same: you read upwards of 200 books, sometimes more, take a written exam for each of your fields, and complete an oral exam that can last up to two hours. While the timing of your exams will be program specific, many graduate students start their reading over the winter or summer. If you believe using the summer to prepare for comps is best for you, ask your adviser if you can take your exams in August or how you can use the summer months to get ahead on reading for the upcoming exam.  Sometimes a professor will do a directed reading with you and those books will count towards your list.  

What will your break look like?

Each person’s break will look different depending on their financial situation and their year in the graduate school program. You may feel the need to go full bore on staying up to date with your field, presenting your work, and teaching. However, the major takeaway I want you to find here is to have “me time.” In my program, we were encouraged to take one day a week to separate ourselves from classwork. Often before a class session started, we along with the professor would have a check in or chat about what we were all doing aside from course work.

These “breaks” are necessary. To not spin out in the final years of your program, do your best to take the time to rest and refresh. Take up that hobby, put the scholarly books down, visit a national park, and do not worry about what so and so historian has said about your field of history. At the end of the day and the end of the break, you will be rejuvenated and ready to get back to work. Hopefully, you will have built in some “me time” habits that can carry into the semester too.

Featured Image: Credit to Devan Lindey.

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