In the Depths of Winter, a First-Year Gerontology PhD Student Starts Planning For Summer

This is another in an occasional series of stories about the academic experiences of a first-year UMass Boston gerontology PhD student.

By Caitlin Connelly

One semester down, many more to go. Looking ahead, I need to make an important decision about the best way to spend my summer. This is a question that students are faced with throughout their academic career.

There are many options rattling around in my mind and the choice between them feels hazy. Like most students, I have lots of interests and concerns that pull me in different directions. Do I follow my wanderlust and spend time traveling or do I help plant my roots here in Boston? I would like to gain research experience but how do I go about doing that? Should I spend time productively or give myself a little break after a strenuous academic year? How do I continue paying my bills? Are workshops and conferences worth the investment of money and time?

I reached out to some faculty and more experienced students to ask them for advice about how to determine a path I should take.

The common thread throughout all advice: Money matters. “First and foremost, everybody has to keep paying the rent,” said Gerontology Department chair Jeffrey Burr. “Ideally, income would be related to program of study.”

Associate professor Kathrin Boerner also acknowledged this. She suggested thinking about the summer question as a two-part decision. “There is the component of what do you need in terms of money-making and there’s the component of what you want to learn,” she said.

Jeff described many different roles students have taken on during summer breaks. Some of the possibilities included internships in the policy world or elsewhere, academic workshops and work as assistants to faculty. Often, there is more than one answer to the summer break question. “You’re probably going to end up piecing some things together,” Jeff said.

I also talked with Karen Kim, a UMass Boston gerontology PhD candidate, to find out what she has done with her summers. She has completed the coursework portion of the program and is now in the dissertation phase of her PhD process. Karen said she had spent her summers as an assistant to a few different professors. Last year, she also attended the American Psychological Association conference in August.

Karen felt that summer becomes increasingly important as the years go on. “Attending conferences is a more recent thing as I’ve advanced in the course,” she said. “I’ve looked for ways that I can spend the summer on top of just working. It’s important as you advance in the course that you look for ways to really make the best use of the time.”

But what about students in earlier stages of their studies? Kim’s advice: “Congratulate yourself — you’ve finished your first year. Go on a vacation or something like that because from then on, summer after your second year, third year, summer becomes more and more important.”

Jeff agreed that a student’s summer plans shouldn’t focus exclusively on work. “I would encourage graduate students to find some downtime, recharge the batteries,” he said.

Personally, I’m still figuring it out. But it’s reassuring to hear voices telling me to balance the personal and professional this summer. I look forward to having the time to learn more on my own terms while also finding ways to recharge and gear up for the years ahead.

A note to readers: Many students are thinking about the same kinds of summer-break questions as those on Caitlin Connelly’s mind. Do you have any advice for them? Use the comment bubble at the top of this story to add your thoughts.

 

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