Against Overwhelm: Keeping Sight of the Big Picture

By Maria LaMonaca Wisdom

Woman at easel.

As many of you know, this fall I’ve begun coaching small interdisciplinary groups of doctoral students. Some of the students are just figuring out Duke, having been here for only two months. Others are wrapping up programs of six and seven years in duration, wondering what comes next. Others are adjusting to the new and unfamiliar lack of structure that marks the dissertation proposal stage.

It’s the students who set the topics and agenda for each coaching session, and you might imagine a wide diversity of topics. In some sense this is true. However, there’s one topic that gets more air time than any other, because almost everyone is feeling the need to talk about it.

It’s a bit hard to articulate, and students come up with different terms for it. Sometimes it comes out as a need for “time management,” or the imperative to “set priorities.” Other times it comes across indirectly and nonverbally, as an overwhelmed student describes what her current challenges are.

Some report feeling over-extended, distracted, and unfocused. There are too many demands on their time, and not enough hours in the day. And it doesn’t seem to matter whether students are in their first year or seventh, whether they are in their mid-twenties or pushing forty, whether they live on their own, with a partner, or with one or more children. Everyone has too much going on, and that general sense can feel like an enormous wall on some days.

Of course, this condition isn’t unique to academics. High-achieving people confront overwhelm in every field. In the arena of leadership training, the imperative for busy professionals to set and maintain direction is called keeping one’s “eyes on the horizon,” and it’s become something of a cliché. But whether it’s the horizon or simply The Big Picture, graduate school seems diabolically designed to prevent you from focusing on it. Just moving from one class assignment or paper deadline to another, from a set of fellowship applications to a big job application, from one section of the dissertation to the next can be all-consuming. It can be easy to lose sight of the most critical things you need to do to move forward, and also (after you’ve had your head in the weeds for a while), even why you’re doing them, and maybe even what you hope to take away in the end.

I’ve written about the issue of grad student overwhelm before, and heard students articulate it in other settings. However, the group coaching format has provided students with two powerful tools with which to confront it. The first is dedicated time (in this case, six hours over a two-month period). Paradoxically, feeling overwhelmed is a sign that you need to slow down (not speed up!), step back, and assess the situation.

Even more valuable, however, is that students can assess the things on their plates with the support of peers. Too often we consider this activity a private matter. It’s normal, even expected, to lament publicly about how busy you are—that makes you look important! Less common are open conversations about underlying struggles—competing demands, feelings of incompetence, uncertainty, procrastination, or burnout. Truly successful people don’t experience these things…right?

It’s been gratifying to watch students—even after just two coaching conversations—approach these big questions, discuss them candidly, and develop their own customized toolboxes for navigating their way. And in the spirit of fostering a culture where we can talk more openly about the challenges of graduate training, I share here (with permission) a couple of resources that coaching group members have already reported finding helpful.

There is, first and foremost, the challenge of making each day (or enough of the days!) productive. After one coaching conversation, James Budinich, a third-year PhD student in Music, started applying a very simple, classic tool—commonly referred to as an “Eisenhower Matrix,” to help him prioritize the many items on his to daily to-do list. Among other things, he reports, the matrix reminds him that not everything on his list is equally urgent.

Perhaps more critical, however, are tools that help with long-range planning. For the current coaching program, I ask students to set a large goal by the end of the semester, and to set intermediate goals at three-week intervals. Sam Hunnicutt, a second-year PhD student in Romance Studies, sought a tool to help him make important decisions about where to focus his time in the next few years. He returned to a follow-up coaching session reporting great success with the “My Plan” feature of Imagine PhD.

Likely, many of you know of ImaginePhD as a resource to help humanities PhD students explore different kinds of careers. So if you’re not actively in career exploration mode, it would be very easy to overlook the “My Plan” feature, which allows you to drag-and-drop important academic and professional goals and milestones into a timeline of up to seven years. Sam generously shared a screenshot of his “My Plan” in progress, shown below.

And here’s an overview of the different categories for which you can assign items to your personal PhD timeline:

If you’ve not already done so, consider what would help you shift from “next deadline” mode (if you happen to find yourself in one) to a more proactive “Big Picture” mindset.

You may decide to apply the Imagine PhD “My Plan” or a similar tool into your long-range planning, and consider it done. If, however, the process of setting everything down generates larger questions or simply more overwhelm, consider reaching out to trusted colleagues and mentors to help support your process. “My Plan” and the IDP (Individual Development Plan) it was modeled on are also meant to generate productive conversations between doctoral students and their advisors.

When’s the last time you spoke with your advisor, about a two, three, or four year plan? If it’s been a while and this seems like a good idea, what do you need to do to make that happen?