The 120 Day Project
May 12, 2008 3:42 PM   Subscribe

What Would You Do With 120 Days?

This summer I have 120 days to study for my PhD program's qualifying exams (in international relations and statistics). Passing the qualifying exams is a huge deal in my program and a significant number of people fail.

Obviously I will be spending a large part of each day studying. But, aside from that I have nothing to do: no job, no ongoing research projects, no class, no social life. My lovable wife is a medical student with very long work hours and I will not get to see her much.

If you were me, what would you do during those 120 day to make yourself, your career, and/or your life better?

If it helps, I live in San Francisco.
posted by chrisalbon to Work & Money (20 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Take a yoga class?
posted by metahawk at 3:49 PM on May 12, 2008

Don't obsess with maximizing the value of the 120 days - as long as you do more than sit in front of the computer/TV, you're miles ahead of most people. Read lots of books on topics which you don't know about. Learn how to play pool. Take up running. Whatever. Mostly, don't get so wrapped up in finding ways to make your life better that the original goal of these 120 days, passing your qualifying exams, becomes more of a chore than it needs to be.
posted by pdb at 3:55 PM on May 12, 2008

I would take up an instrument or spend some time hiking and just getting out - reading all those books you've always meant to but never had the time for would be great, if you weren't already spending much of the day studying.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 4:14 PM on May 12, 2008

what would you do during those 120 day to make yourself, your career, and/or your life better?

I would try and spend every waking hour outside. Go to parks, go for hikes, hang around coffee shops all day and watch people, spend plenty of time in pubs... whatever tickles your fancy. Take a wood working class. Learn a martial art. The basic equation is this: whatever gets you outside is good. Whatever keeps you inside is bad.

If it helps, I live in San Francisco.

Outside. Ten... twenty years from now, that's what you really would want.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 4:18 PM on May 12, 2008 [2 favorites]

I see from your posting history that you get daily exercise and maybe stretching, and historically did a lot of biking. Maybe not so much biking now that you're just studying. If you are up for it, join a gym and, depending on where you're starting from, get less fat, or un-fat, or totally cut. Or whatever. Transform yourself. Be that guy who goes away to become a ninja in order to avenge his family's death.

If you already have the physique of an action hero, disregard. Instead, study the foreign language you are most likely to use. If you don't already have Spanish chops, get some, because hey, you live in California and it's not going out of style. Check out some instructional CDs from the library, watch Univision and Mexican YouTube, hang out at your neighborhood bodega... whatever. And if you're already down with EspaƱol, what's the next most-likely useful language to you that you're not a champ in?
posted by mumkin at 4:21 PM on May 12, 2008

Passing the qualifying exams is a huge deal in my program and a significant number of people fail . . . what would you do during those 120 day to make yourself, your career, and/or your life better?

Um, studying.

I'm in your position right now getting ready for my orals - I'm even in the Bay area! Not to be too pedantic, but my job right now - and yours - is studying. I'm getting ready so I pass my orals the first time, and it isn't even all that big of a deal in my program if you fail (and only about 5% people fail anyway).

Concentrate on studying.

Have a great work/life balance, and do things that will help you study more effectively (regular exercise, eating healthily) but don't take on any huge new projects.
posted by arnicae at 4:37 PM on May 12, 2008

posted by chrisalbon This summer I have 120 days to study for my PhD program's qualifying exams (in international relations and statistics). Passing the qualifying exams is a huge deal in my program and a significant number of people fail. Obviously I will be spending a large part of each day studying. But, aside from that I have nothing to do: no job, no ongoing research projects, no class, no social life.

What should you do with your free time? Study. If you are fortunate enough to have nothing else to do besides study for your qualifying exams, then you should, without question, spend the next 120 days studying for your qualifying exams. Every free moment you have should be dedicated to studying for your qualifying exams so you are not one of the people who fail.
posted by optovox at 4:38 PM on May 12, 2008

Bah, no one can study every waking hour. Even if you try you'll lose productivity.

Get outside x1000. It's summer. Get outside even if it just means taking a book and sitting in a park.
posted by loiseau at 4:58 PM on May 12, 2008

I studied for my comps last summer. Most of the day you'll be studying. Don't underestimate how tiring studying can be; it is exhausting and you seriously might just want to veg after a full day of it and read something fun, watch TV, etc. If you're studying hardcore during the week, then you can take weekends off and do some of the things suggested above. Get outside and exercise everyday. See friends who aren't in the program so that you can talk about something other than comps. Take advantage of whatever cool things are going on in SF during the summer -- festivals, concerts, etc. Good luck!
posted by pised at 4:59 PM on May 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

Read a good book. Kidding!

I'd look on this as an opportunity to really get a handle on being completely self-directed. So many people, when faced with a large amount of free time, are just unable to establish the discipline necessary to do what they want. It's like people who win the lottery but don't know how to handle the influx of money. You have the opportunity to establish good habits that will put you in good stead later on, so focus on what you want to be and do after the 150 days are up. There are lots of aphorisms about how long it takes a habit to form (30 days, 3 months...), but really, that's what I'd be doing.

As to what habits to form, that's up to you. It could be physical fitness, work/life balance, getting outside, quality of time with your spouse, lifelong learning - whatever you feel like you're missing.
posted by Paragon at 5:19 PM on May 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

Do something structured, or you'll wind up watching TV and surfing the internet. Take a class or get a volunteer gig or create some art or pursue some kind of quest or SOMETHING.
posted by desuetude at 5:21 PM on May 12, 2008

Just study, but try and mix up the environment a little bit. One day at home, one day at the library, the next at the park, the next at the beach. I'd probably rest on the fifth day, which will give you the opportunity to catch up with administrative tasks at home and so forth, as well as giving your brain some breathing space to allow the material to sink in.

No reason you can't throw your books and so forth into a satchel, cut yourself a lunch, bike across town in the morning, find somewhere to study, then bike back in the evening. Or start to condition yourself for what will likely be the dreaded Commute: give yourself a specific place to be and a specific time to be there every morning.

But get plenty of exercise and make sure you eat properly. For extracurricular reading material I'm tempted to suggest that you stick with light fluffy stuff, as anything too dense requiring too much thought might screw with your synapses.
posted by turgid dahlia at 5:35 PM on May 12, 2008

Do something you enjoy. Try not to take up any new, challenging hobbies. If you're like me, you'll think and read about it night and day and won't have time for anything else.

Do you like to exercise? Get fit. Rip yourself some nice abs or something.

Exercise in the morning. Study during the day. Get a strong Netflix queue going. Pick up some interesting novels. Go to bed early. Repeat. Join a gym and frequent bookstores and movie theaters in the early evenings or off days so you can be around other humans.
posted by LoriFLA at 6:18 PM on May 12, 2008

Perhaps you could be the founder/organizer a support group "For students who have a big test looming at the end of summer".

Everyone in the support group would meet, at say, 8am, then walk over to the library, and study for a couple hours. They'd have a picnic lunch together on the grass, return to the library, and study some more. Around 3pm, the group would go for a run, or swim, or bike, or something. A couple times a week, they'd visit a museum, or whatever. It would be open to people from undergrad, grad, even high school.

Basically, a summer camp for big kids, to help them not be so lonely and unproductive.

btw, I intend to organize something like this myself, one day. I think it will make the world a better place. Summers are awfully fucking lonely.
posted by proj08 at 7:03 PM on May 12, 2008 [2 favorites]

I agree with the people who say that you should study as much as you humanly can. Your exams sound immensely important and they should be your top priority and job.

Outside of that, I'd say go for activities that are social, low-commitment, and flexible. In your shoes I wouldn't want to get involved in clubs with mandatory attendance, gaming that can get addictive, or hobbies requiring lots of practice time that could get distracting. I'd go for things like yoga and exercise classes, choirs, book clubs, and other activities where you can just show up to do it and then guiltlessly not show up if studying takes priority.

What about dancing? I'm a fan of it (folk dancing, salsa, etc.) because you have to stay engaged and you don't have idle brain time to worry about other stuff. Learning how to dance is a great social investment for down the line, too.
posted by cadge at 7:22 PM on May 12, 2008

I'm gonna say go mountain biking. It has one huge advantage as a fitness activity when your brain is overworked, namely that if you choose anything but a beginner trail, your brain is too busy figuring out how to get over the next log and/or avoid the next rock to think of anything else. Consequently, an hour or so of mountain biking is pretty much the equivalent of a full colonic flush, only for your brain.

(A lot of people with high-pressure jobs seem to MTB, maybe for this reason).

120 days is plenty of time to improve your skills and endurance massively. It's also quite a social sport in the sense that you start to get to know the people who ride your local trails, and it requires no pre-planning whatsoever, in that you simply put on your shorts and throw the bike in the back of the truck at any time you please. And you can do it with a cheap bike too.
posted by unSane at 7:23 PM on May 12, 2008

I was in a similar position last summer except I was doing thesis research. You'll be really surprised at how fast the summer is going to go, especially if you add in daily domestic stuff like laundry, cleaning and preparing meals.

The biggest temptation for me last summer was to sleep late because I didn't have anywhere I was supposed to be. I made myself get up and get dressed by 8am. To break the monotony of being at home/library researching and writing, I used to meet up with other grad students from my program who were in similar situations. We'd meet once a week at 8am for coffee and just talk, vent and give each other support. I also regularly met up with friends in the evenings to have dinner or get a drink.

I also started volunteering at a cultural institution one morning every week.

Incorporate some exercise into your daily schedule. Go spend some time outside every day.
posted by pluckysparrow at 7:30 PM on May 12, 2008

Your job this summer isn't to improve yourself, it's to study and not go bonkers in the process.

The big picture: do stuff you enjoy, whatever that is. Even if it's stuff you're embarrassed about; you don't have to tell everyone here that you spent your free time in the summer watching all of Neon Genesis Evangelion or honing your Combine-killing skills.

Smaller picture:

(1) Don't have *any* schedule conflicts with your wife. You can study when she's gone.
(2) Whatever else you do, pick a couple-few things that you can for real and no-shit do for 10 minutes to a half hour. Study breaks.

Other picture:

There is no substitute for writing answers to old comps. These have the added bonus of being timed, so you can study in the morning, have a break, and then write a question.

Also, don't expect superhuman cramming. Most people, even enterprising young grad students as yourself, can't do really hard intellectual work for more than 6-8 hours a day over a long-term basis. The point being, don't plan on being able to get 80 hours/week of studying in.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:01 PM on May 12, 2008

I suggest some kind of exercise, for example biking or jogging. This is a great way to see San Francisco in the summer time; I used to ride my bike all over town and up into Marin. It's also a great way to counteract the blahs that come from sitting hunched over a bunch of books and papers.
posted by ikkyu2 at 11:13 PM on May 12, 2008

I think you should do small projects that you can complete relatively quickly. Learn to make proper sourdough, small-scale carpentry, crafty goodness, knitting, small home decor projects... it'll keep your productivity up during your downtime and also give you the frequent completion satisfaction that studying lacks.

Also sit on the beach and read [non-school-related] books. That's what I'd be doing if I ever had any time off.

good luck!
posted by rhinny at 12:54 AM on May 13, 2008

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