After 22 years as a student or professor on semester systems where fall semester runs mid August to mid December, I feel pretty confident saying that November is the most stressful month in this semester, and possibly the entire academic year (April, the spring parallel month, is also a contender). Early in my career as a professor, I remember fantasizing about November/April overnight camps for academic children, where I could send my children just for these months, to make them a little less overwhelming. While the reality is that I would probably miss my kids too much to actually do this even if it existed, I have spent a lot of time thinking about how to make these months more manageable, and I wanted to share these thoughts in this post. Some of these items are easy to implement on an individual level, whereas others require long-term structural change. For me, it’s important to take this whole range into consideration, so I can get some immediate relief while also advocating for structural changes.
On the individual level, these are the things that have helped me:
Get more sleep
This reverses the typical trend this month, which is to cut into sleep to catch up, or to be unable to sleep well due to stress and looming deadlines. I recently did this myself, pushing my alarm clock back to 6am from 5:30. This did mean I had to shift my morning workouts to other times/days, but that extra half hour has made getting through the day with focus much, much easier. The reality is just that the more I do, the more sleep I need, and I can’t ignore this. This also gives me more of a buffer if I lose sleep quality due to stress.
I’ve talked about the importance of buffer time before, and how I generally like to leave around an hour buffer time each day, a day each week, and a month each semester (May and December). While I admit I’m rarely successful at hitting this 100%, even getting to around 80% makes a big difference as the things I didn’t know about yet when I made my plan start to show up.
Nothing extra happens in April and November
For years, this has been a mantra I’ve told myself to prevent these months from becoming overwhelming, it makes my default answer no to almost everything. Once more, I don’t do this perfectly, but it definitely helps to have this in mind when I get asked to do things. It also gives more space for things I agreed to do earlier to get scheduled into these months if necessary. Recently, I’ve seen references to “No-vember” (not by academics either!) so maybe this is important for everyone,.
Expect it, but don’t accept it
Structurally, the semester system is set up to become overwhelming and stressful at certain points in a very predictable pattern. While we could debate whether it has to be this way, I am always surprised by how many people view these months as unexpectedly stressful. If we shift to knowing that the stress is coming, it’s possible to make it more manageable. At the same time, I don’t think we have to accept being completely overwhelmed in these months as inevitable, which is another pattern I sometimes see. Sure, some months will always be busier than others, but they don’t need to be consistently maxing out our stress levels.
Does everything have to last the whole semester?
With this question, we move into the structural issues portion of my thoughts on this. Sixteen to seventeen weeks is a long time, and I sometimes wonder if it would be better to split projects, committees, classes into just parts of the semester. I’ve heard from friends on quarter systems that these seem a little more manageable, and also of innovative programs where instead of taking 4-5 classes for a whole semester, students take 1-2 classes intensively for a month. This honestly sounds terrible for a language class, where you need consistency over time, but it seems like it could work well for other classes, or committees, or specific projects. This would take institutional buy-in, and some flexibility for different types of projects, committees, and classes, but it’s definitely an interesting idea to me.
Earlier, I discussed buffers in terms of personal planning, but I think it’s worth thinking about what could happen at an institutional level as well. While there are usually Fall/Spring Breaks in the middle of the semester, my experience is that most people see these as a time to catch up, rather than an actual break. Is there a way to make them more like breaks? Or, is it possible for the institution to avoid scheduling extra events and projects in predictably stressful months?
For whatever reason, a lot of conferences I attend also seem to fall in November and April, or during the Fall/Spring “breaks”. While I realize not everyone is on the semester system, and that times also vary according to region of the U.S. and world, this is a pretty dominant system, so it’s surprising to me that this happens. While I can’t change conference schedules, I have started to take this into consideration when planning which conferences I might want to attend, and avoiding those in November and April.
So, those are my thoughts on taking the stressful edge off of November! If you’ve tried these, or have additional tips or thoughts about the stressful months in your academic calendar, or have been successful in creating structural change, I’d love to hear them!