Undergraduates, you cannot do it all!

DSC01359I asked the summer undergraduates in our group what they were going to do outside of class and research this coming fall. One is an officer in one of the big festivals. We have Diwali, Lunar New Year, and Carnaval for starters and her job will be a big one. Another sheepishly said that she was involved in several big activities. She had applied for them and did not expect to get them all. Another is a resident associate in her dorm, responsible for a floor full of sophomores. It doesn’t end there. One graduate student told me of volunteer duties so comprehensive that research had to be done at night.

Where does it stop? What is the right amount of scheduled activity outside of class? Athletes may have 30 scheduled hours a week, or even more with out of town games. It is not rare for a student to be involved in five or six activities. Why do they do it? Why let someone else tell you how to use even more of their time than is already necessary with classes and research? What is lost?

Sleep is one of the first things to go. All the exhausted students curled up in the library, or nodding off in class is one indication. There are so many studies on the importance of sleep, that I can’t imagine why a student would voluntarily decide to feel terrible. What activity is so important that sleep should be sacrificed? Even if everyone else is doing it, you should not.

Are students afraid that if they don’t participate in everything possible they will not get the most out of college? Does med school only take students that have done too much? What is enough? I can tell you right now that one or two activities and some research is plenty. Don’t do more. Leave time for yourself. After all, you have a lot to figure out, things that will impact your future.

The thing is, you really can’t do it all. You will be the one that loses first. You will be tired, do a poor job, or be so busy pleasing other people and letting them define you and your time that you won’t get to know that most important person of all: yourself. So find a bit to do, not too much, and remember that time alone is important and precious. Happy fall!


About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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