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The Grad Student’s Week-Before-Christmas Guide to Cheap, Awesome Gifts

16 Dec

You meant to do your shopping early this year, you really did. But grad school reared its ugly head, the ol’ bank account isn’t looking too hot, and they say that Christmas is happening next week. Not that you would know – your perpetual presence in your windowless basement office prevents you from accurately judging the passage of time.


1. Panic! Panic hard!

2. Check out the ideas on the following list.


Modified board game. I’ve been on both the giving and receiving end for this one, and it makes a pretty hilarious present. Here’s what you do: Go to a thrift store, buy an old board game, and use craft supplies to modify it in a way that makes it specifically pertinent to the recipient. A couple years ago Ted and I replaced all of the faces on the tiles of a Guess Who board with small, glued-on pictures of our friends’ faces, and voila – a version of Guess Who that was instantly way more fun and special than the original. We are also the proud owners of a fabulous version of Apples to Apples that some  friends made for us, modified to include words that remind us of inside jokes and experiences we’ve had together.

Magazine subscription. Many magazine subscriptions can be had for as little as $10, and there are magazines out there for just about every interest imaginable. (Case in point: Sheep! Magazine)

Cupcake making set. A cute gift idea for the budding baker in your life. Pick up a cupcake-related book from the bargain section of Barnes & Noble (there’s always at least one, usually for $6 or so), and then go to a craft store like Michael’s or Hobby Lobby to buy a set of cute cupcake liners, an icing tip or two, an icing bag, and if the price is right, a cupcake pan. The whole thing can be done for $15 or less.

A lovely handcrafted item, Dollar Store Style. If you’re the crafty type, check out the craft ideas at Dollar Store Crafts. While some of the projects on the site look… well, like they were made from stuff from the Dollar Store, there are also some surprisingly clever ideas. I especially like this Deluxe Superhero Fort Kit.

Striped umbrella. What I Wore has a cool tutorial for an easy DIY striped umbrella.

Book of Ph.D. comics. A no-fail gift for any fellow grad student. If you can’t find a book at your local bookstore, use your Amazon Prime student account to get one shipped to you in 2 days.

Pretty sugar cookies. If you’ve always wanted to try making those beautiful sugar cookies you see every year on the covers of magazines like Martha Stewart Living, I totally recommend going to your local library and checking out Cookie Craft by Janice Fryer and Valerie Peterson. This book is packed with simple step-by-step directions and gorgeous pictures, and it’ll have you making pretty gift-worthy cookies in no time.

Chocolate mustache pops. The last time I was in Hobby Lobby, I noticed a super cute chocolate mustache mold that could be used to churn out funny, tasty gifts. All you’d need is the mold, lollipop sticks, and a couple bags of candy melts, all of which can be purchased at Hobby Lobby or Michael’s. Better move fast on this one, though. I think the ironic hipster mustache’s days are limited. Next year it’s going to be all about the sideburns.

The gift of your skillz. Got a relative who might like to learn to use Facebook, use Skype, or start a blog? Can you cook a gourmet meal? Do you know a secret hiking spot? Do you have the brawn and experience needed to do a home improvement task your grandmother can’t manage? Are you good at babysitting or pet-sitting? If yes to any of the above or you have other valuable skills that were not mentioned, then for goodness’ sake, you’re golden. Go write up a voucher right now.

DIY coasters. Two Girls Being Thrifty have a great tutorial for beautiful, easy coasters made from tile and scrapbook paper.

Local beer. If you go to school in a city blessed with a lot of microbreweries and have a beer-loving friend or family member back home, find a liquor store that does build-your-own-six-packs and bring them a variety of your favorite brews.

Donation to a charity your recipient cares about. Giving this one is like double-giving, and most organizations will let you donate as little or as much as you can afford.

Fancy bulletin board. Tea Rose Home has a great suggestion for sharp-looking DIY message boards that will dress up any office. All you need is a thrift store frame, some spray paint, and corkboard. Anyone else have ideas for quick, inexpensive presents?


4 Dec

Knocked out another graduate milestone this Thursday and proposed my dissertation!

Here’s how proposals work in my program. You write up a lit review and research plan in the ballpark of 40-50 pages, get your adviser’s thumbs-up, distribute copies to your four-person committee, attempt to schedule a 1.5-hour block that works for all four committee members, weep because they have no 1.5-hour block in common in the next month and how will you ever herd these people into a room together?, and find a 1.5-hour block that everyone has in common. Then you treat your committee to a 10-minute PowerPoint presentation, desperately try to mask your limited understanding of bias-corrected bootstrap methods, fail to do so, and sheepishly write down your committee’s advice. That’s it. You don’t have to bring doughnuts. It’s basically impossible not to get your committee’s approval. But there are ample opportunities to sound stupid, which is what makes proposals so scary.

I celebrated the survival of mine with a How I Met Your Mother marathon. Aaaaand am still celebrating, thanks to the celebration-extending properties of Netflix. Also, I ate a cupcake for breakfast on Friday. I’m the kind of girl who knows how to party.

I guess now I actually have to write the dissertation.

A Confession

21 Nov

I like grad school. Kind of a lot.

I probably shouldn’t tell you this. It’s common knowledge that graduate students bond with each other by complaining about grad school. A random sample of any graduate gabfest will invariably include references to a) sleep deprivation due to grad school, b) the morale crushing behavior of [insert professor/supervisor here], c) wistful visions of life after grad school, d) fears that grad school may never end, or e) all of the above. I participate in discussions like this in an enthusiastically indignant/wistful manner – my social life would be hobbled if I didn’t, and I never have trouble scrounging up something to complain about – but in all honesty, on a happiness scale of 1 to 10, I’m in the neighborhood of 9.5, and that’s only because I feel the need to reserve .5 in case something fabulously awesome happens. I enjoy being in a counseling psych Ph.D. program. I like what I’m learning, I like the people in my department, I like my clients. I kind of…and seriously, let’s keep this on the DL… don’t feel ready for grad school to end.

It hasn’t always been like this. My first two years in my program were fairly traditional, meaning that I spent a lot of time attempting to be perfect at everything, moping, daydreaming about dropping out of grad school, researching careers I could have if I dropped out of grad school, looking up median salaries for “professional cupcake baker” and feeling disappointed, etc.

During my third year, everything seemed to click into place, and suddenly grad school no longer felt like a bed of sizzling coals I had to race through to get to the life I wanted. I was, I realized, living the life I wanted. It was not a life that contained every dream I’d ever had, but it was a life that included all the most important things I could have asked for at 25: great relationships, client work I cared about, a constant stream of opportunities to learn interesting things,  enough money to pay the bills and have some left over to play with, and room to work toward all the other dreams that were still unrealized. (Well, maybe all of them except the ones featuring me nonchalantly saving the universe using beams of magic I shoot out of my hands. If anyone knows what the first steps are for working toward those dreams, please contact me.)

Third year was also the year that I got the hang of “strategic caring.” My weeks were stuffed with individual client sessions, couples’ counseling, group counseling, assessments, consultation work, clinical supervision, thesis research, funded research unrelated to my thesis research, coursework, outreach presentations, scholarly reading, and ambitious caffeine consumption, plus all the stuff that comes along with everyday living: maintaining relationships, laundry, grocery trips, pet care, home maintenance, cleaning, cooking, money management, some semblance of hobbies, the works. It was not possible to care about everything. In retrospect, it was probably never possible to care about everything, but prior to this revelatory time, I had convinced myself that it was. I would beat myself up ferociously whenever inevitable screw-ups happened, tell myself through gritted teeth that I just needed to care more and work harder, and carefully steer myself into misery. I’m not saying that I enjoy screwing up now, but I’ve sorted out which things are worth caring a lot about (relationships, clients, broad movement toward long-term goals) and which things aren’t (grades, getting my oil changed exactly when I’m supposed to, producing flawless research drafts, eating well-balanced breakfasts). I’ve learned to allocate care accordingly.

I’m halfway through my fourth year now, and hopefully I’ll be moving on to an internship next summer. (“Hopefully” being the operative word, what with the current shortage of APA-accredited internship programs… more semi-panicky musings on that later.) As excited as I am by the prospect of starting the next chapter of my life, I’m sad that I have to end my graduate experience so soon after I discovered it was possible to enjoy it. Sometimes I wish I could go back in time and tell my newly-minted graduate self to lighten up, but I’m pretty sure that if I did, my past self would become convinced that she was experiencing psychotic symptoms and leave the program immediately.

None of this is meant to downplay the struggles people face in grad school. I know intimately how much it can suck, how overwhelming and pointless and thankless it can feel sometimes. And I’m also aware that many of the things that contribute heavily to my current level of happiness – a husband who is both emotionally and financially supportive, good health, sane and caring family and friends, few sociocultural barriers – have nothing to do with grad school at all and are not a given. But I do want to put it out there that I don’t think grad school has to be a hoop we jump through on the way to our real lives. If you’re currently in a grad program and think of life as something that starts after grad school, it might be time to re-evaluate your values, figure out which of your needs aren’t being met, and make tweaks where tweaking is possible. Five to seven years is a long time to put off living.

Does anyone else out there secretly (or openly) enjoy grad school? What did it take to get you to that point?

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