Sleep and the Graduate Life (Scholar’s Compass)

“Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.” – Attributed to Benjamin Franklin

The programmer disagrees. A clever graphic has resurfaced for its round on the internet. It shows that the programmer finds the only productive work by “burning the midnight candle.” Sleeplessness is worn like a badge of honor. But there’s a tension in this: rest is an imperative. When we rest and how we rest is a murky question we fumble with all through our lives. The new parent cannot sleep as much as a college student. A college student cannot rest as much as an infant. We are left then with the gray areas of murky decisions.

How much sleep does someone need? And when should we sleep? And when have our late nights turned into restless hearts?

Normally, I’m a heavy sleeper. But I woke up the other night and rolled over to a more comfortable position. But I did not fall back asleep. Instead, I began to think about the rent on my new apartment due in a month. I began the math of incoming paychecks and other bills and repeated the infinite lament of the graduate student stipend. I did not sleep for another hour. Another night, I sat with my work and lingered over it until sleepiness became a headache and the night leaned towards morning. The next day, I drug myself through the world on the back of hyper-hydration and caffeination, smiling and hanging on until I could take a brief nap. I had sacrificed rest to anxiety. I had sacrificed sleep to burnt and anxious energy in the night.

It is as if sleep is the nightmare we are trying to avoid; that sleep is the demon that will steal our work; that if we close our eyes, the deadline looming will not be met; that we (heaven forbid!) will never graduate. We know this is not true. All the evidence suggests that sleep increases our productivity and creativity. We are better workers when we sleep. Yet the feeling persists that sleep will destroy our work and destroy us in its wake.

Maureen is the calmest and most level-headed woman I know. She studied aerospace engineering and excelled, landing an excellent job at a national lab in DC right after graduation. She told me that she slept a full eight hours each night.

When I visited the job sites and worked internships, I saw top people missing nights of sleep for their work. I had always told myself that I would someday be good enough to sleep a full night. But that time never comes. So I chose in undergrad that I would get my sleep, not waiting for the future time I could rest from my work.

Maureen knows her personal line between work and overwork, between energy and restlessness. It takes wisdom to know this for ourselves.

And it is different for each of us. I’ve had to concede that it is not always wrong to work late into the night, that it is not always a sign of overwork. And I’ve had to concede that my restlessness may not affect my bedtime but it is real all the same. And I must acknowledge that there are jobs where sleep becomes fragile and rare, when we must keep working in order to make ends meet. Illness comes and steals sleep, leaving us inexplicably awake with no way to quiet our bodies. There is pain and grief. There are long watches of the night.

Sleep or sleeplessness does not make our work succeed or make us good or bad; it is only by living in freedom from that paradigm that we can begin to question our sleep choices. The Psalmist says:

It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives to his beloved sleep. Psalm 127:2

Sleep is something God gives us out of love. Our bodies, well made by a Skillful Maker, demand rest and it is given to us.There is pleasure in rest as well as utility, pleasure we are not meant to forgo. We can grow gratitude for sleep; we can practice obedience in stopping the work. Sleep becomes a matter of trust. Can I trust that the world will continue as I lay my work down for a day? And more specifically, can I trust a God who sustains? Can we see sleep as a gift made in love?

Some resources on the importance of sleep:


Scholars-Compass-image-40x40Note: Part of both the Scholar’s Compass series and Dana Ray’s The Samurai Number series at the Emerging Scholars Network Blog. Last of four. Read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

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Dana Ray

Dana Ray: Writer. Dancer. Tea Drinker. Moonlights on the side as a graduate student in English and Creative Writing at Bucknell University. She also blogs at danamray.com/blog.

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  • allisonmrieck@gmail.com'
    Allison commented on July 15, 2015 Reply

    Thanks for this article! Learning to prioritize sleep has been one of the most important lessons I’ve learned in recent years. One of my primary hesitations about going to grad school was that I didn’t want to go through life exhausted like I had for two previous degrees. It’s been challenging, and I certainly don’t always get the sleep I need, but making sleep a priority has enabled me to thoroughly enjoy my grad school experience.

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