Easing the Stress of Final Reviews

Easing the Stress of Final Reviews

Lately, the days have been rushing past me and suddenly I’ve found myself in the final weeks of my first semester of my MFA. “What do these times have in store?,” you might ask. As nerve-wracking as it may all seem, there’s also an electric feeling in the air about reaching this point in the journey, having come this far, and what all I have to show for myself. After fifteen weeks of classes, I am on my way toward realizing two distinct bodies of work — one was born out to Kelli Connell’s class The Portrait, and the other came about from the necessity that is the ever-persistent Graduate Seminar (a class that students in the program take once each semester as their primary “making” and critiquing class). Inevitably I was going to get to this point in time with SOMETHING to show, but I never imagined I would be this far long, with visions of my own photo books dancing in my head…

Not to paint a picture of pure bliss — this time in the year — in the overall journey toward a Photography MFA — is not at all easy. I’ve thought long and hard about what has helped me up until this point, and I’ve compiled the following (hopefully) helpful, brief hints on how to survive the final weeks of one’s first semester as a photography graduate student here at Columbia.

  1. Invest in a planner that works for you. With the end of the semester in sight, deadlines are all over the place and you need somewhere to capture this information other than your head. I’ve learned that the mind is easily overwhelmed, and if you can take the load off your brain remembering every significant detail for you, you’re better off. I recommend paper planners for people like me who are both visual and list-makers. I love the satisfaction of crossing an item off of a to-do list, and I love being able to store all my thoughts and plans in one place. Passion Planner, a brand I discovered through a classmate when I first started grad school, has been my saving grace in terms of detailed, beautifully-made planners/journals. I buy a new one at the start of each school year and feel prepared to tackle even the most hectic weeks with organization!
  2. Make room for daily joy. I listen to music at the beginning and end of each day. No matter the tasks that are before me, I sandwich the stress in-between a soundtrack of my favorite tunes. Thanks to the ease of finding music through Spotify, playlists curate my every week’s activities. I’m a fan of some energetic psych garage rock at the beginning of the day, while I hustle between buses and trains to get myself downtown, with something mellow like Elliott Smith, Kurt Vile, or Mac DeMarco to see me on my journey back home after the sun is down. It doesn’t have to be music necessarily that brings that instant dose of positivity — but for me, it’s always been the easiest, most effective remedy!
  3. Caffeinate if you’re into that, but not too much! I am fan of visiting the Dunkin’ Donuts near campus after 2pm on weekdays for discounts on iced coffee and tea — the perfect pick-me-up for those long hours in the studio/darkroom/printing labs! And while I know that this blog is not just to promote drinking coffee during finals to stay peppy and alert, I want to remind everyone that caffeine in moderation, and at reasonable hours in the day, is actually beneficial to one’s overall health and contains several important nutrients, including riboflavin, pantothenic acid, manganese, potassium, magnesium and niacin!
  4. Ask questions of your peers — and your faculty. In grad school, nearly everyone you meet is a valuable resource to you. Another part of this tip is — STOP BELIEVING YOU HAVE TO DO IT ALL YOURSELF. Help from others is positive and can drastically improve the overall outcome of your project. I love taking photographs and writing, for instance, but I know little about how to design books or websites to translate my finished ideas. So, I’ve outsourced support from classmates who have different strengths and talents than me. It is downright necessary to be open to collaboration and support/input from others. Impactful art is not made for or IN a vacuum, after all. Figure out how others can help you fully realize your vision, and make sure to thank them graciously along the way.
  5. Take care of yourself. Self-care means taking care of yourself so that you can be healthy, you can be well, you can do your job, you can help and care for others, and you can do all the things you need to and want to accomplish in a day. If you think you’ve been hearing more about self-care now, you’re right. One indicator: According to Google Trends, the number of searches for “self-care” has more than doubled since 2015. The need for self-care seems obvious as we have an epidemic of anxiety and depression that nearly everyone experiences in contemporary society.  Self-care is part of the answer to how we can all better cope with daily stressors. Self-care looks different for everyone but some basics for finals might include: getting at least seven hours of sleep a night, drinking enough water each day, and preparing and eating balanced and healthy meals. These sound like basic suggestions, but in the whirl of busy-ness, we can often lose sight of how to maintain. And lastly….
  6. Take time to disengage. Constantly consuming information, for school or for life, is tiresome and overwhelming. During final reviews, I am reading and writing so much information pertinent to my work and presenting it to the faculty. While I love my topics of interest for the work I am doing, it is also fun to totally switch gears and read something NOT about feminist theory and popular culture. Magazines are fun indulgences, especially when pampering myself with a homemade manicure and face mask, but there is simply no match for the unwinding that Netflix’s acclaimed series “Great British Bake-Off” presents to us — complete with the dry and cunning wit of the ever-entertaining Noel Fielding. This show is utter joy and relaxation so pop it on, have some wine, and whip yourself up a batch of tasty cookies. While GBBO has nothing to do with grad school, it is has proven essential in getting me through the challenges of higher learning thus far.

There you have it; my very unofficial list of product endorsements and pieces of advice for an easier end-of-semester experience. Hopefully the thread that you see running through these suggestions is to remember to care for and listen to yourself and your own needs during this stressful, activity-filled time. Whether through buying yourself a tasty holiday-inspired iced coffee beverage or by watching a baking competition show, demonstrate kindness toward yourself and allow yourself treats.

Night In, from the series “Interior,” 2021; photo by Erica McKeehen