When you think of things a graduate student might do to relieve stress, baking and assembling 90 whoopie pies probably doesn't make the cut.
Here’s the scene: every surface of my apartment is covered in misshapen disks of chocolate cake. I plop fluffy whipped cream onto the disks and sandwich them together—careful to not let any of the filling ooze out. I pile them onto a giant platter and get ready to serve. For me, this extreme baking helps me forget all of my failed experiments and python struggles.
I don't work in a bakery, or a dining hall; I'm a graduate resident tutor. As a GRT – just one of the seemingly infinite number of acronyms at MIT—I live in the undergraduate dorm Maseeh Hall. In my role as a GRT I serve as a mentor, confidante, resource guide, and problem-solver. One essential part of my role as a GRT at Maseeh is to host a bi-weekly study break.
Every other Tuesday at 9:55pm, I scurry around my apartment frosting the last of the cupcakes, slicing up the tower of bananas I lugged back from Trader Joe’s, putting away my jackets and shoes, and choosing the perfect Spotify playlist. At exactly 10pm, there is a knock on my door. The students have arrived. As I open the door, the crowd of ravenous students rushes into my apartment to see what I’ve made for them to eat.
In the 3.5 years I’ve been a GRT at Maseeh, I’ve hosted a lot of study breaks. Sometimes, when grad school is particularly hectic, study break consists of just cookies and milk. A times when I’ve felt like I’ve got my research under control, I’ve made things like homemade Poptarts and crepes. The Poptarts might have been my worst idea ever – delicious, but so much time rolling out precisely measured pieces of dough.
But food is only a tool to achieve the real goal of a study break – a break from the rigor that is MIT academics. When students come to study break, they are encouraged to stay and hang out. I ask them about their weekend, the upcoming week, and how things are going in general.
Often, talking is the only activity of the study break, but other times I plan activities like snowflake making and gingerbread decorating. It turns out most students don’t actually like the taste of authentic gingerbread cookies.
Although the intended benefactor of study breaks is my residents, the preparation and hosting time represents a break for me too. Tuesday nights are dedicated GRT-time, and having a scheduled event where I consciously step out of my grad student role helps reduce my own anxiety about pending publication and graduation timelines. As a GRT, I also get to be part of a supportive community; something I felt was lacking from my life as a PhD student.
For other graduate students, baking at such large scales and hosting more people in my apartment then the fire code would recommend might be a stress creator. But for me, hosting study breaks and working as a GRT have been a pivotal reason I’ve made it to the fifth year of my PhD, and am slated to graduate in the fall of 2017.