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For Graduate Students: Caring for Your Mental Health

In the years since I began my successful journey toward the PhD I’ve learned so much about the importance of maintaining good health in graduate school. As my visitors get to know me better you will discover that I am a deep advocate for self-care during the graduate years.

We enter graduate school to learn about academics and about ourselves. But there’s another whole element of our graduate education that often challenges us to the core: Our life-management skills.

I see graduate study as a form of mountain-climbing. Being prepared for the journey includes caring for your mental and physical health.

My doctoral journey was ultimately successful, but I’m not afraid to admit that it pushed my mental health to a breaking point, taking me a full year longer (3 years rather than my intended 2) to finish my dissertation.

I have a huge compassion for helping graduate students sort out the issues and challenges, and I do hope it shows in every page of this site.

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Coping with Stress

“In times of stress, the best thing we can do for each other is to listen with our ears and our hearts and to be assured that our questions are just as important as our answers.”
― Fred Rogers, The World According to Mister Rogers: Important Things to Remember

When I first wrote this, it was March 2020 and we were just beginning to experience the dangers of the unfolding Covid-19 pandemic. What an incredibly stressful time! By the middle of June it was already clear that the current Covid crisis along with severe political upheavals within American society have been triggering of profound levels of anxiety and distress.

As many higher education observers have pointed out, on too many campuses there is an inadequate response by college officials to the current crisis of mental health and Covid-related impacts on students’ ability to successfully continue in their studies. See, for example, this August 2020 article from Inside Higher Ed:

Now, in September of 2020, graduate students have been experiencing  challenges to their progress for a number of reasons. Consider these articles from the Chronicle of Higher Education: 

Two stories from InsideHigherEd further underscore the impact of campus closures on graduate students:

In the face of great change and disruption of our everyday activities and lifestyles, it is easy to become emotionally overwhelmed. Our mental health can suffer. Now more than ever, it is essential to focus on managing your response to stress. 

These tips provided by Adam Sicinski offer great wisdom at times when it all feels just too much:

* Recognize Overwhelm

The first step for when you’re feeling overwhelmed with life is to actually recognize and acknowledge the moment when you start feeling overwhelmed. Overwhelm is however something that kind of creeps up on us very slowly, then suddenly hits us like a firecracker. It often begins in a very subtle way by making us feel a little rushed. This pushes us out of our comfort zone and we progressively start losing control. What’s more is that we now no longer have the clarity we need to get stuff done, and as a result we become very negative and self-critical.

* Take Yourself from the Situation

Having recognized that you’re feeling overwhelmed with life, it’s now time to take one long deep breath… then get-on-out-of-there and completely remove yourself from the situation. Yes, I actually mean walk away from the situation in the opposite direction. You cannot continue what you’re doing feeling this way. Remove yourself, and do it fast! The sooner the better. At least now you have the space to think things through more clearly. And your first thoughts must be directed at what exactly triggered your feelings of overwhelm. Identifying this trigger is the first step toward taking back control.

* Detach Yourself Emotionally

Feeling overwhelmed with life is very much like a problem. You have this experience that you just can’t seem to handle, however you are only feeling this way because of how you’re viewing this situation. You will never find a solution to your problem if you’re emotionally invested within that problem. You must therefore separate your emotions from this experience and then challenge yourself to think things through a little differently. Specifically, you must decide to either shift your perspective of the situation, to change the situation, to remove yourself from the situation, or to figure out how to best cope with it.

* Take a Personal Inventory

Let’s say that you decided to challenge yourself to try and work through this situation. Well in that case, it’s now time to take a personal inventory. A personal inventory is an acknowledgement of your personal strengths, knowledge, skills, tools and the support you have on hand to help you cope with this situation far more effectively. With all these things at your disposal you no longer need to succumb to feeling overwhelmed with life or with any particular situation. You just need to figure out how to make use of these resources to help you work through your predicament in an optimal way.

* Think Things Through

Having taken a personal inventory, you should now understand where your strengths lie, and therefore you probably feel more capable of working through your feelings of overwhelm in this particular situation. Consider for a moment how you could utilize your time, skills, tools and the resources you have on hand to try and make things a little less overwhelming. Ask yourself how you could potentially work through your task more effectively and rationally. Possibly the solution lies in tackling your task in small pieces. Or just maybe there is a better way to do things that you hadn’t considered before.

* Take Charge of the Situation

No matter what solutions you come up with to your dilemma, it’s now time to take full responsibility and start moving forward. In other words, commit yourself to taking charge of the situation. Yes, there will be things and aspects that you still won’t be able to control. However, don’t allow these things to distract you from everything else that you can do right now. With this in mind, focus on what can be controlled and work through these tasks one small step at a time. Even if you can’t do it all, you can at the very least begin somewhere. Start small and slowly build momentum one mini-task at a time.

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Knowing When to Reach Out

What to do when you feel overwhelmed: You can always reach out for support! 

Do you need to take a “time out” to make sense of what’s really happening in your life?

Are you incredibly busy or feeling intensely stressed?

Are things just feeling a bit out of control?

Perhaps you hurt inside or need to put things on hold for a while. Or maybe you just need a warm hug.

This happens a lot during graduate school, but you need not be a graduate student to feel overwhelmed. There are times when you can feel totally alone, like there is no one in your life who really understands what you are going through–or seems to care.

Trust me, I’ve been there. Life can be totally overwhelming at times. It’s okay to admit it.

It is also okay to close your eyes and rest, meditate, be at peace. Listen to your favorite music, take a walk in the evening. Listen to the sound of your breathing or your heartbeat. Reach out to your closest friend, partner, spouse or family member and say I need you. Take an oath of loving kindness for yourself.

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Exploring Your Career Path

Finding your career path is an ongoing activity, and it’s not always logical or predictable.

When you’re in the thick of it you may find it difficult to see any logic to your career. But looking back over the trajectory of your education and career high points (and low ones) gives a much-needed insight into what has made your career journey satisfying or disappointing.

Even if you aren’t a current graduate student or if you’ve already completed your educational goals, you probably have a lot of questions about your best strategy for moving forward into a highly-fulfilling career.

At the heart of a career path is the fact that you’ll be changing jobs from time to time. The average person changes jobs ten to fifteen times during their career and sometimes those changes will involve different types of positions in different industries or occupations. Some career paths have many ups and downs and, in fact, some people even move down the career ladder.

According to the specialists who manage the career development blog site The Balance Careers, the definition of a Career Path includes:

The jobs you’ll need to hit your ultimate career goal. A career path doesn’t need to be a straight line up the career ladder, nor does it need to span a specific time frame.Career paths traditionally imply vertical growth or advancement to higher level positions, but they can also entail lateral movement within or across industries. And each path can be slightly different for each person, depending on how long you need to take to get to your goals, or if you change your goals along the way.

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Finding Your Passions as a Graduate Student

What inspired you to pursue a graduate degree?

  • Intellectual curiosity
  • Desire to improve your career options
  • Fascination with a particular subject or discipline
  • Wish to become part of an advanced community of scholars and researchers

When I first set out to write a commentary on the issue of passion and graduate school, I thought to myself “Scott, did you actually write a dissertation about something you were passionate about?” I had to admit to myself that, well… I’m not sure. And yet, I had heard and read so much advice about “choosing a topic you’re really passionate about.”

Being a sociologist with a very interdisciplinary background, I was challenged in trying to decide on an appropriate dissertation subject in my field of doctoral study (higher education policy and counseling). So, I chose a research subject that at the time seemed very practical, relevant, and probably employable in the future.

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Enjoy the Journey Ahead. You’re not Alone!

Every graduate student that ventures along the road to success is tested by various challenges along the way. One of them is loneliness.

Compared with the large classes and intense study sessions in undergraduate courses, graduate programs often focus on small-group learning and solitude. At first, this can be difficult to get used to.

It’s not uncommon to experience unique challenges when transitioning to graduate school. Finding your own personal style of learning and building momentum takes time and patience.

Building momentum takes various steps:

Set achievable goals. Rather than promising yourself that you’re going to spend 5 full hours in one sitting to work on a paper, approach time management realistically. Try writing in 30 minute chunks.

Set boundaries. Set healthy boundaries on campus, at work, and at home–and if you haven’t done so, now is a good time as any to practice. Boundary setting helps you realize that you do have control over your schedule.

Meet with your support system. Have you checked in with people who’ve got your back? This may include faculty, graduate program advisors, loved ones, student peers, or work colleagues. More than one person in your support system is better.

Keep yourself nourished. What keeps you going and energized? Do you need a glass of water? How about a snack or meal? A short nap or a good night’s sleep? Is there a song, movie, hobby, or activity that restores your motivation?

Guard against feeling isolated or alone. No matter how much you feel like you’re carrying the full weight of success or failure on your shoulders, don’t let it keep you from having a life outside of graduate school.

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Graduate School: The Long and Winding Road to Success

If you’re a current graduate student, you don’t need to be reminded that the journey is a challenging one. Otherwise, why else would we go there?

We hunger to strengthen ourselves intellectually. We’re passionate about doing something truly meaningful. We want to devote our careers to some area of scientific or academic challenge. We long to grow, thrive, and meet others who share our passions.

Graduate School offers a thousand (or more) opportunities to change your life for the better. But just like learning to drive, there are some requirements for you to be aware of when you prepare to set out on your academic journey.

One of the major insights I gained from all of my years of personal experience in graduate school is this: Self-confidence grows one day at a time but often without any direct feedback. Having a mentor or friend or companion makes it so much easier to stay on the path toward completion.

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