Imagine getting into the graduate program of your dreams. You arrive at a new campus to work in a lab and with a mentor who you hope will provide not only guidance but also a sense of belonging. As the first year or two goes by there are successes and setbacks, and you come to realize that some parts of graduate school can be very challenging. These challenges are not just in the academic sense, but also in the sense of how they affect your psychological well-being. In some cases, these can be major issues, such as realizing that you are not interested in the research area you chose when you entered your program. But in many cases, this psychological distress is the result of a lot of smaller things, that together can weigh on you in a way that makes school feel overwhelming. You may feel that you are not forming or keeping relationships with other people in your life because of the time commitment of school. You may lose interest or the opportunity to engage in hobbies or healthy habits, such as exercise. You may struggle with the continuous list of things that need to be done to the detriment of not noticing how much you are accomplishing. No one of these things alone makes graduate student life difficult, but together they can put you at risk for feeling over-whelmed, anxious, uncertain and even depressed.
Even as a prospective student, I knew graduate school would be difficult. After all, I worked very hard to get here and nothing worth having comes easy – stress was to be expected. However, chronic and unmanaged stress can turn into distress and lead to concerning mental health conditions. Recognizing this possibility is the first step to finding ways to buffer against these unfortunate but unavoidable aspects of pursuing a graduate degree.
Graduate students have begun talking more openly about the stressors of graduate school that have existed for some time, and it is elucidating some interesting findings. Several recent studies suggest that there is a mental health “crisis” occurring in graduate education programs. For example, 50 percent of PhD students in Belgium experience psychological distress (Levecque et al., 2017). More alarmingly, in that study 32 percent of students were at risk for having or developing a psychiatric disorder such as depression. These prevalence rates significantly exceeded those for the highly educated general public, highly educated employees and higher education students.
A recent survey of over 2,200 graduate students across numerous countries, institutions and fields of study found similar results. The study found that graduate students are over six times more likely to experience mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression, compared to the general population (Evans et al., 2018). Women and transgender and gender-nonconforming students were especially at risk for anxiety and depression compared to their cisgender male counterparts. Another study at the University of California at Berkeley found even higher rates of mental health issues among graduate students, reporting that 47 percent of PhD students there demonstrated signs of depression (Graduate Student Happiness & Well-Being Report, 2014).
In addition to these challenges, graduate students often experience feelings of doubt in our abilities, as well as worries that we are unqualified or undeserving of our accolades and place in graduate school. Together, these feelings are known as “imposter phenomenon” (Clance, 1985). As a result, achievement-related tasks often incite feelings of fraudulence, self-doubt, depression or anxiety and worry. Imposter phenomenon is especially common among women and students of color.
If you are a graduate student and are feeling the pressures of academia taking a toll on you, know that you are not alone in that experience. Attending graduate school comes with a unique set of experiences and challenges that can be hard to navigate. This new environment demands we be more focused than perhaps we ever have been before, while also dealing with additional pressures from financial strain, social and family relationships and other responsibilities. The experience of obtaining a PhD often comes with in-tense professional pressures, which can result in high academic expectations, constant deadlines and little sleep or opportunity for social lives outside of academia. Additionally, the abstract nature of research can lead to academic disengagement and a loss of perspective on why we initially began this journey.
Levecque et al. (2017) found that work-life imbalance, worries about the job market and one’s academic career prospects, tense advisor-student relationships and insufficient support from colleagues, among other things, were all correlated with mental health problems among graduate students. Fortunately, there are ways to combat the challenges that graduate school can present to students’ mental health, with new ideas frequently emerging. This begins with establishing a good balance between doing the things we enjoy (e.g., hanging out with friends or reading an interesting new article) and those things that we don’t (e.g., answering emails). While this can be hard to attain in the “publish or perish” culture and fierce funding environment of academia, practicing regular self-care habits and finding work-life balance can be protective factors against the mental health crisis that affects graduate students. Compiled from various sources, as well as personal experience, below are several strategies and tips that I suggest can help graduate students navigate school with a healthier mind.
Making time for socializing with family, friends or partners, as well as for rest and hobbies that you find enjoyable can help recharge your energy and focus. Don’t forget about your life outside of school and schedule time to do fun things for yourself. Spending time with friends and/or family is especially great for graduate students who mainly only interact with the small circle of people they see in class and lab every day. It is important to step outside of your “graduate school bubble” and take a break to get your mind away from academic issues – go see a movie, go out for dinner, take a trip, join a social club or just go for a run.
Take care of your physical health
Exercising regularly, eating a healthy diet and cutting back on excessive caffeine, other recreational or stimulating drugs and alcohol are all important steps to taking care of your body. Exercise helps release tension from stress and a healthy diet provides your body and mind with the fuel they need. Additionally, quality sleep is a crucial aspect of physical and mental well-being and is very restorative for the mind. Be sure to schedule regular visits with your doctor, as well.
Check in with yourself
Keep an eye on your mood and energy levels by keeping a journal or practicing meditation. Listening to the physical, emotional and mental cues from your body and noticing any red flags in your mood and energy will let you know when you may be pushing yourself too hard and need a break. A regular meditation practice can help declutter the mind and enhance focus.
Work smarter, not harder
If you procrastinate on challenging tasks (e.g., writing a manuscript), find a peer who is going through the same thing and schedule time to work together. You will see that others have similar anxieties about their own work as well. Instead of struggling alone, become each other’s accountability partners and support each other. Forming writing groups with other graduate students can also be a great way to keep each other accountable and make progress on writing goals for the semester. In addition, learn your own patterns of productivity – when are you most productive and when are you not during the day? Schedule time to work during your productive hours and plan breaks for when that productivity tends to wane. Focused work is always better than just clocking in a lot of time at work.
It is important to acknowledge and reward yourself throughout the process of completing your work. After completing a difficult task, especially if it is a part of a larger milestone or body of work, give yourself permission to feel relief, pride and growth. These reflective moments can lead to the release of endorphins in your body and re-center your focus, enabling you to continue working. Taking ownership of your accomplishments and accepting positive feedback from others is also important. Additionally, seek out the tasks within larger collaborative projects that you are good at and enjoy doing (e.g., data entry or running statistical analyses). Contributing your skills is a very affirming experience.
Build a strong relationship with your mentor
A positive mentoring relationship between graduate students and their advisor(s) builds a strong foundation for a positive experience in graduate school. A strong relationship also fosters a supportive environment where students feel comfortable communicating openly with their advisors about possible concerns before they become larger issues. Relationships with more senior graduate students can be another source of great mentorship and guidance as you navigate your graduate program. And, these relationships can last a lifetime. The support of a good mentor will continue well beyond school, in the same way that high school and college friendships can be lasting, positive aspects of your life.
Stay mindful of your long-term goals
When you find yourself getting lost in the abstraction of working on research that does not have immediate short-term results, reconnect to your original motivation(s). This will help you rediscover your “why,” reduce stress and reframe your research as an opportunity to learn and grow. This reframing also works with difficult tasks – approach them with curiosity, instead of as an in-stance requiring you to prove yourself.
Don’t hesitate to get help or support if you need it
It’s okay to not be okay. Ask your advisor, an-other faculty member that you trust, friends or family for help or support. Peers or mentors can be great sources of encouragement, as well as help you find new coping strategies, abilities and strengths. They may possess helpful advice about how they’ve successfully navigated similar experiences themselves. Also, utilize the mental health care resources available at your university, such as the campus counseling center (which often offers free therapy sessions to students) or academic accommodations from the campus disability resource center. There is no shame in receiving mental health treatment.
With better practices, graduate students can enjoy the years of schooling it takes to achieve their goals (and degrees) instead of suffering through them. And remember, graduate school won’t last forever.
Clance, P. R. (1985). The impostor phenomenon: Overcoming the fear that haunts your success. Atlanta: Peachtree Publishers.
Evans, T. M., Bira, L., Gastelum, J. B., Weiss, L. T., & Vanderford, N. L. (2018). Evidence for a mental health crisis in graduate education. Nature Biotechnology, 36, 282-284.
Graduate Student Happiness & Well-Being Re-port. (2014). Retrieved from http://ga.berkeley.edu/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/wellbeingreport_2014.pdf
Levecque, K., Anseel, F., De Beuckelaer, A., Van der Heyden, J., & Gisle, L. (2017). Work or-ganization and mental health problems in PhD students. Research Policy, 46, 868-879