An article has been floating around on the psychological cost of going through a PhD program, have you read it yet? Read it here.
I know I am in the minority of PhD students who had no serious mental health issues during graduate school. Am I lucky? No, I don’t think so. I think the reason I was healthy – physically, emotionally, and mentally – during graduate school is because I chose to have the balance the article’s author mentions at the end of the piece. I did, however, experience this unbalance during my undergraduate years which is what prompted me to change my ways for graduate school.
How did I maintain my health (physical, emotional, and mental) during graduate school?
- MOST IMPORTANTLY: I maintained my involvement in SWE as a graduate student. As a graduate student, SWE offered me something invaluable – a support network of other women going through the EXACT SAME THING as me. It’s amazing how just being able to chat with a fellow female grad student for a few minutes can help you get through a tough day because you know you’re not alone. How going to a SWE Grad lunch event can give you that little nudge, that little reassurance, that everything will be ok. And, of course, going to the Annual Conference gives you that “shot in the arm” to survive another year. All of these things help combat the imposter syndrome so many of us experience.
- I made sure I exercised often, especially when preparing for my qualifying exams, as exercise was my de-stresser. This wasn’t just going to the gym, it was going for walks, hikes, bike rides, etc. I found that variety was key.
- I surrounded myself with a support network which included my then-boyfriend (now husband), friends, and family. I made a point to going out to events and socializing, thus getting away from lab, homework, studying, writing, etc.
- I maintained a healthy eating regimen. I never skipped a meal, even if I was really busy. I found that I was most productive by eating small meals throughout the day. I would snack while I worked, take a short lunch break where I read news/Facebook, and snacked more throughout the afternoon. But the key was that I only ate what I had pre-packed for the day, all of which was fairly healthy (with a few chocolate things thrown in, of course!).
- For the most part, I worked a standard work day – 9-5ish and went home, leaving research in my office. Exceptions to this were, of course, grading papers, studying for quals or other exams, reading assignments, etc.
- As the article mentions – I had a plan. I had a plan of (approximately) when I was going to graduate and what I was going to do when I left grad school. I loved grad school, but I was really excited to be done and start done this new adventure (so far, it’s awesome!). I think having a plan really helped me focus on my goal, and not on the daily issues that popped up. But I also suggest having a back-up plan, also mentioned by the article. I had a back-up plan should I not pass my qualifying exams. Those who didn’t pass and did not have a back-up plan suffered some major depression.
- Of course, a great advisor does wonders for your graduate school experience. I had a fantastic advisor, really a fantastic committee. They were all incredibly supportive. If you aren’t happy with your advisor, consider switching. The extra time (and perhaps money) of switching advisors may vastly outweigh the psychological damage a bad advisor can cause.
BONUS tip! (that I thought of after this article was published): Get plenty of sleep. Yes, this is possible. Perfect is the enemy of good enough. This is coming from a perfectionist. Grades are important in grad school, but job interviews will care more about your research and your ability to communicate. So, when it comes to getting that homework/exam problem PERFECT vs. sleep – choose sleep. You’ll get more done on your research when you’re well rested, trust me.
I think finding your balance in graduate school is KEY to finishing the degree while maintaining a healthy lifestyle. These are just some of the ways I maintained my balance — what are your tips for being mentally, physically, and emotionally healthy?