To say that graduate school (or professional school) can be stressful is an understatement. Graduate work can be fulfilling, absorbing, and thrilling, but it can also (and often simultaneously) be isolating, overwhelming, and hard on self-esteem. I write this not to dissuade anyone from graduate school—I am so pleased with the possibility of reading, writing, and teaching for my life—but to emphasize the need to be prepared for the toll getting an advanced degree can take on your mental health. A few lifestyle choices, though, can make a big difference between being crushed and being fulfilled by your graduate program. So, I’m going to offer a few thoughts to consider… Obviously, these suggestions come from my experience, and you will need to find your own strategies for dealing with stress.
First, take care of your body. Exercise, eat well, and set up a regular sleep schedule. It took me far too long to realize that I needed to take care of my body, and once I started doing so, I immediately felt happier and more in control of my day.
Second, have a life outside of school. Make it a point to participate in activities that not only take place off campus, but also involve people not affiliated with the university. Take a community art class, volunteer at a homeless shelter, join a running club, or become active in a religious community. Such activities not only give you a reprieve from school, but also help you maintain perspective—there is a fulfilling, challenging world away from the university campus!
Third, take up a hobby that has satisfying, small accomplishments. When the first chapter of your dissertation has you feeling like you are in quicksand, running a 5k (or knitting a baby sweater, or learning how to bake a mean honey wheat bread) will feel like a huge accomplishment. Research and writing a thesis of any kind can be paralyzing—getting stuck on a paragraph can make you feel like you can’t do ANYTHING. Small accomplishments can fend off that paralysis by reminding you that you accomplish things all the time, and sometimes it just takes a little bit of time.
To get the most out of graduate school, come prepared to take care of yourself! And know that everyone is different, so you will need to develop your own self-care practices, but hopefully these ideas will at least help you start figuring out what you can do to manage graduate school stress, and have a wonderful experience.