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In the whirlwind that is graduate school, our own selves often come last. This is generally the opposite of what we are setting out to do, though. Aren’t we in graduate school to better ourselves? To get a higher education so that we can go into the field we want and land the career we are looking for? To others not in graduate school, graduate students might seem selfish or as though they’re putting off or escaping the “real world.” As it turns out, graduate school is not that glamorous. Consider the following: extra years of paying for education. Working long hours with a minimal salary (if any). Balancing coursework with hours in the field. Feeling completely broke, or guilty from accumulating more debt or depending on a significant other for financial support. Being a graduate student is certainly is not all bad, but it is definitely hard work with delayed gratification.
As it turns out, graduate school is not that glamorous.
I think I might have said the phrase, “I’m so stressed” to my husband approximately 1,495 times in my five years of graduate school. We had gotten married two weeks before I started my program and bought a house two months into it. My husband started (and finished) his MBA program, then we had a baby boy at the end of my second year, moved cities for my internship during my fifth year, and I was seven months pregnant with our second son on graduation day. No two years were the same, and the inconsistent schedule from semester to semester was daunting. I find graduate students are typically over-achievers, trying to take on all of it. Unfortunately, sometimes “all of it” can lead quickly to none of it.
Burnout is a reality that can come quickly if graduate students are not careful. Feeling burnt out by a career before you have even truly begun is disheartening. Baker (2003) characterized burnout as feelings of depersonalization, emotional exhaustion, and a lack of feelings of satisfaction and accomplishment. I personally experienced all of those feelings at some point throughout graduate school. Tirelessly working when the goal seems so out of reach can make you question why you started in the first place.
Burnout is a reality that can come quickly if graduate students are not careful. Feeling burnt out by a career before you have even truly begun is disheartening.
Thus, it is never too early to engage in “positive career sustaining behaviors,” an idea conceptualized by Kramen-Kahn and Hansen (1998). The authors suggest these behaviors can include finding a balance between personal and professional demands, taking regular breaks from work, getting sufficient rest and exercise, seeking diversity in professional activities and caseloads, and attending to emotional, physical, relationship, and spiritual needs outside of the work setting. Is it just me or does a list of self-care strategies substantially add to the stress? When trying to balance all of the crazy elements of my life, I often find myself feeling guilty. When I finally take time to myself, I often think of all the things I should be doing. However, it’s time to realize self-care IS what we should be doing. Coster and Schwebel (1997) suggest that self-care should not be viewed as selfishness but instead as an essential aspect of the professional role that will hopefully result in “well functioning.” We will not be able to sustain or enjoy a career after graduate school if we are not able to engage in self-care.
Once we accept that self-care is not selfish and more of a necessity the “what?” and “when?” of self-care is the next hurdle.
Once we accept that self-care is not selfish and more of a necessity the “what?” and “when?” of self-care is the next hurdle. What should self-care entail? When will I make time? Self-care will look different for everyone. Myers and colleagues(2012) suggest, “self-care practice may be defined as engagement in behaviors that maintain and promote physical and emotional well-being and may include factors such as sleep, exercise, use of social support, emotion regulation strategies, and mindfulness practice.” Ideally, I think we would all like to be able to engage in all of these self-care practices. In reality, picking two or three might be more doable.
Focusing on a few effective self-care practices will help address the need for self-care without it feeling like yet another overwhelming commitment. For me, sleep, social support, and eventually exercise became my self-care practices. I have never been one to be able to stay up all hours of the night to get work accomplished. My brain practically turns to mush past 9pm. If I do stay up late working on something, it is extremely difficult for me to turn my brain off and go to sleep. Thus, I had to make sleep my number one self-care practice. I did not sacrifice sleep for work. I preferred to work on assignments during the weekend days or find small pockets of time in between work and class during the week. This was my preferred balance. Some people may find they need much less sleep than I do or they are the most productive at night. But if sleep is a top priority for you, find time to make sure you get enough.
Thus, I had to make sleep my number one self-care practice. I did not sacrifice sleep for work.
Another priority for me was a social support. I personally did not move away to graduate school. I stayed in the town where I got my undergraduate degree. This meant that I had all of my close friends from pre-graduate school days. It soon became very important to continue to have these relationships. For five years it felt like I lived and breathed my graduate school program. However, one of the best self-care practices I had was to spend time with friends both in and out of my program. I became very good friends with some of my cohort. They were essential people to be able to vent to because they knew exactly what I was going through. On the other hand, it was also essential to have conversations outside of the program. Sometimes I felt so swept up in my program it was easy for me to forget there was life outside of what I was dedicating so much of my life to. Nights out, lunches, even just group texts with friends who had no idea about my program grounded me and made me feel more balanced.
I have now graduated and have two sons. While many of my colleagues bring work home to accomplish at nights, I know this is not an option for me. Work must be done at work.
Another sense of social support self-care was my family. My husband and son unknowingly forced me into a state of balance. When I was home with my son, I could only focus on him. Schoolwork had to wait and days had to end early. When I had him at the end of my second year, I had to start saying no to some things. Not all things, but some things. His physical needs were obviously greater than my academic ones and he forced me into a balanced life. I have now graduated and have two sons. While many of my colleagues bring work home to accomplish at nights, I know this is not an option for me. Work must be done at work. Somehow, having children made self-care and balance easier. Now, by no means am I saying go out and have children as a self-care practice! BUT I am saying to find something that you care so much about that you are willing to make it a priority.
Lastly, exercise became one of my self-care practices. I’ve never been athletic or really into anything active. But then one day, I stumbled upon a community of people who did at-home workouts. This community turned out to be perfect for my needs, and health and fitness became my hobby. It was nice to think about something other than my graduate program, and it was a practice I benefited from both mentally and physically. Before I found quick and effective at-home workouts, I was spending too long in a gym and putting my son in the gym daycare after spending all day away from him. For some, the gym is the perfect escape and excuse to get away from the books, papers, laptop, etc. For me, it was additional stress. The takeaway there is to keep looking for something that works for YOU.
For some, the gym is the perfect escape and excuse to get away from the books, papers, laptop, etc. For me, it was additional stress.
So how do you find manage and balance all that self-care you should be doing? First, take some time to reflect on who you are as a person. What recharges your battery? This will vary by person. Some people find quiet, alone time makes them feel recharged (that’s me). I personally thrive on being home alone. Sounds strange, but when you have a small house, a husband, two little kids, and two dogs there is not much quiet alone time to be had. So I intentionally find pockets of time during the week to make it work. Some days I am able to slightly flex my schedule and go in to work a bit later. My husband takes the kids to daycare and I take an extra 15 minutes to clean up the chaos and eat breakfast without being in the car (major win). Some days, I stop by the house before picking up the kids.
However, I realize it is difficult to remember to take time for yourself when life seems to never slow down. This is where knowing yourself really comes in. You have to know what is going to make you follow through. Maybe you need to schedule something with someone else because you know you won’t let someone else down. Maybe you need to pay for something in advance because you can’t stand to be out of money: for example, a Groupon deal for a few massage sessions. Maybe if it is on your to-do list or calendar with a reminder, you are more likely to do it. Maybe you have a self-imposed schedule of “self-care hour” each day when everything goes away and you do what makes you feel better.
Overall, it is not going to always be easy but will always be worth it. As graduate students we feel that pressure of having to do it all and do it all now. However, it is important to remember that no one benefits, especially you, if you work yourself into a situation of complete burnout that you cannot return from. Although it may not feel like it – YOU are the priority!
Baker, E. K. (2003). Caring for ourselves: A therapist’s guide to personal and professional well- being. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Coster, J. S., & Schwebel, M. (1997). Well-functioning in professional psychologists. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 28, 5–13.
Kramen-Kahn, B., & Hansen, D. (1998). Rafting the rapids: Occupational hazards, rewards, and coping strategies of psychologists. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 29, 130 –134.
Myers, S. B., Sweeney, A. C., Popick, V., Wesley, K., Bordfeld, A., & Fingerhut, R. (2012). Self-care practices and perceived stress levels among psychology graduate students. Training and Education In Professional Psychology, 6(1), 55-66. doi:10.1037/a0026534