STAYING SANE IN GRAD SCHOOL: GRAD TIP #1

A recent article by The Atlantic discusses the mental health crisis currently plaguing higher education programs everywhere. The article is called Graduate School Can Have Terrible Effects on People’s Mental Health.  I don’t know about you but when I first read that title I thought “No sh**!”, because by the time this article circulated around the internet to my computer screen, I was two years deep into the physics PhD program at Clemson University. There is a lot to freak out about when you get into graduate school imo. About 30% of it is just you overreacting but the other 70% is the actual demand of being a graduate student (and in most STEM fields, add that you are cheap labor, too).

Common stressors in graduate school include:

  • Many PhD programs require you to take up to three (or maybe more depending on the program) core courses your first one to two years alongside your classmates. Competition is high here even though you are among friends and peers. People are really cocky when they’ve reached this stage of their life and it can be hard to not get intimated.
  • Huge workload to adjust to: full time classes and sometimes, full time teaching, and/or full time research duties. Some PhD students legit work like 70+ hours per week (however, I will create another post to discuss my life hacks at time management, they’re bomb – just by the way).
  • Lots of public speaking. Both in front of your peers and potential supervisors and in front of the undergraduates you may teach. This last one can be pretty awkward. For example, I began teaching undergraduate introductory astronomy labs just months after graduating from undergrad myself. It was a struggle for me to find the right balance between being a lab instructor and being their peer (At first, I went super hard and tried to get everyone to call me “Ms. Eagle”. Let’s just say that didn’t pan out.).
  • Research presentations. This part was particularly horrifying for me as presenting high energy astrophysics research takes some practice. Presenting science is actually a lot harder than you might have guessed! Just knowing you are giving a talk about a field you are in new in, in front of faculty that have dedicated decades to this field already, is enough to make the pit in your stomach churn.
  • Imposter Syndrome: Where you feel like no matter how hard you work, how many awards you earn, how many accomplishments you make, you are still somehow “faking it”. You feel as though you have managed to fool everyone around you into thinking you are this rightly peer who deserves to be here but deep down inside, you feel like a huge F A  K E. I struggled with this heavily when first entering graduate school, and I continue to battle with this every day.

Between classes, studying, homework, teaching, grading, running experiments, reducing data, interpreting results, collaborating, meeting with supervisors, meeting with students, writing grants and proposals, practicing research presentations (etcetcetc!), where on Earth can a graduate student find time to cook his\herself a decent meal? Read a book for fun? Exercise? Have a family (sorry, I can’t provide advice on that yet)? Have a pet****? NAP?!
*****and be a good, responsible pet owner. 

I haven’t even mentioned other factors that negatviely impact some graduate students like finances and socioeconomic status. Balancing work and personal life as a graduate student can be even harder if you already struggle with mental and physical health or lack organizational skills, study skills, and time management skills. It could literally make you or break you to have good habits already established when you enter graduate school. It can be one thousand times worse otherwise!
Now, I’m going to level with you. Graduate school actually helped me diagnose my anxiety. I realized that what I was feeling was way out of control and for the first time in my life, I sought professional help, at the age of 22. I was diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). My anxiety manifested itself largely in insecure thoughts where I constantly doubted myself. This quickly grew in severity in graduate school, inside and outside of work. I had this irrational fear that if I didn’t check that I locked the front door ten or fifteen times before I left, somehow BOTH doors (I had two front doors back then) would creak open and my little Ruca would run away, never to be found again. It got so bad I was turning around after leaving the house once a week, going back home and checking that I locked the front door. Poor Ruca probably got so excited every time he heard me wiggling the door knob.

Ruca on the first door knob check vs. Ruca after the tenth door knob check

I went to CAPS at Clemson University, a free counseling service for studentsMany universities offer free mental health services like this now! I have to say you will probably get better diagnoses and therapists with better and wider treatment methods outside of places like CAPS but, it does get the job done. I mean, after all, they diagnosed and treated me. The therapist I had through CAPS got me in touch with a physician who specializes in OCD and I see her to this day. She helped me get rid of my door knob jiggling and still works with me on my anxiety with public speaking today.

I am putting myself in a fairly vulnerable position right now telling you all of this but I am pushing myself to share my story to try to convince you that we are all truly mad here. It’s cliché because it’s true! We all have our own issues. We should never feel weird for admitting it, embracing it, and then learning how to work with it (and sometimes around it). There are tons of ways people learn to embrace the kooky side of them in a positive way. I am by no means an expert on this but I can at least share things that have helped me to control my anxiety; both the “baseline level” anxiety and those panicky moments. Maybe it’ll work for you, maybe it won’t. Maybe doctors and therapists are for you, maybe they’re not your first choice; everyone is different and responds differently to different approaches. healthy mind is a great state to be in to learn and grow as a person. Do whatever works for you to maintain a good place mentally while trying to survive graduate school.
Disclaimer: You don’t need to have experienced something traumatizing for you to seek professional help. Therapists are professionals at helping you understand your emotions and how you can better tame them when they start getting testy. 

These are things I do when I am feeling overwhelmed:

  • Breathing exercises
  • Yoga
  • Meditate (I mean, I try)
  • Go for a hike
  • Walk (with or without Ruca, whatever feels better)
  • Call my sister and vent (or cry, or both)
  • Run
  • Read a novel
  • Read a book on my disorder (I only did this once haha but you’d be surprised how learning about why you might have certain thoughts or thought processes can help you convince yourself they have no power over you.)
  • For a balanced mind, I read, run, and walk regularly. ​
Picture

A ~2-mile hiking tail called Lee Falls Trail in Oconee State Park, South Carolina.
I realize I am way more physically active than most people and rely a ton on exercising to calm me down. So my advice for anyone who cringes when reading the word “run” is to try the other practices first. Yoga is really helpful in learning breathing exercises and is basically like intense stretching but it really does center the mind and makes your body feel good if you take it seriously.
I was stubborn about yoga for years, thinking I was too hyper of a person to enjoy something as slow as yoga but it’s proven to be the one thing that makes me slow down, relax, thank myself for trying, and just b r e a t h.

​Now, meditating is HARD. I still haven’t gotten that one down. Every time I try, I either fall asleep or my eyelids start twitching like crazy and it’s all I can think about. But, from friends who have mastered it, they rave about it and most therapists even suggest trying it. Meditation, in theory, helps you learn to control your thoughts and that is a very powerful tool to have when you have anxiety (or other mental health issues). Reading is a nice one, too, because if you’re just looking to stop the anxious train in its tracks, reading a good novel is a great way to distract your mind.

To learn more about mental health, how to address a mental health issue, and other resources, click here. If you think you could benefit from seeking help, find a local counsellor! There is no shame in a little mind massage. Also, don’t worry if you are not insured. Simply Google independent counsellors in your area. You can find an affordable counsellor this way or find someone who has special programs for the uninsured. ​​

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