Thriving in Graduate School (and in Life): A Different Perspective

January 3, 2018


*This blog was also posted on the Society for Research on Adolescence website*


It’s no surprise to anybody reading this that graduate student mental health is a concern. Some recent findings about graduate student mental health (an understudied population):

-Over half of graduate students reported feeling nervous, irritable, stressed, etc.

-33% of psychology students reported significant symptoms of depression.

-10% of graduate and professional students at UCLA reported contemplating suicide.


I earned my Ph.D. in 2015. Yes, I worked a lot, and I worked hard. Yes, there were times that were stressful for me: major deadlines happening at the same time, dealing with imposter syndrome, completing Ph.D. exams and choosing a dissertation topic were tough at times…


But it wasn’t stressful all the time. And I don’t think it has to be. (Honestly, I thrived throughout most of my time in graduate school).


I’d like to share a different perspective to dealing with stress in graduate school that got me through tough times and allowed me to thrive.


Don’t believe everything you think.

Our thinking naturally ebbs and flows regardless of outside circumstances (you know, one minute it feels like you’ve totally got the semester under control, and the next, you feel like the worst graduate student in your cohort – but nothing actually changed between those two minutes). Choose to trust your thinking when you’re in a high mood, and don’t take it so seriously when you’re not feeling great.


As another example… I’ve had many grad school buddies say things to me like, “My advisor hates me,” “My advisor doesn’t believe in me,” or “My advisor doesn’t think I’m doing a good job.” What if you don’t actually know what other people are thinking about you? What if your mind just made it up, and you’re believing something that isn’t true?


Trust me, your advisor or any faculty member you’re working with has a thousand things going on at any given time (and *gasp* they ALSO have a personal life!) – they may not remember your research idea from the last lab meeting because they have a teething 6-month old at home and didn’t sleep last night. They haven’t submitted your recommendation letter yet? It’s possible they innocently forgot because they have tenure review on the horizon and it’s eating up all their time. It’s not personal, and what you think may be happening may not actually be happening at all.


Just for fun, try noticing the thoughts that randomly pop into your mind, and challenge them. Are they true? Would life be easier if you chose to let those (made-up) thoughts go?


Be gentle with yourself.

You are doing the best you can in any given moment, and that’s good enough. Some days, you’re going to make huge progress on data analysis for a paper, and other days, it’s going to be a struggle to write a single paragraph for a short course assignment. It’s okay. Ride the highs, and be gentle with yourself during the lows.


You’ll get your mojo back naturally, there’s nothing you need to do except be nice to yourself.


We do so much better when we’re not stressed out.

One trick I’ve learned is to approach seemingly insurmountable tasks as if they aren’t a big deal (because really, they’re not). Choosing a dissertation topic was really difficult for me – I put so much pressure on choosing the right topic, having just the right balance between depth and breadth, doing enough but not doing too much, I just had to do some really fancy quantitative data analysis... I put so much pressure on myself, I got stuck. For a long time.


Then it occurred to me, “Why is my dissertation such a big deal? This isn’t life-and-death… It’s just another study. No big deal.” It was so much easier to brainstorm and move forward with my dissertation without all of the self-imposed pressure for it to be the perfect dissertation.


So, my advice for thriving in graduate school (and in life)?

-Challenge your thoughts.

-Be nice to yourself – you’re doing the best you can in any given moment, always. There is no exception to this. 

-Remember, it’s not a big deal.


Books I recommend about being a graduate student:

·         Publish and Prosper by Nathaniel Lambert

·         Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day by Joan Bolker

·         Getting Things Done by David Allen


Books I recommend that have nothing to do with being a graduate student:

·         Being Human by Amy Johnson

·         Loving What Is by Byron Katie

·         Coming Home by Dicken Bettinger


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