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Graduate school is a challenging undertaking in normal times. In the present moment, it can be an extraordinarily difficult experience. While advanced degree programs often push brilliant and talented folks to their limit, the rigors of completing such programs are now made all the more demanding by the social, economic and public health shocks reverberating throughout the world. Higher education and political leaders have often struggled to adequately address these new challenges, and many graduate students are left feeling somewhat adrift as they manage their way through added layers of complexity.
In light of these circumstances, it could be helpful address head-on the difficulties that we are engaged in at the moment. After two years of surviving the “new normal” of the pandemic and working to support graduate student career development at my institution, I can honestly say that I have witnessed both the very best and the very worst that academe has to offer. As a staff member and a graduate student myself during the first months of the pandemic, this journey has been an emotional roller coaster, one filled with contingencies, interruptions and stress—as well as unexpected moments of joy. Innumerable times, I’ve found myself forced to pivot unexpectedly or react to swift changes while asking the question “How much longer can I remain resilient?”
If those words resonate with you, I want you to know that you are not alone and many folks on campus see you, understand you and want to support you. Your contributions are valued—and not just those you make in the lab, in the classroom or in scholarly journals. Your worth and your identity extend far beyond such achievements.
In fact, it is during these challenging times that we can benefit the most from revisiting that which makes us whole: our connections with friends and family (yes, even fur babies), our hobbies and other energizing pursuits. This is perhaps the most durable lesson of the pandemic years—that we are defined not by what we do for a living but by how we exist within the world at large.
For readers who, like me, may be struggling with feelings of burnout, I also suggest that the start of the new year may be a good time to take some proactive steps toward managing your energy. Below, I offer some strategies for navigating the numerous stressors you may be confronting. Ultimately, these ideas are but several of many possible approaches to enhancing one’s self-care, and I encourage graduate students to seek out additional resources and mental health supports on your campuses. Remember that, at the end of the day, you are the one who ultimately holds agency over your own well-being and the things to which you devote your time, energy and interest.
Reset expectations. Regardless of your circumstances, you probably entered your graduate program with certain aims in mind—goals for your scholarly growth, career development or other outcomes. As a career development advocate, I would suggest that these goals are highly beneficial, as they can serve as guideposts to keep you on track and/or motivate you throughout your journey. However, I would also advise that it is perfectly normal to reappraise your expectations from time to time.
Perhaps your career goals shift dramatically as you learn more about your research interests. Or perhaps changes in your life circumstances, such as the birth of a child or meeting a significant other, warrant reconsidering your original plans. You may discover that your graduate program positions students particularly well for some career pathways compared to others.
Whatever the case, there is no shame in conducting an honest reappraisal of your current situation and your most desirable path(s) forward. When doing so, be sure to pay careful attention to your emotions. How are you truly feeling about each of the potential outcomes? These can be subtle but important clues to appropriate next steps.
Renegotiate your terms of engagement. Along with resetting expectations for yourself, you might also consider renegotiating your terms of engagement with others. This lens is especially useful for the various working relationships in your life, such as those with your assistantship supervisor, your principal investigator or your research collaborators. You have probably learned a lot about your needs—and limitations—during the trials and triumphs of the last 24 months. Now is the time to put that knowledge to use by sharing it with others.
Be honest. What is not working for you in this relationship? In what ways are you overcommitted? What boundaries do you need to establish, enforce or reset?
These are all valuable questions, which, if addressed in a direct and compassionate way, could yield significant improvements to your quality of life. Note that this need not be a negative conversation. Rather, you can frame this dialogue from a strengths-based perspective by saying, “Here is what I need in order to perform at my very best …”
Likewise, take the opportunity to ask others how you can help them be at their best. If enacted sincerely, such conversations can greatly improve working dynamics and create a more open atmosphere among the entire team.
Weigh your options. Throughout the trials of graduate education, students have countless opportunities to ask themselves, What am I even doing here? This is a perfectly normal and just question to pose. In fact, the best advice that I received before beginning my Ph.D. was to center my “why.” A colleague told me, “You are going to want to quit every single week. So before you get started, think about why you are embarking on a doctoral program and what you will tell yourself when things get tough.”
A serious contemplation of the value of staying versus leaving is an opportunity to remind yourself of your core reasons for pursuing a graduate degree in the first place. Often, the pain and frustration you are experiencing are merely temporary, and you can manage them by refocusing on the long-term vision you hold for yourself. Conversely, I know many graduate students who have engaged in this serious reflection only after beginning their programs, ultimately concluding that completing the degree is not the best path forward for them. Persisting and leaving are both completely reasonable choices depending upon your own personal circumstances.
Even if are you are relatively settled on your decision to persist to degree completion, you may also find value in weighing other commitments that may no longer serve your best interests. It is common for ambitious graduate students to acquire a lot of extra baggage as they navigate their programs, and you can direct the same reflective lens toward research commitments, work projects or extracurricular involvements that no longer align with your developmental goals. Give yourself permission occasionally to examine every potential outcome—time spent thinking deeply about these choices may help you determine the best path for you. You may well find that your reflection helps you emerge re-energized and refocused toward your core professional development pursuits.