• GradHacker

    A Blog from GradHacker and MATRIX: The Center for Humane Arts, Letters and Social Sciences Online


Self-Care, Emotional Health, Dissertation. In That Order.

A reminder to focus on your well-being during graduate school.

September 21, 2016

DeWitt Scott received his doctorate in Educational Leadership from Chicago State University.  You can follow him on Twitter at @dscotthighered.



There is absolutely nothing easy about pursuing a graduate degree.  Long hours of sustained reading, writing, and thinking, coupled with the regular challenges of our everyday lives, can often lead to exhaustion, frustration, and burnout. In addition, most graduate students are individuals who have spent their entire lives achieving the highest academic and professional goals and making success a standard. That perspective can lead some of us to be intense workaholics who seek perfection at all cost. In many cases, it is  we know.


While admirable in many ways, workaholics’ perfectionism can have a dark side. We can lose other parts of ourselves that normally sustain us and provide the nourishment necessary to succeed: family, relationships, friends, physical health, spirituality, etc. As a result, we can find ourselves achieving everything on our list of goals, but still unhappy and unhealthy.


As you chase your goal of becoming an expert in your chosen academic discipline, I want to give you tips that will help you maintain perspective, as well as your mental and emotional health.


First and foremost, no matter how intense and stressful your day-to-day demands may become, always take at least 15 minutes out of your day to reflect on all the things you have to be grateful for. Review every positive aspect of your life and think about the ways your life would be different without each of these things. Taking time for positive reflection not only keeps you conscious of all there is to be thankful for, it also subconsciously mediates negative feelings and unfavorable thoughts. It is the foundation with which you can achieve all of your success.


Second, set aside at least one day a week (two if you can spare it) in which you will not work on or think about anything pertaining to your classes, qualifying exam, dissertation, or other graduate school projects. Working seven days a week sounds ultra-productive, but it can actually put you on a path of burnout and lower quality output. Your emotional and psychological health will benefit immensely from taking a break on your work for at least a day. It does not even matter what you do on this off day. All that matters is what you do not do on this day, which is give time, energy, and attention to graduate work.


Squeezing time in your schedule for exercising has to be non-negotiable. Professionals in every industry say it all the time, “I can never find time to work out.”  Not finding time to work out now will force you to make time to deal with health problems later. Working out also allows you to blow off steam, clear your mind, and gives yourself a short break from your work. It will also result in you having more physical energy in the long run to devote to work.  You don’t necessarily have to get a personal trainer and go through a grueling, backbreaking workout. A short run, a Zumba class, or a bicycle ride could be enough. Whatever routine you choose, make it consistent just like any other appointment on your schedule.


Also, find and spend time with at least one person in your life who loves you regardless of how successful you may or may not be professionally and academically. Nothing can be more refreshing mentally, emotionally, and spiritually than to spend a couple of hours every week with someone who loves you purely for who you are and not what you have accomplished. That individual could be a child of yours, family member, significant other, friend, neighbor, or whomever. Spend some time with that person and they can help you see that your graduate school success and professional prospects are but a small part of what makes you special. In the hyper-competitive world of academia, we can easily forget that professional success does not equal personal worth. Take steps to reverse this outlook by connecting with unconditional love.


Lastly, make it a priority to participate in a service project that has significant meaning for you and aligns with your values. Feeding the homeless, donating time or resources to a shelter, volunteering at the church--whatever the activity you prefer--can help you maintain much-needed balance during what is usually a very nerve-racking time.  You can potentially realize that there are other people in the world who have to deal with far more difficult challenges than preparing for a dissertation proposal or completing a literature review. Redirecting your perspective in this way reinforces the idea that a successful dissertation defense is not the most important thing in society.


While graduate school and professional success are important, it is not worth your physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual health. Taking care of yourself first will give you a greater likelihood of graduate school success.  Neglect your personal health and the approval of your dissertation committee won’t be the only thing that you will find yourself worrying about.


How have you dealt with issues of health while pursuing or completing your doctorate?  What tips would you add to help those experiencing the taxing challenges of graduate school?


[Image by Flickr user Moyan Brenn and used under the Creative Commons license.]


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