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Incorporating Self-Care in Graduate School

The fall semester usually feels like a new beginning, typically marking the start of your “next year” in grad school. For most students, this comes with a sense of eagerness and commitment to having a productive year. Whether this is your first year in Graduate School or your sixth, the beginning of the academic year is often filled with promises to yourself to “get a lot done” or to “finish this” or “accomplish that.” Unfortunately, if there are any additional resolutions to take care of yourself in the process, those promises to stay healthy and sane and not give in to stress are usually the first to be forgotten. One reason it’s easy to forget self-care is that it remains a general, poorly defined goal.

To maintain as much of your internal resources in order to meet your academic goals (not to mention enjoying your life more), it helps to break self-care down into specific priorities. There’s a paradox in adding items on your perpetual “To-Do” lists in that you may actually feel better doing a bit more if the additional priorities help you remain well-rounded and well-grounded.

Acknowledge Progress Daily. Even when you feel you are progressing very little, it’s important to keep track of what you have accomplished—in both your academic and personal lives.

Maintain Internal Conversation. We often demand a balance between our personal and academic priorities. In terms of time and energy, this is usually not very pragmatic. However, if you can maintain a sort of conversation between those dimensions of home and personal life and those dimensions of your academic and professional lives, you can avoid the problems that come with ignoring dimensions of your life. Even if there is imbalance between your various life dimensions, if you allow for a negotiating dialogue between these needs and interests, there won’t be neglect.

When Self-Neglect Has Occurred, Give a Little Instead of Nothing. There will be times that you feel so busy with graduate school demands that your internal conversation consistently ends with, “I don’t have time” for anything other than your work. When that becomes a pattern, remember to make time and space to be creative or involved in some personal (non-academic/non-professional) interests and hobbies. Even if it’s only an hour a week, being creative or getting exercise or spending time focused on personal relationships can be restorative enough to not only help you value your life more—it can help improve your performance in your writing and research productivity.

Listen to your emotions. Graduate students often try to suppress emotions for the sake of productivity, especially those associated with vulnerability. However, feeling discouraged or scared or angry can usually tell you that there is an important aspect of your life that needs attention—even if only briefly. Ignoring or suppressing these can lead to problems with depression, anxiety, or other disruptive problems and behaviors.

Don’t prohibit yourself from sometimes questioning your goals and the path you’ve chosen to pursue them on. Graduate school often involves periods of feeling overwhelmed, leading to second-guessing your decision to pursue this degree. If you deny or ignore these, you may find your motivation dropping even more. Re-assessing what your goals are, in all dimensions of your life, rarely leads to quitting. Usually, it leads to clarifying and remembering your motivation and your passion for the work.

Pace is Usually More Important than Productivity. Keep in mind that you have more than a task list; you likely also have time lines, several of them, with some more immediate and others more long-term. When you feel overwhelmed with how much you have to do, remember to think in terms of pace and progress along with pressure to produce.

Contributed by CAPS staff.