How not to suck at maintaining your health in graduate school: Stress Management

Blog plans: I will continue to write how not to suck at graduate school for my students and others who wish to follow and comment. In the fall, I will be starting a monthly content-based blog on the science of implementation of educational and psychological interventions. This blog will reflect the work and thinking from the Connection Lab at McGill University. My students will be making many of the contributions. The target audience for this new blog is teachers, school psychologists, educational administrators, and academics.

Note and Recommendation: My colleague and respected peer mentor, Professor Bruce Shore, has written an excellent book for all graduate students and academic supervisors entitled, The Graduate Advisor Handbook: A Student-Centered Approach. Professor Shore has won every award that McGill University has for teaching and supervision, in addition to being an outstanding scholar. Moreover, he is a good guy. But this book is useful and a must read for all supervisors (and their students). ( If every graduate-level supervisor read and followed the ideas put forth in this book, then there would be no need for this blog.

STRESS!!! Everyone seems to talk about it all of the time. Stress and busy-ness seem to be a badge of honour for everyone in modern life. To some degree this is a humble-brag (i.e., I am so important that everyone wants me to do everything all of the time). For the most part, I have little patience for professionals who complain about stress and how busy they are. Say, “No” more often and appropriately, delegate effectively, have well-considered priorities and perspectives, self-advocate well; and these take care of most stress for many. These rather flip approaches are effective, but not realistic options for most of us. For example, parents, people with unreasonable bosses, jobs where there is little control—that is, nearly all of us. This is why graduate students inevitably experience uncomfortable levels of stress. They often have the worst of all worlds–high expectations, high volume of work, minimum control, and unclear criteria for success. Stress is inevitable and nearly impossible to avoid.

Graduate students have multiple bosses, who are ego-centric, capricious, and often have a different agenda than helping students cope. I admit to being part of the problem and tell all of my students, “My goal as a supervisor is to have you accomplish more than you think that you can. And it will be difficult.” I push students. I also say, “I love you guys, but I want you to leave. Let’s get you graduated.” Moreover, graduate students tend to be conscientious, ambitious, high achieving, people pleasing, driven, and intense. Add these ingredients to juggling financial concerns, attempting to maintain a social and family life, managing relationships with significant others, coping with physical and mental health issues, navigating university bureaucracy, addressing immigration and tax issues, striving to achieve personal goals and dreams, being resilient to failure experiences (often for the first time), and many more things. These ingredients are a perfect recipe for stress. Even if you are among the lucky few who can manage these stressors effectively, the volume of work and being constantly evaluated will likely cause increases in stress.

I honestly do not have answers. Frankly, I do not trust people who say that they have the answers. The factors leading to stress vary dramatically across students. Solutions also vary. Here are some ideas that I use that seem to work for me (and some that did not work for me). I am hoping that some of these ideas work for of you.

A major way to avoid big stress is to avoid poor short-term coping mechanisms. Stress in grad school made made me want to escape. I had graduate school issues with alcohol and drug use, and some other high-risk behaviours. Those behaviours work well immediately. In the long-term these escape behaviours created far more stress than if I had simply stayed stressed. Escape can be fun and not a bad short-term coping mechanism, so long as the behaviours are healthful. Long-term coping with stress usually centres on the concept of control. Oddly, I believed that engaging in these unhealthful escape behaviours were about taking control of my graduate student life. In fact, these behaviours resulted in losing control and creating more stress. I did not have success in graduate school until I developed better coping mechanisms addressing stress that increased my control.

I learned to become a control freak. My day is scheduled to 15-minute chunks. Nearly all of my coping is centred around keeping to my schedule. As such, it is nearly impossible to contact me by phone, I check e-mails every 2 hours, tweet 4 times per day, and do not allow the opportunity for people to just drop in. I have office hours—so there is a planned time for people to drop in. I also teach anyone around me what the definition of “crisis” is. If you are bleeding, someone needs CPR, having an emotional breakdown, having a car breakdown; then I will drop everything and be there right now. But in the history of mankind there has never been a paperwork or signature crisis. Plan and schedule appropriately. I truly become stressed when the boss says, “Just drop by my office in the morning for a chat.” Or there is a meeting that we must schedule “tomorrow.” Or anything else that requires that I deviate from my agenda. My stress sky-rocketed this year as I became the graduate program director. On a weekly basis, I heard things like, “The budget was changed last night. We need to meet this afternoon to re-schedule all of the classes for fall.” Arghhh! I have learned to have a bit of flexibility in scheduling. I have time slots on my calendar for “unexpected events.”

The other aspect of being a control freak is that I must know what is expected of me. The tenure process made me physically ill with stress. The criteria are maddeningly vague. I never received a straight answer. I send my dossier to many people inside and outside of the university to ask if I had a chance to get tenure. They laughed and said, “Of course you will get tenure. Why are you even worried?” It did not matter. Without firm criteria for success, I could not control my anxiety. Given my experiences, which I know are not typical, here are a few tools to control stress:

  1. Make annual goals with your supervisor. Do this in the fall. Sit down and develop measurable and observable goals. Submit 3 refereed papers, Complete dissertation proposal, Average 20 hours per week in the lab are measurable and clear criteria for success. Improve clinical skills, write more papers, become a better teacher are not measurable. You can handle almost any volume of work, if you have time to plan and the criteria are clear.
  2. Take each goal and assess the resources required to complete this goal. Supervision, time, materials, personnel, and other needs can be analysed. Also develop a time line for completion of each goal.
  3. Assess your progress toward each goal each week. Revise the plan as needed, but do not go more than a week without evaluating progress.
  4. This same process can be used for classwork, field placements, internships and the like.

When you know exactly what you want to do and accomplish, then it is easier to say “no” to tasks that do not contribute to the short or long-term objectives that you have. This sounds psychotically controlling and a bit obsessive. I think that control reduces stress. The supervisor who says, “Let’s just see how things go” or “We will see what kind of projects pop up” might sound flexible; but vagueness equals stress or getting nothing completed. Yet, the second big part of establishing this style of control is that students know that they can renegotiate goals based on unpredictable stressors and events; or underestimating of the amount of time or resources required to achieve a project. You can have flexibility and control. My students know that if a new project that is not in their goals pops up, that they will have the choice to accept or decline this opportunity. We may need to rework the goals to fit this new project.

Once you have these timelines set out, then put tasks and steps in your calendar. Then add to your schedule time for:

  1. Sleep
  2. Eat
  3. Socialize
  4. Exercise
  5. Free time

Yes, I said to schedule sleep. It is so stressful to need sleep, but feel guilty about going to bed. Sleep—you earned it. Also, I am not a fan of multitasking. I think that it is inefficient and adds to stress and guilt. Don’t write a paper and watch reality TV. Schedule an hour to write the paper and an hour to watch TV. Bonus: the TV is completely guilt free.

A weird and random item. In my schedule is a 5-minute seated meditation in the morning and at noon. It is helpful for me to know how to clear my mind of clutter and have at least 10 minutes of empty time. I find this activity energizing and clarifying. I use a simple breathing meditation. Sit, count, and experience breaths. When an intrusive thought comes to your mind, that is okay; but start counting at one again. It took me two weeks to get past counting one breath before a thought intruded. Now I can usually go 5 minutes with an empty mind. Controlling one’s own thoughts is a stress-reducing form and important form of control.

In case my theme here is not entirely clear to grad students: choose your supervisor wisely. The best way to keep a lid on stress is to have a supportive supervisor and peer group. Stay way from any potential supervisor who says, “Well, I did it this way when I was a student and you will do it that way, too.” There are many successful supervision styles, but they need to acknowledge that graduate school is inherently stressful and support a plan to help you manage and control stress that meets your individual needs.

Frequently, I read about a graduate student who quits school. I completely respect these people. They have not failed, but taken control of their life and their stress. They simply said, “No more.” The priorities of their life were more important than their annual goals and they made a decision and took control.

Stress can overwhelm anyone. When you find yourself in a situation that is paralysing, causing intense physical symptoms, and have nowhere to turn; then I recommend professional support. Counselling can be an important method of helping manage emotions and developing a mindset to cope with extreme challenges. It is a good investment of time worth putting in your schedule. I cannot make promises for others, but I can say that I would have complete respect and support for a student who seeks outside help.

Being a graduate student can take a toll on students and cause a staggering amount of stress. Seek control. Establish priorities. Work with people who are flexible and can help you be your best. This is only one approach to managing a few aspects of stress. Whichever approaches you take, be mindful in how you manage stress.


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