Self-Care for Graduate Students
Self-Care for Graduate Students
Guest post by Sara Kelm, PhD student in Rhetoric and Composition at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, TX
Let me know if this sounds familiar: you are a graduate student. You are taking classes, working on exams, writing a dissertation. You are supposed to be reading constantly. If you’re not reading, you should be writing.
You’re also a teacher. You get endless emails from undergraduates wanting time and attention, and some of them even deserve your time and attention, but you can’t give either because you have stacks of grading peppered among the books you’re supposed to be reading.
Also, you’re on committees, in reading groups, and (supposedly) doing your own research. Oh, and you have a family: a partner, a child, a parent, a best friend. There’s never enough money, or time, or energy.
Being in graduate school is stressful. Though your grandmother may wonder what you do all day – “you only have class once a week? How nice!” – you’re among friends here. We get it. We’re living it. And “it” is our dream, or leading us to our dream, or approximating our dream, and we know we’re lucky to get to do this. But why does it seem so hard if we’re so lucky?
Because it is just plain hard. And here’s the truth: it’s impossible to work at a frantic pace until graduation—or for the rest of our careers—unless we take care of ourselves. Otherwise, we are going to burn out and burn out hard. So it is crucial that we make a regimen of self-care a priority.
Self-care has become a buzzword outside of the academy, because (I don’t know if you’ve noticed this) the world is, figuratively and literally, on fire. People are realizing that the fight for truth, ideas, and goodwill is going to be a long one. Point in case: the New York Times did a search on Google Trends and found that “self-care” peaked in search interest popularity from Nov. 13 through Nov. 19, the largest increase in the last five years. No surprise there, really.
As grad students, we’re both in this larger world of tension and violence, and in our own world of big ideas and thousands of pages of reading. Hence why self-care is so important: if we don’t learn to care for ourselves, to find places of joy and rest, we’re not going to be able to stay the course. And this world needs our good ideas, amazing teaching, impressive researching, and powerful problem-solving now more than ever. The bad stuff isn’t going to go away, but we need to get stronger so that we can deal with what is to come. As writer Sara Black McCulloch says, “You’re never going to be consistently happy and you can’t prevent sadness or life from running its course. Self-care is a way to at least strengthen yourself, find some inner core so that you’re ready when life comes at you.” Think of it like another skill for your personal, spiritual CV.
If growing an imaginary CV isn’t enticing enough, follow in the steps of our favorite “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet” Audre Lorde, who wrote in her 1988 book, A Burst of Light, that “caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” Plenty of political warfare is needed right now, and self-preservation is at the core of that work.
So, here are some suggestions for self-care: body, mind, and spirit. They’re not exhaustive. They are not simply more items for your “to-do” list. Instead, consider them ways to be fiercely kind to yourself. We all need you to continue your good work, whatever that work is. Keep yourself going: to that degree, that job, that next goal. Because there will be another goal after that.
Take care of your body
Drink … water: The first thing I always ask my colleagues when they are complaining of some bodily ailment is “have you been drinking water?” I am no doctor (yet) and I know little about the inner workings of the human body, but I also know drinking a glass of water helps a variety of ills somehow. Many aches and pains can be attributed to dehydration, and water, that free and luscious gift of the earth, fixes that.
Exercise: I know, I know. It’s the worst. You don’t have time for it. But seriously, we have to move our bodies. Now, you don’t have to run marathons. There are all these hardcore academics who run marathons, and if that’s your idea of a good time, do it. But if you’re a yoga girl (like myself), find a cheap yoga class. Or find an online yoga video. (link to doyouyoga.com) Take a walk around your block. Do something that gets you off your butt and takes you somewhere else. The body doesn’t just house your mind; the two are connected, and a healthy body helps a healthy mind.
Eat food: Don’t skip meals if you can help it. Buy granola bars and keep them in your backpack. Some people avoid eating when they are stressed, because it provides them a measure of control. But abstaining from food deprives our minds of necessary nutrients. And there’s no shame in eating pizza or a burger, as long as we get some vegetables at some point (french fries don’t really count). Feed your body good things, and you’ll feel better.
Sleep: We’re in graduate school. We have a to-do list a million miles long, and we feel at any point that if we don’t do (fill-in-the-blank), we’ll never get a job. So, sleep is one of the first things to go. Plus, if you are blessed to have children, you are already in a constant state of deprivation. I don’t know what to tell you, except I’m finding that the older I get, the harder it is to bounce back from all-nighters. Or do all-nighters. Our bodies have a hard-reset button, and it happens nightly. If we find ways to sleep, we will feel better and do better.
Take care of your mind
Take breaks: Breaks allow us to gather our thoughts and to get out of the madness inside our minds. Perhaps you are one of those people who can sit down and write for four hours without taking a break, but I am certainly not. So. I often need to step away from the screen. Find something green to look at. Read a book for fun (might I suggest YA dystopian fiction? I have some recommendations… [links]). Get away from my work so that I can come back to it refreshed. As my favorite person I’ve never met, Mr. Lin-Manuel Miranda, says: “The good idea comes in the moment of rest. It comes in the shower. It comes when you’re doodling or playing trains with your son.” So, if you want your dissertation to be as popular as Hamilton, you’re going to need to take breaks
Create a “done list” along with your “to do list”: My “to-do list” never ends. I just keep adding things to the end of it, because there are always more things to do. So, I’ve started also keeping a “done list.” This way, I can see what I’ve accomplished in the day. Trust me, I put anything and everything on that list. Sometimes, I just have to celebrate reading ten pages of really insane, dense theory. “Ten pages read” on the “done list.” Did the dishes? On the list. Walked around the block? On the list. Talked to your mom for fifteen minutes on your commute home? On the list. Celebrate accomplishing the little things.
Talk to someone: Counseling. We could all use a listening ear, especially one outside of our academic context who can echo our crazy, self-defeating, irrational thoughts back to us and tell us that we’re humans doing hard things and it’s okay to be struggling. Most schools have free counseling that is paid for in student fees, and if not, many counselors will work with you on payment if you demonstrate financial need. Along with this, if your therapist thinks you might benefit from some medication, do it. Anti-anxiety medication can make life a lot smoother. It’s not for everyone, but it might be for you. Listen to the professional opinion of a highly educated person who cares about your wellbeing. At the very least, find someone who will listen without judgment and hand you a tissue when it all gets to be too much.
Make Imposter’s Syndrome your personal nemesis: Imposter’s Syndrome plagues us all. It’s that feeling that at any moment, someone is going to realize that you don’t belong. They’re going to lean over to your dissertation director and say, “Who let that dummy in here?” And all of the smart people who actually deserve to be in your program and who will get jobs while you languish in obscurity will start to laugh. Then you realize that you’re naked! And then you wake up in a cold sweat. Imposter Syndrome invades even our dreams. The secret is that we all feel like imposters at some point. I’m not kidding about this, I promise. Start asking around, in whispers if necessary, and once you find out you’re not alone, figure out ways to encourage yourself and those around you. You’re in a program, you’re doing the hard work, and you’ll find ways to be successful. Punch Imposter’s Syndrome in the face whenever possible.
Find your spaces: I used to read at the zoo four times a week. I did my master’s degree in a medium-sized Southern town that had a medium-sized zoo, and in my first year, I got a membership to the zoo. Mid-morning, especially in the “winter,” I would set up camp either in the African savannah, overlooking the giraffes, or on the picnic tables near the ring-tailed lemurs. The zoo became one of my spaces, in which I could relax, do work, see the sun, and feel like a real person for just an hour or two. You have to find your spaces that work for you: library? Coffee shop? Corner of the engineering building? A friend’s porch swing? Find the places that help you feel productive and feel human, and cling to them. Keep them secret if need be.
Create a routine (and then break it): I am a creature of habit, and one of the best and hardest things for me about the academic lifestyle is that it changes every four months. I need to find my routine in the first few weeks of school, so I know what time to get to campus, how long it’ll take me to park, where my classes are, and where the nearest bagels are, for the days when I forget my lunch. Then, once I have my routine, I break it in little ways. Some days, I go for lunch with a friend, even though that’s my grading time. Or I park in a different lot because it’s such a beautiful day and an extra ten-minute walk will do me good. Basically, figure out what works for you at that time in your life. Then hold it loosely.
Take care of your spirit
Find your people: I have been grateful to do my graduate work at places where people actually like each other. Not everyone, and not all the time (those last two weeks of the semester are all scowling, all the time). But you cannot survive without having people to vent with and laugh with. Some of those people will be in your department, but also we need people outside of our academic work. We can easily start believing that this world is all there is, and forget that most people live very different lives. We need to be able to talk about things other than school and classwork. So, even though it’s hard and takes time, try to find a community. Create a reading group that is mostly a “drinking wine” group. Join a church or a community swing dance group. Get out of your own bubble and your own head, and find those people who will help drag you through this when you can’t pick up your feet anymore.
Invest yourself in what matters: Sometimes we just keep doing things because we don’t know what else to do. But we have to listen to ourselves and what our spirits are saying to us. I’m not trying to sound all mystical, but really. Stop for a second: do you actually like that thing that you say by rote when you meet a new academic and she asks what your academic interests are? Do you like that reading group you go to monthly, beyond the fact that it has free food? Do you want to do research for the rest of your life, or do you really like teaching? Or would you rather just work at a museum or a library?
Sometimes we need to stop and ask these scary questions to make sure we’re still on the right track. We need to care about our work, because it is crazy hard. So, do the things that give you life, and then find out why they give you life. That will help you in communicating why these things are worth it, and from what I’ve heard, that’s the most important part of getting a job and being successful: framing your experiences as being valuable. Your CV isn’t the be-all, end-all. Your mental and emotional health is. Future professional institutions will want people who know who they are and what they want. So, start figuring this out now.
Care less: I know this is impossible. But if you know what matters, try to care less about the rest of it. Ask your people to help you. Care about the things worth caring about, and leave the rest of it behind.
Lastly, find ways to remind yourself that you are more than your job: You are a human being who loves words and ideas, and the world needs you to do good work. You need you to do good work. What the work is, who knows. But keep moving forward, doing this hard work. Graduate school won’t last forever, but our lives are happening now. Let’s all work together to find ways to live them well.
One more thing: I have no idea how to do any of this. But I think it’s important. So, if you have any other suggestions about ways to care for yourself while you’re in graduate school, chime in. We all need to work together on this.
Be healthy, colleagues.