Taking Care of Yourself in Graduate School

MPj04330550000[1]Congratulations – you are accepted into graduate school! Whew! It is such hard work to get into a graduate program that it is sometimes hard to remember to take care of yourself once you get there. There are so many things to be involved in, so many things you have to do and learn. And you want to give your absolute best to everything you do.

It is easy to become so engaged in all of this that you forget to take the time to nurture your whole self –the physical, mental, emotional, social, and spiritual. It is important to find a way to balance all these aspects of your life and maintain that balance throughout your graduate school years. You will spend many hours, reading, going to class, doing research, and seeing clients; however, to be truly successful you also have to make sure to keep your life in balance. This may actually be one of the hardest things you have to learn and, as someone who learned much of this the hard way, I offer a few suggestions that were helpful to me. I hope they can be useful to you.

First, keep in mind why it is you are in graduate school. What drew you to psychology? What does it mean to you to become a psychologist? What do you really see yourself doing in the future?

It is important to be really specific about answering these questions because you will need the motivation that comes from that specific vision often during your graduate school career.

  • If your answer is something non-specific like, “I want to help people”, it may help you to work on a more specific answer. Which people? Adults? Children? People with specific characteristics, issues, experiences? Try to really picture what you will be doing as a psychologist, who you will be working with, and the setting you will work in. When things get tough and you wonder if you made the right choice in pursuing a Ph.D., when you wonder if you should commit five years of your life, when you wonder if it should be these five years, when you wonder if you can really do this – what will sustain you is remembering the reasons you thought becoming a psychologist was important. It is not a bad idea to write these reasons down, represent them with a picture, videotape yourself talking about them, or engage in any other things that will help you remember exactly why becoming a psychologist was important to you.

Second, make sure that you are always doing something that you really love.

If what you love is clinical work, make sure you have something you are doing in that area in the midst of a semester heavy on research or theory. Even if your courses are arranged in such a way that you have a semester lacking in clinical focus, you can watch videos of psychotherapy, shadow a colleague’s case, or read just ten pages a day on clinical techniques. If research is your passion and you feel that all your time is being taken by practica and clinical work, make sure you give yourself the time to read the latest study in your favorite journal, attend a colloquia, or just talk to a colleague about their research. The point is that going a whole semester with no attention to the things that really make you happy can make you forget why you are doing this. Sometimes you get so buried that you cannot even remember the things that make you happy. That is the time to get out your writing, your picture, your videotape or whatever you did to document why this was all important for you to do at this time in your life.

  • You will always be busy, and if you are doing what you love, that busy-ness should bring you joy. If it is all just about what has to be done, if there is no joy, you need to find a way to reconnect. You might feel that you are so busy that you cannot fit another single thing in your day or your week. But if you think about the time that it takes when you do not want to get out of bed, when you watch a TV show you do not even really care about just so you can avoid doing what you are “supposed” to be doing, or the “just one more” video game you engage in before you get to work on your thesis – you will probably be able to find the time. If you are not sure what it is that you really love, think back to why you started this. In that, you will likely find the seed of what you love to do.

Finally, one of the most important things I have learned is how important it is to have something in my life that allows me to feel a sense of accomplishment.

When I was in graduate school, I was starting a placement at an emergency youth shelter for children and adolescents who had been removed from their homes due to abuse or neglect. My supervisor invited us over to his house for a BBQ. When we were all there, he said he wanted to show us something important and took us to his garage. Inside, was an amazing array of handmade furniture, in every phase of being cut out, built, finished, and polished. He told us that in our work, we very often do not get to see the outcomes. If people are doing well, they do not come in to see us. Often, working with children, they get sent off to placements, return home, or run away and we never know what happened to them. If we are going to survive in this profession, we have to give ourselves something that we can stand back and say, “I did that. It is finished.” For my supervisor, it was building his furniture. I have never forgotten this lesson and it has come back to me in many ways over the years since.

  • If you find yourself feeling strangely gratified by sweeping the floor — watching the pile of dirt come together, getting it all into the pan, and then throwing it away — you probably have a need for a sense of accomplishment in your life. Theses and dissertations, preliminary exams, and internship applications are wonderful sources of accomplishment but they are few and far between. We need something more concrete, frequent, and often visible. Our work does not often present us with a pile in an “In basket” that will all get transferred by the end of the day to an “Out basket”. We need to find something that can give us as much pleasure as taking an empty box, filling it with objects, taping it up, writing the contents on the side and piling it in an ever-growing stack. Even though it is annoying to realize that everything you need is in one of those boxes, it is an amazing sense of accomplishment to see the stack of boxes piling up. What can you give yourself that gives you that sense of accomplishment. And when you tell yourself you do not have the time for it, remember that you cannot afford not to. You have to nourish your spirit as much as your mind.

Remember that it is all about balance. Graduate school will build your mind and your skills. Don’t forget about your joy, your passion, your friends and loved ones, your spiritual life. These are the parts of your life that will get you through the long run of graduate study, will guide you in your work, and allow you to give the best of what you have to the work you choose to do.

Editor’s note: This post was written by Beth Boyd, PhD, Professor; University of South Dakota. It originally appeared on the Multicultural Mentoring blog by the Society of Clinical Psychology’s Section on the Clinical Psychology of Ethnic Minorities. (APA Division 12, Section 6). It is reposted here with generous permission. Over time, you will see all eight original posts on gradPSYCH Blog.

 

One thought on “Taking Care of Yourself in Graduate School

  1. Randy

    I just recently graduated with my masters in mental health counseling. Self care was a huge part of our training. This is an excellent post and one that i will link to on my won website. It’s a subject that is not given enough attention to for grad students these days. We have to be careful about burnout. We just don’t have any choice!

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