So You’ve Decided To Enjoy A Holiday Weekend

Happy Thanksgiving everyone! I did not want to write a long post taking both myself and my two whole followers away from their loved ones today, so I will keep it brief. Starting next week, I will present a series on one of the largest, most stressful components of earning a doctorate: the dissertation. For now, below is a link to Grad Psych’s Dissertation Diaries series, where my dissertation is profiled.

http://www.gradpsych-digital.org/gradpsych/201311?folio=10#pg12

No matter where you are in the process, I hope that I can provide some tips on managing stress in this process. For now, go enjoy some turkey, have a great holiday weekend, and remember: the semester is more than half over!

So You’ve Decided To Take Out Student Loans

Financing higher education is a realistic possibility in the United States, provided that you are willing to spend the rest of your life pinching pennies to make minimum payments on your debt for the rest of your life. I wish someone had sat me down and explained that I would end up taking out more loans than a lot of people take out on their first homes, and exactly what that meant for my future post-graduation. At the start of this school year, I received an email from the federal loan program that contained both my full balance and the daily interest accrual (yes daily, not monthly or yearly – I am in enough debt to be accruing significant DAILY interest) of my student loans. I did not ask them to send me this information. They just sent it to me, unsolicited, because they are not allowed to bill me until I graduate and they were hoping to guilt me into opting to pay early. I had to resist the urge to reply and tell them that, if I had any money to pay back my loans, I would not have taken them out in the first place.

It is unbelievably stressful to think about. I am having anxiety typing this post. My partner is banned from asking me about my loans, even though it has been established that we will be working to pay down the debt together. My family describes me as financially responsible because I have paid my credit card bill in full ever month since I was 18, but how responsible can I be when my student loans might prevent me from ever owning a home?

So, just like the federal government presented me with unsolicited information about my debt balance, I present you with my unsolicited advice for financing your graduate education. It is too late for me – I found out that, if I only make minimum payments on my debt, I will not even pay the interest, and I will end up owing more and more until I default on an amount larger than what I borrowed in the first place.

So you’ve been accepted into graduate school. Maybe you have even been accepted into more than one program. Maybe one of those programs is funded and this does not apply to you. If so congratulations! If not, read on.

Before making any final decisions, take some time to examine your school’s estimated cost of attendance. Keep in mind that they are probably lying about your living expenses. (My undergrad published statistics stating that you only needed $75-$100 per month on spending money!) Research the area and get a realistic idea of what it will cost you to attend. Find out what your programs offer in financial aid. Sadly, PsyD programs tend to offer little to no assistance. Grad school expenses also not only include tuition and books, but rent, groceries, and transportation – it is difficult to work a full time job while attending school, and so your loans will probably have to cover at least part of your living expenses. So how much will graduate school actually cost you? Once you have that information, look into how much you can realistically work as a student. For my program, there was more availability for side jobs during the first year than the second and third, and so it was possible to save a little bit then.

Once you have all of this information, you can determine how much debt you will have to accrue. (Don’t forget to account for interest!) Please do not make my mistake and think that your journey ends here – look into how you can pay down that debt. It is a lot of work, but it is the only way to make an educated decision about whether or not a graduate program is the right financial decision for you right now.

I know, I know, it is maddening – all of this to go into a career dedicated to helping people! Despite the financial burden, I would not change my decision to get my doctorate. I do sometimes think about whether I should have more carefully considered funded programs. If you find something you love doing, something you are truly passionate about, you will find a way to pay for it. I have heard the expression “Do what you love, and the money will come,” and I have to disagree, unless you happen to love the stock market or inventing Facebook.

When it comes to my career path, my belief is, “Do what you love, and you will find a way to pay for it.” Maybe I will not have the means to buy a new car every few years, and maybe I will have to get creative about my repayment options. For now, I resist the urge to online shop and eat a lot of Ramen. I hope it will be worth it.

So You’ve Decided To Go To Graduate School

Hello and welcome to the world of higher higher education! Maybe you are well into your doctoral program; maybe you are just starting the application process. Either way, I created this blog in the hopes of imparting some of my wisdom gleaned from my own survival of graduate school. What has worked for me may not be the best decision for you, but it is my hope that my experience might benefit others in my position. Graduate school has been an incredibly stressful, tear-filled, anger-inducing, rewarding, and painful experience, and I would not change my path for anything. My expertise is rather specific to psychology programs, but if you feel that something is relate-able to a different type of program, all the better.

For now, no matter where you are at in your graduate experience, I would like to share with you my most valuable piece of doctoral program advice: TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF. Your friends, adviser, professors, and family have probably all said this to you at one time or another, but psychology students seem to have an ironic knack for ignoring our own needs, and it is easy to see why. We are encouraged to talk about self-care. We are encouraged to engage in self-care. We are encouraged to keep a running list of hobbies and relaxation techniques to draw on at any time to help manage our stress. But we are never really given an opportunity to put it into practice. A very smart classmate once pointed out to me that we’re told to make our well-being the #1 priority, but for everything else – dissertation, classwork, practicum, volunteerism, jobs, research, et cetera – to tie for #2. It’s not possible to have six second priorities, so self-care ends up falling off the proverbial radar all together. In the short term, it is very productive. And since all of your classmates are working this way, it is impossible not to do without feeling like you are falling behind. After all, there’s not exactly a section on the CV for nature walks and long baths.

So we become hypocrites. We tell our clients that it is okay not to be perfect, that taking time for self-care is more important than over-extending themselves and burning out while working 16 hour days before going home to pull an all-nighter on a take-home midterm. I remember my second year – I was working in Residential Life on campus, writing my dissertation proposal, and completing my first full-year practicum. At one point my boss pulled me aside and told me that she noticed that I seemed over-worked and recommended that I focus on taking better care of myself. I asked if I could leave work early to join my friends at Happy Hour, and she said that she could not excuse me from my duties. She claimed she wanted me to take care of myself, but only in ways that did not interfere with my responsibilities to her. We graduate students are horrible at asserting ourselves and our needs because we think that it will hurt us somehow, even though nothing hurts more than the dreaded burnout.

It is something that I continue to work on. It’s tempting to cancel date night to finish that research project. But if you are going to be successful in grad school – and I mean truly successful, both academically and personally – you have to do it. Whatever your self-care is, it needs to be just as non-negotiable as going to class or practicum. Even though it was great experience, and even though it meant not paying rent or utilities, when Residential Life offered to extend my contract, I said no. It was impossible to relax or have a night off when my boss lived right upstairs and often took advantage of this fact, so I left to take better care of myself.

I hope that psychologists and graduate students alike will be able to start living the advice we give our clients: take care of yourself first. Everything else is optional. And no job, regardless of the benefits, is worth your ability to take care of yourself. It’s time we stop seeing self-care as a luxury and start seeing it as a prerequisite for everything else.