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.