Graduate Students & Stress: A Careful Balancing Act

By Ann Levy, Masters Student Advocate

STONY BROOK, NY -- It’s that time of year where graduate students are living in their labs, soaking up the fluorescent rays of the library stacks, and stressing out about progress in their projects. Edits are made, research is submitted, but not without stress, long hours, hunching over a computer, and contemplating whether it's worth all of the anxiety and sweat that goes into persisting towards that degree.

The upcoming month of May is mental health month, and mental health among graduate students is an area of startling statistics. According to a study from the University of California, Berkeley, "60% of graduate students said they felt overwhelmed, exhausted, hopeless, sad, or depressed nearly all the time." It’s no surprise that graduate students are feeling the pressure of academics and adding in everything else that has to be juggled in order to be successful.

“It’s easy to see why graduate students face tremendous stress” said Stony Brook University Graduate School Dean Charles Taber. “In addition to taking classes, graduate students often have new and unknown responsibilities for teaching and research or scholarship; they are making the transition from student to professional, with new and uncertain expectations,” said Taber, who is also a political science professor. All of these challenges are day in and day out learning curves for graduate students. “[C]ouple these [stressors] with difficulty finding time and emotional energy for personal lives and increasing financial uncertainties” and you have a recipe for very stressed out graduate students, he said.

Of course, graduate school is not supposed to be easy, but there are an array of ways to deal with stress, anxiety, and depression. Learning how you work best is one of the first steps to managing stress and limiting those feelings of anxiety. Siobhán Cassidy, a second-year graduate student in the School of Social Welfare, describes her time management skills as key to limiting stress in her academic and personal life. “I have had to learn to plan for my time, say no to additional work responsibilities or volunteer opportunities, and break huge, overwhelming projects into little segments” she said.

For self-care I practice yoga nearly daily, run, hang out with friends, and watch favorite TV shows. These are activities I have literally scheduled into my calendar in order to make myself accountable… otherwise I would be running on no gas, like a car.

When asked how she deals with making time for herself while being a full time graduate student, she cited a few of her tactics: “For self-care I practice yoga nearly daily, run, hang out with friends, and watch favorite TV shows. These are activities I have literally scheduled into my calendar in order to make myself accountable and carve time out for myself otherwise I would be running on no gas, like a car.”

Similarly, Denisa Rojas - a first-year graduate student in the Higher Education Administration program, describes her biggest challenge as juggling work with multiple in-person classes and assignments. “At times it doesn't feel like there is a work/life balance because you're either deep in work obligations and when you have time to come up for air, you have 70-100 pages of material to read for class on top of a paper.”

In order to do well in all arenas of their graduate student and professional lives, students must perfect a careful balancing act. Rojas stays organized and on top of her assignments ahead of time, a practice which helps her avoid stress. She stresses an important take-away on the subject of personal balance: “You have to learn to say no if your friends want to hang out but you need to focus on schoolwork. It's called a balance for a reason.” When asked to share some of her personal strategies to de-stress, Rojas replied “I like to dedicate at least one night a week to go out with some friends who also happen to be graduate students and enjoy a drink and some bar food. I also spend a lot of time with family on weekends.” Additionally, she said, “you have to be able to sense when you're about to hit a wall and plan something that will help you relax,” emphasizing the importance of self-awareness and self-care, which is completely individual and personal for each student.

Finding what works for you is important in figuring out a healthy balance for getting through graduate school. There are also some great on-campus resources you can take advantage of without committing to anything long-term. The Counseling and Psychological Services Center (CAPS) offers some neat drop-in events to help with stress, anxiety, depression, and anything else that may be going on. Dr. Pessier, Director and Interim Associate Dean of CAPS, suggests an easy way to get acquainted with the office’s services. “Why not try out CAPS, or a meditation session so that one has a level of familiarity with who we are and what we offer before stress or a crisis becomes severe?”

CAPS also offers other upcoming events which, frankly, sound like fun. Dates and further details can be found through the CAPS website and on the Calendar of Events. Here’s a sample of what’s coming up.

  • Drop in Meditation: “Mindfulness Meditation is the practice of focusing your mind on the present moment non-judgmentally. This 1-session introductory course offers a brief taste of mindfulness meditation and is a good place to start if you are new to MM. Participants will experience and get acquainted with MM through guided practices.” Multiple dates and times, see Calendar of Events.
  • Animal Assisted Interactions: Hang out with and pet some therapy dogs! Multiple dates and times, see Calendar of Events.
  • Let's Talk Drop In: “Let's Talk is a chance for students to drop by for brief conversations with a counselor in their communities. Students can stop by and say hello, pick up some giveaways, or stick around to discuss anything bothering them. The counselors are caring, unbiased and trustworthy professionals, who can suggest resources for further support, if necessary.” Wednesday, May 4th at 7:30pm in West E Commons.