Check Yourself Before You Wreck Yourself


Life can get really busy, and this holds so much truth especially for graduate students. Students often ask me what was the hardest part transitioning from undergrad into graduate school, and my reply is always the workload. Obviously I knew it would be no walk in the park, but there are so many expectations of you as a student that it gets overwhelming quite often.

Especially in the field of academia and graduate studies, there is this expectation that graduate students should be solely focused on their work and work alone. In order to be the ‘best scientist’, you’re expected to put in long hours in the lab towards your thesis and research, and when you’re not doing experiments, you should be reading literature. It’s almost like any personal life or time for yourself is forbidden. But honey let me tell you, that constant ‘work mode’ with no kind of balance can put you into overdrive, and darling….you’re destined to crash soon.

It may come as no surprise or it may, but depression, suicidal ideation, and anxiety are at an all time high among graduate students, especially students pursuing a PhD degree. This can come at the cost of the enormously high expectations graduate students are supposed to uphold. Long nights in the lab or time invested into your research which equates to little or no sleep. In addition, with no social or personal life outside your graduate study, students often become overwhelmed with overbearing responsibilities.

In recent years, an increasing number of students do not complete their graduate studies and dropout of school. Research suggests that this isn't because they lack the intelligence or academic ability to complete or pursue a graduate degree, but systematic expectations by graduate programs and preconceived notions that graduate school is supposed to be your ‘whole life’ causes emotional stress and drives a lot of students away. Now all research is subject to review and critique, and I am not saying that all graduate students drop out because of mental issues, but research has suggested that the majority do.

A recent study in Nature Biotechnology highlighted that ‘graduate students are more than six times as likely to experience depression and anxiety as compared to the general population.’ Surveying a total of 2279 students, the majority of whom were PhD students, (about 90%), the respondents represented 24 countries and 234 institutions collectively. Scoring the general public and graduate students on a comparable scale, 39% of graduate students responded as suffering from moderate to severe depression, compared to 6% of the general population. Among women, 43% had anxiety and 41% were depressed.

You can’t pour from an empty cup. Take care of yourself first.

These findings are alarming, but they are true. During my first semester of graduate school, the workload became so much there were times I had increasing anxiety. And this began to obviously take a toll on my health and I began to suffer from extreme migraines. I had to take a step back and realize that I cannot pour from an empty cup. Lack of sleep and lack of an adequate work-life balance is so important to your overall well being. I am a huge advocate of balance, and I believe that my personal and social life is just as important as my PhD degree, and honestly, I am convinced that prioritizing self care and your social well being contributes to making the best well-rounded scientist there can be.

So I implore all graduate students who might be reading this, take time for yourself. Take time off if you need to, sleep if you need to, exercise if you need to because your mental health is just as important as your graduate degree. If you are depressed or suffer from any mental illness, seek professional help. Now there is obviously major rectification that needs to be made at the systematic and administrative levels, but in the mean time, check yourself before you wreck yourself.

Rukia Henry1 Comment