Learn how to ask for help.
As graduate students, it can feel as though we should know all the answers and therefore we often have a hard time asking for help and support. It is a good practice to keep the lines of communication open and accept others’ help when offered. Graduate years can get very busy; however, while in school, try to create a strong social support network including family, partners and friends that you can turn to in tough times - doing so can make all the difference as you navigate this tumultuous time in your life. When feeling stressed from your studies, head to your closest friends who can sometimes notice your stress without your mentioning it. Always try to surround yourself with people whom you feel positive energy. Negative vibes are the last thing you want when in graduate school.
Speak with your mentor.
Now that you have decided to pursue graduate studies, it is a good exercise to identify who you can trust to guide you early on in your training. Often, this will be the principal investigator/advisor of your thesis research lab. Your advisor is responsible for helping you by putting you on the right track and showing you how all the pieces of your research fit together to form a bigger picture. This can be especially beneficial if your experiments are not giving you the best results. Luckily, I had two co-advisors during my Ph.D. studies. Double the support, double the confidence and, sometimes, double the work! I used to always follow up with each of my two co-advisors to agree on next direction in the research. However, in some cases, the very person who is causing graduate students poor emotional health could be their own advisor. This situation is when identifying and speaking to mentors outside of your lab could prove helpful - consider reaching out to the head of your department, post-docs, or your advisory committee members. You should speak out your concerns with them and make sure they know about your goals and upcoming milestones. Rebuild your confidence and bring any issues up with your advisor (if you feel comfortable) so that you can find a suitable solution for both of you. Clarify all your thoughts about the situation and discuss how you would see the solution to resolve the issue.
Remember why you chose graduate school.
You will undoubtedly face tedious moments during graduate school, including mindless tasks and frustrating experiments that could cause you to lose sight of your goals. In these moments, don’t forget to stop, reassess, link and refresh: stop the task at hand, reassess your long-term goals and motivations, link these goals to the task at hand - all of which can help refresh your motivation.
Manage your time effectively.
I know, I know - this one is a challenge for a lot of us! We are addicted to procrastinating and waiting until the last minute to start and finish tasks. Although procrastination can sometimes ignite creativity as discussed in Dr. Shin's dissertation "The Hidden Costs of Being Highly Interested", it can also cause a decline in your emotional health due to increased stress levels and feelings of guilt as a deadline approaches. Try setting your own soft deadlines, which may not be as stressful as final deadlines. In addition, break your final tasks into smaller portions that can be ticked off when done. Personally, I scheduled weekly meetings with my advisors to discuss latest findings which helped put together a clear plan moving forward, especially during the first period of my dissertation.
An article by the American Psychological Association shares the best time-management practices based on feedback from graduate students and notes from procrastination experts. According to the University of Marylands’s Division of Student Affairs, one of the best time-management tips is to learn how to prioritize the most important tasks. You can find more these tips here.
Celebrate and reward yourself.
You are in graduate school and this deserves a celebration. To boost your emotional health, you must find joy in your accomplishments no matter how small they may seem. When something went well for me, I used to reward myself with a short trip with my family or friends. If you got a paper accepted, won an award, passed an exam, submitted your proposal, or just got that one finicky part of your experiment to work - celebrate and reward yourself in a way that will kickstart your endorphins and make you personally feel like the best version of yourself.
Take care of yourself.
It is okay to have some down time where you just do nothing. This time can help you gain energy back and allow your mind to relax and refresh. It may be helpful to sit in a quiet place with your favorite drink, focus on what is in front of you and clear your mind of excess noise. In addition, it is very crucial that you take good care of your physical well-being. This can mean engaging in various exercises, yoga sessions or simply taking a bath. Self care can look different for different people but for me, it meant enjoying massages and nail care as well as taking extra time to cook or enjoy the outdoors with the family.
As a final note, the graduate student experience has to be one of the priorities in academic institutions. Graduate students deserve to see some positive results and actions taken towards improving their emotional health. As a graduate student, having moments of stress is completely normal, but do your best to not allow these moments to take over your health. Use this stress positively as a motivation, and be patient with yourself when you face any struggle. Most importantly, you are pursuing a degree for a reason - use your energy, positivity and strength to proudly achieve your goals
About the Author
Sirine Taleb, Ph.D., is a passionate researcher and academician who loves data, technology, and the financial world. She is currently working as a postdoctoral researcher studying energy efficient buildings at the American University of Beirut, Lebanon. She also works as a university instructor for machine learning and data science graduate courses. She received a B.E. in Computer and Communications Engineering in 2012 and a Ph.D. in Machine Intelligence from the American University of Beirut in 2017. Sirine is part of several national and international women and youth initiatives including serving as the treasurer of IEEE Women in Engineering (WIE) Lebanon Section, the scientific committee coordinator at the National Association for Science and Research (NASR), and is a leader of Arab Women in Computing (ArabWIC). When not behind the computer screen, Sirine can be found traveling, exploring other cultures, or jumping in playgrounds with her toddler son, Karim.