Tag Archives: stress

Feeling Stressed in Graduate School vs. Feeling Stressed in the “Real World”

I often wonder, why are graduate students so stressed? Or perhaps more accurately – why has stress (whether or not there is good reason for it) become such a fundamental part of the graduate school experience?

People in the business world have to make deadlines, compete for promotions, and deal with terrible bosses. They sometimes do challenging work, sometimes do mundane work, and sometimes have to work late. Many, many people don’t enjoy their jobs. Nonetheless, there is no doubt people associate graduate school with higher levels of stress and anxiety.

How many times has a relative or acquaintance responded with “oh, I could never do more school!” when you confess that you are willingly subjecting yourself to attending more classes and writing more papers after obtaining your undergraduate degree?

Based on my experience in the “real world,” the 9-5 working schedule was both overwhelming and relieving. I would come home at night and simply be too exhausted to do what would normally constitute “me time.” Unless I had a specific event organized with friends, I was considerably less interested in going to see movies, meeting up for a drink, or simply hanging out at someone else’s house. I was generally in bed by 10:30pm after a glass of wine and some TV. Even on Fridays, I was at times too exhausted to go out with friends. At the office, dealing with the added stress of customer service in addition to getting work done often made for a harried and taxing 8 hours of work.

However, for the most part these stresses did not follow me home at the end of the day (except for the tiredness). If I wanted to go to bed at 10:30pm, no unfinished work would prevent me from doing that. I could sit down to a nice dinner without worrying that I should be getting something done. And if I wanted to be a lazy bum and watch TV for the entire evening, I also had that choice.

The fundamental difference between the “real world” I experienced and graduate school is that the “work” follows you everywhere – 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You could sit down and relax at the end of the day, but you could also start reading those 200 pages you have due in a few days. Even if you procrastinate the work, it still hangs over your head like a shoulder angel shaking its head in condemnation. Moreover, the work is never finished because you are almost always given more to do that is reasonable to accomplish in the allotted time frame.

All that being said, I think a large part of getting through graduate school is asking yourself why you chose this system and figuring out how it can work for you. I chose this system because I enjoy the work I do in graduate school more than I did the work at a marketing firm. I also would rather sit through three hours of class than a three hour business meeting. Of course, this sometimes depends on the class, but in general I’m here because I enjoy discussing English literature.

I also prefer the scheduling freedom. This can be a conundrum for many graduate students because although the 9-5 schedule is more rigid, it is also an excuse for why work was not completed outside of that time frame. If you don’t have something important done by 4pm, you know you have to work extra hard in the last hour but in graduate school it is easy to fall into an endless cycle of putting things off. But when it comes down to it – I would rather accept the challenge of scheduling my working hours and my free time rather than having them scheduled for me.

If I prefer to work out in the afternoons and study from 7-10pm, I can. If I’d rather sleep in later and stay up later, I – to some extent – also have that choice. People in the corporate world usually do not experience this type of freedom coupled with this type of responsibility until they own they are high up on the rungs of business. If you owned your own business, you may have the flexibility to set your own store hours, but your work would most certainly follow you home every day.

Like everything, this lifestyle has the good and bad elements. They key difference I always try to remind myself of is that I had a choice whether or not to come to graduate school. I could be sitting in an office job right now making $30K a year with prospects for promotion. But I gave that up to be here.

Scheduling my time is more stressful and at times I let it get the better of me. I believe it is safe to claim that graduate students are more stressed than people in entry-level corporate jobs. However, if you are doing something you are passionate about – it should also be more rewarding.

5 Ways to Relieve Stress in Graduate School

So, I’ve talked about being overwhelmed in graduate school and feeling stressed, but not exactly about how I attempt to cope with it. The problem that graduate students have that those in the working world do not (unless you own your own business) is that the bulk of work is expected to be done outside of typical working hours. Moreover, the nature of the work is that it is never truly done until the deadline has passed. This is not unique to graduate students, as designers, artists, and journalists will know, but it is an element of graduate school that makes the work more stressful.

If you are in graduate school, you were probably always a “good student.” Good students usually experience an existential crises when we find ourselves with more work than can reasonably be accomplished in the time allotted. We are troubled by the irony that doing better actually means not accomplishing all of our work, but rather prioritizing some projects over others.

While these are life skills that need to be learned, graduate students at times still struggle with the second crisis. When to put down the book, when to go to bed… The art of setting work aside is at times more important to success in graduate school than studying that extra hour or adding that extra paragraph on your paper. We have proven we know how to be “good students” simply by virtue of getting into graduate school, but we have not proven we know when to put academic work aside.

It is one thing to say PUT YOUR WORK DOWN. It is another to actually go and do it. However, I truly believe in order be a happy person (and not an frustrated, stressed, unhappy graduate student), you need to learn when to set your work down and come back to it tomorrow.

Here are just a few things that I’ve taken to doing whenever I am super stressed and bogged down with work:

1) Cooking
The best part about cooking as a hobby is that you need to eat anyways. Cooking your own meals can be fun, sometimes challenging, but always rewarding in the sense that you get to eat what you create. It is also less expensive and more healthy than eating out. Before you go to the grocery store, plan your meals and choose some fun and tasty recipes to try. Once you have the food purchased, you’ll be more likely to set aside that paper you’re working on come dinner time and relax while learning a valuable life skill. Even better? Invite friends over for dinner!

2) Exercise.
“Exercise gives you endorphins, endorphins make you happy, happy people don’t [abandon their graduate studies in a fit of frustration].” It’s true; moderate exercise gives you more energy, keeps your body healthy, and puts you in a good mood. You could go for a run, or if that’s not your cup of tea, you could see what your institution’s student gym has to offer in the way of group classes and equipment. Another reason to be happy: being a graduate student often comes with a free gym membership 🙂

3) Decorative artwork.
I’ve recently become obsessed with decorating my apartment. Now, art has been a talent and hobby of mine for a while, but you do not have to be a good artist to enjoy some DIY crafting projects. Look at Pinterest. There are tons of crafts that are fun and produce awesome decorations for your place. I’ve posted some examples from my apartment to get your juices flowing.






4) Changing locations.
There will be times when unfortunately, you will not have the luxury of taking an extended break from your work. We all try not to get to this point, yet it is an inevitable part of the equation of academic work. These are often the most stressful times: when we feel trapped into a marathon of work with no breaks. If you can’t put down your work even for a quick run or to cook a meal, try moving locations periodically. If you’re getting frustrated in your apartment, try moving to a more public place like a coffee shop, where the buzz of activity around you can help you calm down and realize that yes, life does go on outside of your current research paper. Conversely, if you are in a public spot and you find yourself getting increasingly tired and distracted by that laughing group of freshmen in the corner, trying moving back to your private place of residence where you can put on your most comfortable pair of sweatpants and grab a snack to rejuvenate yourself. The key is not where you study, but the act of switching it up throughout the time you’re working.

5) Make friends outside of graduate school.
Graduate school friends are great for having partners to study with and chances are you’ll have ample opportunity to interact with them in and outside of class. However, any group of people going through a stressful time together (i.e. the final weeks of class) tends to commiserate. I find that having friends who have nothing to do with my graduate studies help me remind me of my long-term goals (not just immediate goals) and provide helpful distractions from the world of graduate studies. They can be friends from college you can call or Skype with – or new friends in town that you meet through a swing dancing club or a volunteer group. However you see fit – make these friends and make an effort to stay in touch with them!