By William Ridgway, Jackson Pelzner, Morgan Franklin, Skye Mendes, Morgan Franklin, Christopher Kleva
As we journey into the summer months, it is important to discuss ways in which we can implement self-care strategies. Whether you plan on writing a funding application, working on specific research, or spending time preparing for an upcoming class, we highlight the importance of prioritizing one’s mental health and the need to take a step back every now and again.
William: Often, the summer months signify an opportunity to work in such a way that allows us to continue our academic journey in a productive way, yet rarely includes time for ourselves. As graduate students, it is important to remain equally committed to oneself and academic journey. Given that graduate students are significantly more likely to experience depression and anxiety as compared to the general population (Evans et al., 2018), a good work–life balance is essential when it comes to positive mental health outcomes. Be sure to maintain or develop a healthy routine of sleep, nutrition, and exercise. In addition, let go of the seemingly endless workload. Learn to accept that there will always be something for you to work on and that taking time for yourself is perfectly fine and an essential part of life.
Evans, T. M., Bira, L., beltram Gastelum, J., Weiss, L. Todd, & Vanderford, N. L. (2018). Evidence for a mental health crisis in graduate education. Nature Biotechnology, 36, 282–284 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1038/nbt.4089
Jackson: Like most, I always look forward to the summer months to catch up on other projects that may have been set aside during the semester. What is important to remember though is that this is an opportunity to rest. Though the grind never ends, the pace of each day certainly slows down considerably. There is time to evaluate the previous year but at least for part of the summer you should step away from work and change things up. Personally, I gravitate toward activities that keep my mind stimulated but not overworked, like reading and playing golf. This approach works best for me because it doesn’t feel like starting up a cold engine when the Fall semester rolls around and I’m balancing teaching and academics once again. Overall, I think it is essential to our mental wellbeing that we slow things down and change up the day-to-day flow.
Skye: Many of us appear quick to selectively ignore practical findings about wellbeing and the importance of rest. Whenever there is a semester break or a time of slightly fewer obligations, that time tends to be dedicated to getting done what we couldn’t in the thick of the semester. A lesson many have been humbled to learn the hard way is that when we are physically ill and cannot work, the world keeps spinning and the consequences of our unexpected pause are typically not as disastrous as we may have thought. Of course, when we design our own breaks proactively, we can strategically minimize interruptions to overall goals and plans. If as a reader you are someone who struggles with planning breaks, I hope you will commit to scheduling time this summer to do whatever feels restful. Looking back on the last few years in my PhD program I certainly regret the times I overaccommodated work demands during visits with family back home far more than I have ever regretted the times I begrudgingly tucked the laptop away to be more present in my life. Some of my best, most creative thinking about youth development has hit me while sitting poolside, flanked by nieces and nephews with no laptop in sight.
Morgan: We all wear a lot of different “hats” in this field: student, instructor, researcher, clinician. Responsibilities do not slow down for many of us over the summer. It is important to have practices and create routines that limit the potential for burnout. In the past I have not set enough boundaries with my time. I wanted to always be available to my students to answer any questions/concerns, and this often interrupted other work and added stress. Over the past year I have found it helpful to set boundaries and stick to them. I am intentional about shutting down my computer and stepping away from my work at 8 PM every night. I also have found it helpful to schedule specific periods of time in which I am responding to student emails and holding office hours. This has helped create more structure in my own schedule. Over the summer, I think it’s also important to give yourself a break, and to make it an actual break! Do not bring work with you and set an away message for your email. Give yourself permission and time to have fun, relax, and rejuvenate. Finding a way to balance self-care with work is crucial. As one last note, remind yourself that self-care does not also have to be productive. In the past I placed pressure on myself to always be doing something that fosters personal and professional growth in my self-care time, and this often increased my stress.
Chris: I frequently catch myself thinking that next week will be better. This thought is all too common in academia. The logic being that once I get past this deadline then I will be less stressed and have more time for other tasks that have been neglected. Over time, the thought changes slightly. Over the past couple of weeks, I have thought how once I get through this semester, then the summer will be better. I have come to learn that the to-do list is ever growing and there are always tasks that need to be prioritized, whether it be grading assignments, writing up a manuscript, or finishing therapy notes. Balancing productivity and self-care are a constant battle but the approach to a successful work/life balance is one that must be individualized. For many, self-care is preserved by setting boundaries and protecting one’s weekend. For example, from Friday evening to Monday morning, laptops remain closed, email notifications are silenced, and spending time with family and friends is the priority. It has taken me over two years to figure it out, but I’ve learned to balance productivity and self-care in a manner that works best for me. Remember, life does not stop while you are in graduate school. Similar to a car that needs the occasional oil change, we all need our own self-care, in whichever way works best for us!