Let’s Talk Grad School
If you’re like an increasingly large number of adults, you might be wondering if grad school is a good option for you.
Like deciding to quit your job, deciding whether or not to enroll in a demanding, time-consuming, and expensive academic program is not something to take lightly. Especially if your mental health is a concern.
So, before you make the leap into academia, let’s discuss:
how to tell if grad school is a good choice for you
how you can keep your mental health in check if you do decide to go back to school
Ready? Let’s go.
Q: Is grad school a good option for me?
A: If you’re committed to a career change that requires grad school (like becoming a doctor, veterinarian, or college professor), and you have a solid mental health treatment plan in place, then you do you, boo. Go get it!
If you see grad school as an opportunity to explore a subject you love, and the balance in your bank account is just a number to you, then, again, go get it! (Also, what?) But if you’re just trying to get out of working a big kid job for a few years and don’t really know what else to do, then there are better ways to spend $57,600.
Here’s the deal: There are valid reasons to go to grad school. If you’re curious if your motivations make the grade, HuffPost has a quick quiz to help you figure out whether grad school is a good option for you right now.
However, grad school can also cost you more in money, time, and missed opportunities than its worth. Here are a few reasons you might want to skip grad school and brave the job hunt instead.
Mental Health + Grad School
If you’re in it for the right reasons and are still thinking about doing the whole grad school thing, it’s a really good idea to get your mental health in check as much as possible before enrolling (I know, I know, easier said than done). Grad school is often a highly stressful and isolating experience for students.
Because of this, mental health problems often develop or worsen while students are working on obtaining advanced degrees. One study found that, when compared to the general population, grad students were more than six times as likely to experience depression and anxiety.
It’s worth repeating: Your mental health is the most important thing you have. So, yes, weigh the personal and financial pros and cons of going to grad school. But make the choice that best supports your mental health recovery, even if that means delaying grad school or pursuing a different career altogether.
Work Smarter, Not Harder
If you don’t feel like you can safely handle the stresses of graduate school but still want to work in a field like healthcare or law, you can look into careers in your chosen field that require less education. My little brother just finished up a certificate program in Medical Assisting at a local community college, and he’ll start his first job at a medical clinic next month. (So proud!)
If a compromise sounds like something that might work for you, do your research to find opportunities that get to the meat of what you really want to do. And in the meantime, be realistic and gentle with yourself about what kind of workload you are willing and able to take on, both in school and your chosen career.
Mental health recovery can feel like its own full-time thing. It’s okay to make space in your life to manage your mental health, even if it means prioritizing your wellbeing over your work.
If you do decide that grad school is the way to go, you definitely want a solid mental health treatment plan and support team in place before you enroll. Which brings us to…
Q: How can I manage my mental health better while I’m in grad school?
A: The boring answer? Mental health management pretty much comes down to two things: (1) Balance and (2) Structure.
Your academic program is going to affect both (duh), so look for a program that will help you pursue your academic goals while maintaining some semblance of work-life balance and structure in your life. If your program is kind of fucking you over mental health-wise, though, let’s chat about what you can do to balance your life and add structure to your time.
Work Toward a Balanced Life
1 | Adjust Your Outlook
Maybe you don’t “believe” in work-life balance and are about to skip ahead toward some greener, more realistic pastures out there. Well, buckle up, buddy, this section is for you.
In my unscientific opinion, most people who end up in grad school suck at finding a balance between work and Everything Else. Why? Because you, a current or aspiring grad student, are probably an ambitious, hard-working smarty-pants who has built up an identity around Being the Best and Doing the Most. No shade – that’s my default MO, too. But it kind of sucks working yourself stressed and sick sometimes, right?
So, let’s work on accepting the fact that work can be a meaningful, fulfilling part of our lives, but work, on its own, can’t create a meaningful, fulfilling life. Balance is everything.
Okay, great, thanks for humoring me. So, you ask politely after waiting around awkwardly for a bit, How does one actually, you know, make the balance thing happen?
2 | Balance Your Calendar
Mental Health America has you covered with a pretty comprehensive list of practical ways you can start to find balance in your life. Clearly, the usual advice, like take breaks, exercise, unplug, and manage your time well, applies here.
But the one piece of advice that has helped me – a recovering workaholic and lifelong perfectionist – the most in this area is this: Schedule time for friends, family, and fun.
You’re already amazing at managing tasks, checking off to-do lists, and doing more things a day than you probably *should*, so use those strengths to help you fit more good stuff into your life.
Redefine positive, stress-reducing, meaning-making activities as productive if that mindset helps you make space in your life for, well, your life. Who am I to judge if making balance a competitive sport helps you restructure your life for the better?
For me, regularly-scheduled activities that I genuinely look forward to tend to help the most.
Here are some ideas you could try:
Weekly classes that you take just for fun (athletic, artistic, or anything else!)
Daily phone calls or texts with your bff, SO, or mom
Monthly volunteer shifts at a local animal shelter, school, or any non-profit that floats your altruistic boat
Friday night Chopped-style cooking competitions with your roommate
Daily walks with your pup (and a friend?)
Weekly movie nights with your SO or fave film nerd (I’ve heard good things about the AMC Stubs A-List subscription if you want to see all the films but aren’t a fan of MoviePass)
Monthly dinner parties or potlucks with your favorite people (if you want to amp up the do-good vibes while you’re at it, check out how you can host dinners for your friends that raise money for a cause you love)
A solo morning or evening routine that’s just for you – writing in a gratitude or bullet journal, following a skincare routine that makes you feel amazing, reading, killing a 15-minute workout on Youtube, whatever pushes your happy buttons
Quick shoutout to babes with depression or other mood disorders who are having a hard time “looking forward” to anything rn:
It’s okay to struggle with things that *should* feel easy, like having fun. You’re not broken, you’re getting better. Be patient with your progress, and practice being gentle with yourself.
To get the ball rolling when it comes to learning to like things again, start with low-commitment activities with a quick payoff. A period of depression is arguably not the best time to take up, like, ballet if you’re apt to get frustrated and bored with slow progress. Doing things you know you’re good at, even if you haven’t done them in a while, can help you feel better about yourself.
If you’re coming up blank, try an activity you used to love as a kid, even if it’s something “silly” like coloring or playing dress-up. It’s literally okay if you spend your chill time sitting on your patio, watching cars drive by if that’s something that feels good to you. But look for things that are (or might become) fun or interesting to you, and gradually start to carve little chunks of time for them in your life.
Wait, Was This Supposed To Be This Hard?
Okay, so, maybe you’re on board with the idea of a healthy work-life balance, but, try as you might, you can’t make it work. After all, time doesn’t grow on trees.
Well, not to sound like your mom here, but you could probably use some more structure in your life. If you missed that day in school where everyone else learned how to structure their days effectively (lol jk, most of your friends are struggling, too), don’t worry. You can keep reading to learn more.
Structure Your Life
1 | Stop Treating Structure Like a Dirty Word
If you don’t think structure is *for you*, let’s chat for a minute before you give up on it completely.
First of all, it’s true that establishing and maintaining structure comes more naturally to some people than others. But you can still learn to use structure-building tools effectively, even if the process doesn’t come naturally to you. The trick is to remember that tools should work for you, not the other way around.
It’s also important to remember that structuring your life more effectively can and will help you be more productive. However, the goal isn’t just to get more done.
Structure can also help you:
Prioritize what’s really important to you
Practice physical and emotional regulation
Create efficient and effective daily routines
Basically, structure is going to help you make the most out of the 24 hours you get each day. That’s huge when you’re drowning in grad school commitments and trying to balance your life. Plus, not to sound like your mom (again), but learning how to structure your time effectively is an important grown-up skill that will help you, literally, for the rest of your life.
So, ready to give this whole structure thing another go?
2 | Stock Your Toolbox
Some people swear by apps to help them improve their productivity or build better habits. Just remember that a tool that works really well for someone else might not work for you, so don’t feel bad for jumping ship if a popular app doesn’t do it for you.
Your needs might also evolve over time. That’s okay, too. When I was in school, I loved using Todoist to help me keep track of everything going on in my life. But now that my life is calmer and more consistent, my phone’s calendar function does more than enough.
If you prefer managing your tasks and tracking your habits by hand, you might want to look into starting a bullet journal. You’ve probably seen bullet journals featured on Instagram, Pinterest, or Buzzfeed that intimidate the fuck out of you. Don’t stress just yet.
The foundation of bullet journaling is a simple task management system called Rapid Logging. Seriously, you can learn to do it in two minutes. Once you’ve gotten the hang of things, you can spend as much or as little time on your bullet journal as you want. (Yes, seriously. A bullet journal without decorative page dividers is still a bullet journal.)
I also love this unique list of productivity tools from writer Ann Latham. In the article, Latham emphasizes the power of behavior-based tools, like saying “no” when you need to, prioritizing your physical health, and developing clarity. Fucking yes, girl.
At the end of the day, there are a million tools out there to help you structure your life more effectively. If something works, use it. If it doesn’t, toss it and try something else. No worries.
3 | Regulate Your Schedule
It’s not a secret that keeping a consistent schedule is best for your mind and body. It’s easy enough when you’re working a 9-5 to maintain a regular routine (at least during the week), but it can get a bit more challenging when you’re in grad school to stay on track.
Here are a few suggestions to help you regulate your schedule more effectively in grad school:
Take advantage of teaching opportunities: Like a 9-5, your teaching gig will help add structure to your week
Show off your work at conferences: You’ll benefit from the structure of the conference prep and presentation process (not to mention the outside feedback)
Set a regular work schedule: If you have a lot of independent work on your plate and not a lot of external structure, set regular work hours for yourself and then stick to them
Talk to your advisor if your schedule still isn’t working for you: Honestly, not every advisor will be willing to help you shift your schedule, but you won’t know if you don’t ask
Real Talk Alert
Honestly, guys, this stuff is hard. No one was born knowing how to prioritize their tasks perfectly or knowing which time management tools work best for them. It’s a lot of fucking information, and I don’t want you to feel overwhelmed or think that you’re doing it wrong, just because it’s not easy or automatic for you.
Please remember that, when we talk about adding structure to your life, we’re describing a tool to help your life run more smoothly, not a destination.
If something sounds helpful, try it out. If it works for you, keep doing it. But if not? That’s okay. There are a million and three more ideas out there for you to try. And you have all the time you need to figure out what works for you.
That’s it for today! If you loved this post, feel free to share it with your friends and subscribe to stay in touch.
In the next part of the Girls Getting Well at Work series, we’ll go back to work to help you find a job you love (and avoid stumbling into a job you hate).