New Year’s Resolutions for the Graduate Student III: Physical and Emotional Well-Being

In my first post on time management, I focused on how to tackle the reading load in humanities graduate study. In my second post on time management, I focused on the work/life balance. In this third and final post in the series, I am tackling the questions of physical and emotional well being.

Because let’s face it — if there’s one thing graduate students are really, really good at (besides cranking out last-minute 5-page close readings of texts) it’s martyring ourselves on the altar of academia.

Here’s a typical scenario: It’s week ten of a sixteen-week term. You have just gotten a batch of 3-5 page papers to grade from the class you are teaching, you have a five page paper due in one course you are taking, an annotated bibliography and abstract for your final essay in a second course you are taking, and an oral presentation in the third course you are taking. You also have a sore throat that has been going on for over a week and is not responding to OTC medication, and you are feeling distinctly overwhelmed. Do you:

a. take a day to go to the doctor or university health center to get the sore throat checked out and give yourself some down time so you feel less overwhelmed. You will be better able to handle all of your obligations when you are feeling closer to 100%.

b. go to the doctor, then stay up all night to work on your assignments, take the next day off to grade your students’ essays and feel good about getting it all done, even though you are also now sleep-deprived and haven’t eaten anything since yesterday afternoon. That’s what weekends are for, right?

c. Power forward with your work and then the grading, ignoring your physical and emotion concerns, because screw going to the doctor, eating, or worrying about my mental health, I have too much to do!

d. skip going to the doctor, grade the essays, haphazardly write your own assignments, and bitch about graduate school, your crappy health insurance, and the poor quality of student papers to anyone and everyone who will listen.

Chances are, your response would be b, c, or d, in some combination. Because that’s what you DO in grad school, right? Suck it up, get it done, and to hell with the physical and emotional toll that kind of attitude takes on you — you can get things sorted out and re-balanced when you have that PhD in hand. Unfortunately, that’s also why so many of us end up burned out, sick, and riddled with long term physical and mental health issues including obesity, high blood pressure, type-2 diabetes, depression, and anxiety. Just check out InsideHigherEd and WebMD for recent findings concerning graduate school and health.

Here’s the thing: no one is handing out prizes for self-sacrifice, self-flagellation, or sado-masochism in graduate school. It’s not going on your transcript, and you’re not listing it on your CV. It will do nothing for your job market prospects. However, not taking the time to address physical and emotional issues when they crop up can lead to a pattern of ignoring important health warning signs that can ultimately put you in the hospital and even become life-threatening.

Physical Illness: When to see the doctor

I am not saying that you should drop everything at the beginnings of a cold, and sometimes you do have to soldier on and get through your workload while dealing with illnesses, particularly garden-variety colds, respiratory infections, and 24-hour viruses. But if it seems more serious, if it isn’t responding to OTC medications after a week or so, or if its becoming more the norm than the exception for you to be sick and exhausted, then it’s time for a visit to the doctor or your university health clinic for an evaluation. You can Google “when to see a doctor” and your symptoms, and come up with a plethora of websites addressing when your symptoms are potentially serious; my favorite is WebMD (which my doctors use.)

Exhaustion and Sleeping Habits

Graduate school is physically and mentally exhausting. You NEED TO SLEEP. Ideally, you will budget for 6-8 hours a night. The more regular you can make your sleeping patterns, the better off you are going to be. Some people can get by on a little less sleep, and some people need a little more, but 6-8 hours is the average. You may even find yourself taking naps during the afternoon on occasion. On occasion, I and my friends have found ourselves sleeping the entire day away, and on occasion, we have stayed up all night. On occasion, that seems to be par for the course. But if you are sleeping and napping for more than 10 hours a day on a regular basis, and especially if you are still feeling tired after so much sleep, it’s time to get checked out by a doctor. That kind of continuous fatigue is linked to many health problems including depression, heart disease, cancer, and chronic fatigue syndrome, among other issues. Ignoring it will not make it go away, but a simple blood panel can rule out major problems — or diagnose them in time to save your life. Don’t be cavalier about being too tired. Chart your sleeping patterns if you suspect you are sleeping too much, and if over the course of 2 weeks you find yourself sleeping 10 or more hours a day, 5 or more days a week, go to the doctor.


Get some. No excuses. I don’t care what you do — rock wall climbing, Stairmaster, treadmill, hiking, dancing, yoga, Pilates, strength-training, running or jogging or walking, jumping rope, calisthenics, swimming, biking — but you NEED to be physically active for at least 20 minutes, 3 times a week, and no, walking from the parking lot to your classroom/office/library/dining hall and back doesn’t count. Find a physical activity or several that you enjoy and schedule them into your week right alongside your classes and other obligations. You DO have the time. You know what you don’t have time for? The issues that arise from being physically inert, like high blood pressure, type-2 diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and all the rest — just check out the CDC report on physical activity and health. If you really feel crunched for time, try one or more of the following tactics:

*park in a parking lot farther away than normal and walk across campus to your destinations.

* ALWAYS take the stairs. (our library is 9 floors — woot! Great workout hunting down books I’m checking out….)

* walk the treadmill at a 4-5% incline and read an article or book chapter — the incline offsets the slower speed somewhat.

*stretch and/or lift weights or use exercise ball or bands while watching television, or do “commercial calisthenics” — do one activity like sit ups, jumping-jacks, leg lifts, running in place, jumping rope, & etc. for an entire commercial break, and do a different such activity for each commercial break. (incidentally — if you have time to watch TV or a movie, you have time to exercise!)

* take a study break every 40 minutes to an hour, and perform some form of stretching or calisthenic activity during that break.

*if you live close enough to campus, commit to walking at least 3 days a week.

*wake up 15 minutes earlier than usual 3-4 days a week and do some morning Yoga power moves or other light activity.

*make a date with a friend or two to go jogging or walking or swimming or some other physical activity — it’s harder to cancel when you have someone else counting on you to be there ready to go.

*sign up for a 5K or other competitive activity to give yourself a goal to work before.

*use Runkeeper or another app to track your physical activity — most grad students are naturally competitive, so you’ll be more likely to challenge yourself if you see the regular progress you’re making. (Runkeeper always tells you when you break your own personal records in whatever activities you are doing!)

*always wanted to try [bellydancing, yoga, pilates, Zumba, karate]? Sign up for a class. If you have paid the money, you are going to go. You can find inexpensive beginner classes in a variety of such activities near almost any university campus, or you can audit a university physical education course.

The POINT is, you can’t go through graduate school just sitting on your butt eating Krispy Kremes or chips and salsa and reading and writing and grading all the things, and expect to come out of it well physically. No one is going to give you permission to take care of your physical health. You are expected to know how to keep yourself well and healthy by this point in your life. Contrary to popular belief it is NOT normal, or an unavoidable rite of passage, to gain twenty pounds or more in graduate school. That’s symptomatic of not taking the time or energy to take care of yourself. If you are sluggy and slothy because you haven’t been physically active in some way, you are not going to have the kind of energy and stamina you need to get through this. Take the time to give your body the physical activity it needs — it pays off in better health, which in turn really DOES improve your mental capactity!


Hand-in-hand with exercise, you have to monitor your own eating habits. I have a blog in which I focus specifically on eating healthfully in college, and there are many, many other sites devoted to healthy eating. Hands down, I believe this is the single most important area in which to be vigilant — nutrition MATTERS. It is the foundation for your physical well-being. It is the source of your energy and vitality, and it fuels all of the physical and mental functionings of your body. Graduate students notoriously skip meals, hit the drive-thru for the dollar menu items, and load up on soda, caffeintated power drinks, alcohol, and whatever free food is being served at whatever department of university function. There are two, major issues reported: 1. I don’t have time to cook/ eat healthfully and 2. I can’t afford health food. On my cooking in college blog I debunk these issues and show how you can absolutely substitute junk food for healthy, nutritious, nourishing food with little change in your wallet or schedule. You can also check out resources like Rachel Ray’s 30-Minute Meals. There are healthier options on almost any restaurant menu — even the drive-thrus. You CAN and SHOULD be eating (mostly) healthy foods in graduate school. It CAN and WILL make a difference in your energy and stamina when you do. It takes just as much effort to open a snack pack of raw almonds as it does to open a snack pack of potato chips. SOMETIMES, you need the chips. I am not saying to ditch the Ben and Jerry’s — just consider that sometimes, you maybe should only eat PART of the pint instead of the WHOLE pint. I’m not saying all salad, all the time — I mean, exams week and comps essentially demand a regular influx of chocolate and red wine. Comfort food has its place. You do NOT need the jumbo-sized bag of tortilla chips and the entire container of salsa in one sitting. Moderation is key.

Nota Bene: I am not saying that you should exercise and diet down to a size 6; health comes in ALL SHAPES AND SIZES. I am advocating proper sleep, physical activity, and nutrition for your body’s optimal performance. These are very different goals.

Down Time

You need this, too. Even if it is just one morning or afternoon a week, you need some time in which you are doing Nothing At All. This is a chance to recharge and to rest, while your brain organizes and sorts everything and your body responds to and heals from the stress. Watch a mindless television show or get caught up on the DVR list; listen to a favorite album or playlist; lie in bed and just think; do some hobby or quiet alone activity you enjoy — but make it an activity completely unrelated to graduate school. Because at the end of this, you still have to be a whole person — so cultivate your self, in addition to your intellect. Your self NEEDS a break from the grind. Give your self that gift, even if it’s just a long bubble bath.

Time With Others

Conversely, you also need to be around other (healthy!) people. If you have non-grad school friends, try to find an hour or two once each week or every other week to hang out with them doing non grad school stuff — take an art or exercise class together, go out for a matinee and lunch, have a potluck dinner, have a movie night or a gathering to watch your favorite show — but make it something fun and social. If you have fellow grad student friends, you might organize this around a writing  or study group, or an exercise or potluck meet up as well. Because “I am a rock, I am an island” is a GREAT lyric in a GREAT Simon and Garfunkel song, but it really doesn’t work in graduate school, and being a loner can lead to mental health issues like


Many students develop mild to severe depression during their academic career. I won’t begin to go into all of the whys and wherefores — but you can “Google” this and get twenty four million hits. If you are experiencing one or more of the warning signs for depression — sleeping too much or not sleeping enough, isolating yourself from friends and activities you enjoyed, feeling overwhelmed by everything, engaging in self-destructive behaviors, getting sick more often, losing your appetite, and especially if you are having thoughts of self-harm, GO TO THE UNIVERSITY HEALTH CENTER FOR A MENTAL HEALTH SCREENING. It’s covered by your tuition and fees, it’s protected under the health privacy act so no one else needs to know about it, and depression is not going to go away without help. There is no shame in seeking out assistance when you are struggling with depression — there is an entire office devoted to mental health services precisely because you are not alone, because college is stressful and graduate school especially stressful and sometimes we get overwhelmed. When you feel overwhelmed beyond your own ability to cope with it, reach out for help. It can make ALL the difference in your graduate school experience. You do NOT have to suck it up and deal with this on your own — and more importantly, you CAN’T. That’s why there are mental health professionals. Make use of these services when and if you need them.


Many people mistake depression for anxiety, or conflate the two, but really these are two separate conditions although sometimes they can occur simultaneously. Anxiety tends to manifest in constant fear and worrying, sleeplessness or physical restlessness, elevated heart rates, tightness in your chest, difficulty in breathing, headaches, exhaustion, muscle aches and tension, grinding your teeth or clenching your jaw in your sleep, and other such “fight-or-flight” symptoms. Most people experience anxiety at various points in their academic careers, and it can be normal and even healthy to experience such responses to particularly stressful events such as comps, orals, or your dissertation defense, for example. However, if you find yourself experiencing these symptoms regularly for no apparent reason, it may have become a disorder.  This can occur in particular after some life trauma, including a physical assault on your person, chronic, long term illness in yourself or a loved one, a death in the family, a move, a divorce, the birth or loss of a child, changing jobs — the list is long. But if you find yourself experiencing more than the occasional panic attack or low-lying anxiety — especially if you find it regularly interfering with your ability to eat or sleep regularly or to function on a regular day-to-day basis — then it’s time to go to the doctor for a screening. AGAIN, THERE IS NO SHAME IN SEEKING HELP FOR THIS. One in four individuals develop an anxiety disorder in his or her lifetime. There is help for it. You do NOT HAVE TO LIVE WITH THIS, and trust me, it is so much easier not to.

Final Thoughts

Here’s the thing — in the end, nearly all depression and anxiety disorders can be waylaid and/or avoided entirely simply by being in touch with your physical body and making sure you are getting proper sleep, nutrition, and physical activity. Your physical and emotional health, in turn, CAN and WILL dictate the quality of your graduate school experience. Putting your physical and emotional needs first (most of the time) will help you stay healthy and energetic, and this in turn will color your experience in a positive light. But if you are depressed, gaining weight, not sleeping, and/or chronically ill, then how can you succeed in, much less enjoy, graduate school? Do you want to graduate a vibrant, enthusiastic, passionate, driven, focused, and ready-to-go PhD, or a tired, burned-out, exhausted, depressed, overweight, pessimistic, chronically ill PhD?* The choice is yours, and yours alone, to make — and there are ample resources out there to help you make choices in time management concerning your physical and mental health that lead to your best grad student self.

*caveat: I am aware and sensitive to the fact that for many this is not necessarily a choice; this post is really aimed towards students who are in the position to avert chronic illnesses before they arise. Sometimes, genetics and other factors cause these physical and mental issues, and in those cases I still advocate a healthier approach as a means of coping with or controlling symptoms. In every case, I advocate for graduate students putting their health and well-being as people above their graduate work — because if you don’t have your health, you can’t get the most out of graduate school.


About Melissa Ridley Elmes

Professor and writer; Unrepentant nerd; chaotic good. Author of Arthurian Things: A Collection of Poems. PhD, MFA. She/hers. Views my own.
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