by Revathi Reddy
Last fall I embarked on my graduate school journey at the University of Alberta immediately after finishing my Bachelor’s degree in India. I am someone who is always excited about new beginnings; however, a few months into the program I realized that this transition is not going to be an easy one. Coping with the rigorous academic curriculum, moving to a new country, leaving my entire support system elsewhere and trying hard to fit in the new academic culture started to seem overwhelming and challenging alike. Eventually, my online presence and engagement made me realize that I was not alone in this battle. I learned that there were many graduate students and postdoctoral fellows across the globe who were facing similar challenges.
If we were to talk about Canada alone, in the most recent Canadian National College Health Assessment (ACHA, 2016), 26.3% of the students surveyed reported to have been diagnosed or treated with one or more mental health conditions. 59.6% of those students reported having felt hopeless and 64.5% reported experiencing “overwhelming anxiety”. It is of note that all of these numbers have increased since the 2013 survey (ACHA, 2013), with the biggest increases in reports of overwhelming anxiety (8.0%), debilitating depression (6.9%), and hopelessness (5.8%).
Top reasons for stress in graduate school
Feel the pinch in your pocket every month while paying tuition, rent, groceries and general living expenses? You are not alone. Balancing finances while in university, especially for many international students is often a challenge. Worrying about money while managing other academic responsibilities can be overwhelming and add to the stress.
As with many international students, I found the academic environment in Canada to be very different than my home country. It took me almost six months to adjust and cope with the university culture here. Having to deal with academic stress while I was just trying to transition into this new environment was a period filled with challenges and self-doubts.
Stress about career prospects
“What next after graduation?” Not a single day of mine goes without pondering over this question. The fear of unemployment or not getting a desired job position haunts many students like me and causes mental distress.
Some tips to manage your mental health and well-being
As we all wear several hats in our daily lives as graduate students or postdocs, stress and anxiety are inevitable. However, when they keep recurring and start taking a toll on your physical and mental health, it is time that you seek help. I agree that it is easier said than done but every step taken towards your mental well-being will not only make you feel better but also help function more efficiently in the lab.
Seek professional help
It is healthy to seek help. It may often seem difficult to communicate about your condition but talking to your supervisor, family and peers will give you a huge moral support. If you are still uncomfortable, many resources within and outside universities exist that you can reach out to. To highlight one, the University of Alberta has several community support services that provide free psychological and psychiatric support to UofA students. Students can choose from one-on-one therapy with a mental health professional to group therapy and/or drop-in workshops that focus on a particular mental health topic every month.
Whereas in Ontario, the Ontario Universities have come together with several initiatives to respond to student needs on campus. They are also addressing mental health issues by integrating it with academic research, policy making and entrepreneurship. For example, student entrepreneurs from the Ontario College of Art and Design University designed a digital platform called TranQool that allows users to connect with licensed mental health therapists from home through secure video chats.
Manage your time
Set your priorities. It is okay to say NO to tasks that you do not wish to commit to. As a graduate student, I spend half of my day taking classes, teaching and grading, and spend the second half doing my own experiments. Just while I am about to start, sometimes I get an overwhelming amount of requests from my students or colleagues that demand my time and attention. It is okay to say no. Everyone’s time is valuable and when you over-commit, you end up stressing yourself and hurting your accountability. Learning the art of saying no as a student is key to be productive in the lab without burning out.
It is almost impossible to have a healthy mind without a healthy body. Given my rigorous schedule, I often find it challenging to prepare nutritious home-made meals everyday. It is very tempting to skip a meal or resort to eating fast-food. However, unhealthy eating patterns make me feel lethargic and affect my productivity in the lab. I have learned that investing a little bit of time in the kitchen whenever I get a chance makes a big difference in my diet and also helps me save money! Along with a balanced and healthy diet it is also equally important to engage in physical activities. Sometimes, we tend to sit for long hours reading articles or writing manuscripts and fall prey to an incredibly sedentary lifestyle. Working out on a regular basis will keep you fresh, alert and help work efficiently in the lab. Pick an activity that suits you the best and try to fit it in your daily schedule. It can be as simple as going for a short run in the morning or at the end of the day.
I cannot emphasize enough on how pursuing interests outside my program has been rewarding to me. When I am not doing experiments in the lab or teaching, I spend my time learning to design, creating pieces of art, following cool science on social media and practising creative writing. This year, I also took up several volunteering positions that involved mentoring undergraduate students, managing social media and writing blogs. While time management is key, dabbling in activities outside my research helps me relieve stress immensely. It also helps me explore several opportunities and gain skills that I can never learn otherwise. I strongly recommend to choose a hobby that will help you feel calmer and combat stress.
Revathi is pursuing her Masters in Chemical Biology in Derda Lab at the University of Alberta. She is also the Communications officer for the 2019-2020 GlycoNet Trainee Association – Executive Committee.