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15 Strategies for Self-Care in Graduate School

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Author: Dr. Eva Lantsoght | Category: Career Development | January 17, 2018

Self-care in graduate school? If you have brushed your teeth and are wearing kind-of clean clothes, you are taking care of yourself, no? Let’s not talk about the nights when you stay working until 4 am, or the dinners that consist of chips from the vending machine…. Well, maybe we should talk about those habits.

Why should you care about self-care in graduate school? If you take care of yourself and your body, you’ll perform better. You’ll be able to think better and work faster. You’ll feel less miserable. You’ll be able to put graduate school in perspective.

Which changes can you make if you want to start taking better care of yourself? I’ve compiled a list of the 15 most important strategies. Don’t try a major overhaul of your life from one day to the next, but implement one change until it start to feel like a habit. Then, you can add another change. Here are the changes you can make:

1. Eat properly: Too much grease and sugar results in mental fog. If you live on fast food, you may be deficient in micronutrients. Put the right type of gas in your tank by eating a variety of fresh food. Bonus points if you cook your own food. If you don’t know if you’re getting the nutrients you need, track your food intake with an app such as MyFitnessPal.

2. Sleep sufficient hours: If you do research, you are paid to think. When you’re not sleeping enough, your thinking won’t be sharp – and your research will suffer. Avoid late nights by planning your work.

3. Sleep consistent hours: Sleeping eight hours per night is good. Going to bed and waking up at the same time every day is even better. Impossible? The key is planning!

4. Have a bedtime ritual: Don’t think you can dive into your bed right after you close your laptop. Bring some peace and relaxation to the end of your day, and set yourself up for a restful night of sleep by developing a bedtime ritual. Include reading, meditation, a nice cup of tea… in your routine – whatever helps you wind down at the end of the day.

5. Have an end time to your working day: Don’t spend every waking hour working. Have an end time to your working day, and then take some time for yourself in the evening. If you find it hard to leave your office on time, plan a fun activity in the evening so that you have an appointment to fulfil.

6. Start your day right: Use your morning to take care of yourself. Depending on your habits and preferences, include meditation, exercise, a hearty breakfast… to your morning routine. You’ll be more productive (and thus will be able to leave in time) when you start your day right.

7. Walk outside: Don’t stay holed up in the lab all day, every day. Of course, there are times when you can’t leave your experiment. But when your schedule permits, go outside. Walk, take in some fresh air, and get some sun before returning to your work with a clearer mind.

8. Exercise: The American Heart Association recommends 150 minutes of moderate cardiovascular activity and two strength-training sessions per week. You’ll notice that you will sleep better and be able to think more clearly when you exercise.

9. Disconnect: The world won’t collapse when you disconnect from the internet. Take a break from social media and your other digital addictions in the evening, over the weekend, or for a longer period of time if needed. Fill your time with things you truly enjoy doing instead of sharing memes.

10. Infuse comfort and joy in your days: Add a bit of joy and comfort to mundane tasks. Read a good book during your commute. Treat yourself to a special coffee when you need to read a large amount of papers. Get a few colourful pencils, if those make you happy. Find time for yourself when you travel for fieldwork or conferences.

11. Do what makes you feel good: When you get home on time, and you have the entire evening to yourself, ask yourself “What would feel really good right now?” Learn to listen to what you need. Some days, you may feel like soaking in a hot tub. Other days, you’ll feel like inviting friends over to cook dinner together. Tune into yourself.

12. Escape for short holidays: In the Netherlands, PhD students are employees of the university, with about 8 weeks of holidays per year. If you have limited holidays, try to escape for a weekend here and there to disconnect from your research, and return with a fresh mind.

13. Social time: You shouldn’t close yourself off from the rest of the world while being in graduate school. Share your wins and fails of graduate school with fellow students. Hang out with your friends to unwind. Volunteer for a cause.

14. Connect with family: If you are living on your own during graduate school, keep in touch with your family, and visit when possible. If you are living with a partner and/or child(ren), give them the love and attention they deserve. Your studies won’t love you back. Your family will (and does).

15. Learn to roll with the punches: Everything I wrote above comes with the understanding that there always are times when school gets really busy. Try to get through the rougher patches gracefully. Learn how to deal with busy stretches, and then return to your more relaxed default state.

Dr. Eva Lantsoght (@evalantsoght) is a Full Professor in Civil Engineering at Universidad San Francisco de Quito, Ecuador and a part-time researcher at the Concrete Structures research group of Delft University of Technology. She blogs at PhD Talk about her research and general academic topics.

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