Self Care for Graduate Students When Time and Energy Are Tight

February 4, 2019

During my sessions with clients, I often notice that they sound stressed, anxious and tired. In some cases, they are worn out to exhaustion. I’ve come to expect this now from dissertation and thesis writers, and with good reason. After all, writing can be stressful all on its own, and even more so when you are working with an academic committee. That said, there is a cult of productivity that academia fosters. It seems like in academia, we must always be working. Like it’s a badge of honor to talk about how we stayed up all night to finish that essay. Or worked twelve hours straight to finish a draft of a chapter.

We think that the way to get ahead is to do more, be more, write more, write better, write perfectly. Publish. Publish. Publish. While yes, it’s true that the academy is often caught in a publish or perish cycle, academics often lose sight of what it means to be productive and what we actually need to be productive. While it may be possible to lose sleep for a night or a weekend or even a few days, in the long run, working like this is not only unproductive, it is harmful.

Being a writer is tough — it’s almost like we’re in an alternate reality sometimes, where we’re researching and creating and the rest of the world disappears. That’s why it’s even more important to take care of ourselves and leave some gas in the tank for future endeavors. Sometimes when I tell my clients this, though, they resist the advice. They already feel so behind that they don’t want to stop, for fear they’ll fall behind even further. They are like the tree-cutter in the old morality tale, the man who does not want to stop to sharpen his saw, even though it is clearly too blunt to make much progress.

The thing is, I get it. I remember being there. I remember working feverishly to deadline, so much so that I completely disregarded my own self-care and even my own health. In fact, I’m still dealing with the results from years of battering my body in order to be a productive academic. The stress and the long nights take their toll.

Part of the problem is that feeling that we can never do enough, but another part of the problem is that we feel that if we stop, we’ll never get back into the rhythm of the work. We fear taking breaks because in the past, our breaks may have led to unproductive behaviors. In the past, maybe they weren’t breaks as much as they were long seasons of procrastination, composed of listless days at the computer on social media or piled on the couch binge-watching television. Law & Order marathon? Excellent. Facebook? Even better.


And yet that isn’t self care. Procrastination and self care are different. The reality is that true self-care doesn’t have to be an all-day thing or cut into one’s life in order to help recharge. While yes, there are times I encourage people to take a complete break from all work, there are other times where that is not possible. It’s at those times when doing something very small to express love for yourself can be very critical. It could be as simple as going for a walk on a pretty day, or stopping early in the evening to read a chapter in a good (not dissertation-related) book. It could take as little time as logging onto and just spacing out for a few minutes to get some much needed breath. You could hold hands with a loved one, or have a heart-to-heart with a friend. Make a pot of hot tea and sip a cup slowly, leisurely, before your next writing session. Play with a pet. The key is to do things with an intention of caring for yourself and filling up your tank. Such a commitment to self-care is a critical way to soothe your nervous system and set the stage for better, more focused work sessions where you can engage with your dissertation from a calmer, more clear-headed, and grounded place.

There are so many things we can do to care for ourselves that don’t cost much time or money; we just need to rethink the way we’re approaching our days. And when we make our work plans or our schedules for the week, we can even schedule in some self-care rituals if it’s becoming difficult to maintain them.


What are your self-care rituals? What do you do for balance? What do you do to recharge? I challenge you to write down five easy/short-term ideas for self care and put them on a whiteboard or on an index card that you can slip into your bag and carry. And do what you can to create good sleep habits, since sleep and rest are so important to a healthy, functioning brain.

Remember, this work is work. Writing is harder than we think on the body. Think about working on a long-term writing project as analogous to running a marathon. Your body needs fuel to make it all the way through to that finish line!