Finding Your Outlet June 23, 2016
by Sara Peffer, Fourth Year Ph.D. Student, Department of Microbiology & Molecular Genetics
Getting through five or more years of graduate school has its ups and downs. Sometimes science does not cooperate, hypotheses need to be adjusted, occasionally your advisor disagrees with you, and of course – at some point you experience your candidacy exam and eventually your defense. There are also times when your data looks beautiful and consistently repeats, it supports the hypothesis, and your advisor and committee members cheer you on. This constantly tumultuous cycle can be stressful and wear you down mentally and even physically, so it’s important to balance the stresses you may encounter in the lab with hobbies, activities, friends, and a lifestyle to help maintain your sanity.
Through the years, I have met and made friends with graduate students who use a variety of methods to combat the stress that comes with the graduate school territory including group, partner, and individual activities. Spending time with your friends, who also happen to be fellow students, can provide one way to release graduate school derived stress. As your peers, they have a unique capacity to understand and empathize your frustrations and problems that stem from school and lab work. They may be able to help you solve them as well, with tips and troubleshooting ideas from their own experiences. Graduate students of the Microbiology and Molecular Genetics (MMG) program use Halloween to de-stress through crafting and artwork. You may be familiar with the annual Boo Bash, a Halloween-themed event hosted by the Graduate Student Association in conjunction with other local UT System student organizations. Every year, MMG students participate in the Boo Bash costume contest as a group and decide together on a theme for the costumes in late September or early October. Once a theme has been chosen, they spend time after lab and on the weekends working together to plan and assemble their costumes. This provides a welcome mental break in the evenings and weekends, although conversation topics almost always end up within the science realm.
As individuals, graduate students find their own method to deal with stress in a healthy and productive manner. Some students find solace in preparing and cooking healthy meals (and the occasional treat) for themselves and others. This is not only a relaxing hobby, but also supports a healthy lifestyle and in turn, a healthy body to effectively deal with the physical symptoms of stress. Others find regular exercise either alone, or with a fellow graduate students (who thankfully understand frequent timing problems, courtesy of your experiments), to be a healthy and stimulating de-stress activity. Depending on the student, it can also be very rewarding to perform with a local music group or spend time volunteering with local organizations and with student associations at the graduate school. This can be through collecting and packing up hospital supplies to send to doctors and nations in need, helping build homes, cleaning up local parks, community centers, and schools, and mentoring younger students. Of course, talk of de-stressing and a healthy lifestyle would be incomplete without a nod to pets, who provide companionship and force you to get up every morning and go home every day.
All of these methods are not mutually exclusive and should not be – finding what you love to do and what helps you de-stress during those high stress times in graduate school and in your life is vital to maintaining physical and mental health. Set aside time each day or each week to focus on yourself, whether this time is focused on exercise, food preparation, your pet, a favorite television/internet show, etc. – including during your candidacy exam and while writing your thesis! Graduate school is a part of your life and a stepping stone into your future; appreciate the people around you, the endless learning, and the trials and tribulations you struggle through, with a little help from your favorite de-stress method(s).