Building Resilience in Graduate School

Kate Sedivy-HaleyBy Katharine Sedivy-Haley, PhD Candidate, Hancock Lab

When I started graduate school at UBC in 2012, I thought I was prepared. I had excellent marks, publications from research done as an undergraduate student, and even an NSERC award. Three years later, I was in therapy and seriously considering quitting grad school. I was drained, anxious, unable to focus and struggling with tasks that I had previously found easy. I felt broken. What went wrong?

I was used to working in a linear undergraduate environment. New classes each term, with a scheduled set of tests and assignments. Expectations were clear. It was easy to prioritize tasks based on how close the due date was and what percent of the mark the assignment­ made up. Feedback came regularly. While some classes were easier than others, there was usually a correlation between how much effort I made and my mark. In contrast, after the first two years of graduate school and my comprehensive exam, I had just one big multi-year project looming in the distance: my thesis. Deadlines were vague. Most frustratingly, the amount of time and effort I put into my experiments did not guarantee good results.

In the three years since then, I’ve picked up a few principles that have helped me to move forward – things I wished I had taken heed of sooner. Maybe they can help you, or someone you care about.

I’m not out of the tunnel yet, but I see an end, and a light.

  1. Prioritize taking care of yourself. We all know that it’s important to eat properly, get 7-8 hours of sleep, and exercise. Yet it is very easy to let these things slide when you feel pressure to get research results. You can’t always control your research schedule, but remember that you can’t do your best work when you’re not at your best – too much overtime can decrease your productivity.
  2. Get outdoors. Spending time in nature can reduce stress, depression, and anxiety. Walking can increase creativity, especially walking outdoors. If you’re feeling stuck, try a walk in the UBC Botanical Garden or Nitobe Memorial Garden (your UBC card gets you in free).
  3. Stay connected. We are not meant to be alone, and yet, many of us withdraw when we are most in need of help. It makes a huge difference to be around people who care about you, or those who may have similar struggles. Find those people. Find them in the lab, in your department, in the CBR, in UBC clubs, in the wider community. Talk to them.
  4. Have a personal side project. When things are going poorly in the lab – and they will, at some point or another – it really helps to have something else going on in your life that you can feel good about. Volunteering, athletic activities, and creative projects are good places to start. This can also be a good way to make those social connections or get outdoors – and develop skills in teamwork, communication, or leadership.
  5. Turn on the music. I swear, there are days when the only thing that keeps me going is singing along with Sarah Slean in the tissue culture room.
  6. Ask for help early and often. You’re not expected to come to grad school with all the skills necessary to write a thesis. If you feel stuck, talk to colleagues in your lab, your supervisor, or your committee members. Above all, if things aren’t going well, don’t cancel meetings with your supervisor! You may want to wait until you have better results, but your supervisor is supposed to help you figure out how to get those results.
  7. Think about how you work. Odds are good that you, like me, have work habits that worked great in undergrad but might not be well suited for grad school. Now’s a good time to reassess! I’m still working on this myself, but taking time to prioritize tasks and think about how they fit into a thesis is more effective than just trying to power through an overly cluttered to-do list.

If you are having a hard time and don’t know who to talk to, try the resource list on the CBR website or someone on the CBR Mental Health Contacts list.

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