3 Common Mental Health Challenges for Graduate School

How to avoid becoming overwhelmed

Editor's Note: This post is part of an effort by the UC Davis campus and the UC Davis Graduate School of Management to call attention to mental health issues and spread awareness about the resources available to students. See BeWell@GSM or more UC Davis mental health resources.

So, you've taken the GMAT/GRE. Maybe you've accepted an admissions offer, put in your notice at work or talked to your supervisor about balancing school and work, or even preparing to move to a new country or state to start grad school.

As you start preparing the life logistics of going back to school, don't neglect your most important asset: your mental health.

Yes, you’re about to embark on a super-rewarding, once-in-a-lifetime endeavor, and you should be excited! But just as you wouldn’t head out for a hike in the woods or mountains here in California unprepared, don’t neglect to equip yourself to successfully navigate the personal and mental health challenges of being a graduate business student.

On that note, here are three common issues that I've noticed both in myself and in talking with my classmates:

1. Imposter Syndrome and Perfectionism

This is a big one. According to the American Psychological Association, “...impostor phenomenon occurs among high achievers who are unable to internalize and accept their success. They often attribute their accomplishments to luck rather than to ability, and fear that others will eventually unmask them as a fraud.”

  • How to identify: You might feel as if your "mask" might crack at any time, or that you're not living up to who you are on paper. It can also feel like you need to go above and beyond in your assignments/projects to compensate for deep-seated insecurity and fear.
  • Suggestion: Remember, there is no one way to be a graduate business student: we all bring something different and additive to the table. Take time to reflect on your achievements. Break down each point in your resume or LinkedIn profile and recall what it took to do them. Remind yourself that nobody is perfect, we all have both strengths and weaknesses. Work on your personal branding—you are unique!
laptop and water bottle on an outdoor table
“I was born and raised in Thailand. This is my view relaxing and writing in Phuket in December 2022 during the winter break while I was visiting family.”

2. Pressure to Socialize, Leading to Social Fatigue or Exhaustion

Attending classes and simply being on campus means regular social interactions and small talk, even when you don't feel like engaging. This pressure to engage in banter, whether the interactions are neutral or even positive, can and does take a toll on your mood and mental well-being if it chips away at your peace.

  • Suggestion: Engineer your environment. Know that if you work in the student lounge, you'd better be prepared to socialize. Take a meeting room or work at home if you need privacy or some downtime. Step outside for a quick stroll—and let the fresh air and natural light refresh you.
  • The pressure to network. Isn't that what we're here for? Growing our networks? Absolutely, but remember that you can socialize on your own terms! If you’re more introverted, large networking events and conferences might be draining. If one-on-one coffee chats are more your thing, arrange those instead.
  • Suggestion: If networking is way outside of your comfort zone or exhausting, check in with yourself before committing to going. Ask yourself: Am I connecting with potential contacts at the cost of my mental health? Is it worth it? If you do decide to go, commit to your decision and make the most of it.

3. Burnout

Cleona Tsang MBA 23 practicing yoga
“I practice yoga occasionally and doing it with friends is always more fun!” says Tsang, here with fellow MBA student Feng Liu in Central Park in Davis.

You’re probably juggling a lot on top of your academic responsibilities. Maybe you’re working a part-time job, searching for a summer internship, raising a family, and/or doing your cold reach-outs on LinkedIn, all while trying to maintain an exercise routine and a social life. And, if you're in a leadership position, you're constantly pouring into others' cups. Don't make the mistake of running on empty and hitting burnout (which, by the way, is very real: here's how to spot it).

  • Suggestion: There’s no way around it: business students must be able to prioritize. Think back to your goals coming into the program. Do they still ring true? Are you on track? Make adjustments so that your goals—and the time you spend reaching them—align. When faced with new opportunities, do that same exercise.
  • Suggestion: Google Calendar is a great time management tool. I suggest color coding your activities (e.g., job search blocks in blue, classes in pink, social engagements in yellow, etc.) to quickly get a sense of where you’re spending your time. Schedule in focused work time. And, if needed, protect your energy and schedule in personal/alone time.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it’s a start. Whatever your goals are for your program and your career, you simply can't achieve them without a sound mind. Remember: optimizing for your mental health means you're optimizing for your goals.