5 Tips for Grad School Stress

Take stock of your wellness tools

(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 for more. Article updated May 23, 2023.)

Pursuing your graduate degree is a giant step into a new world of opportunities. But that’s a lot of pressure, which can lead to crushing anxiety and stress—especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Unfortunately, you’re not alone in this either. According to the most recent fall 2022 survey by the American College Health Association, 77% of graduate and professional students experienced above-average stress in the last year. In fact, most college students experience stress. But graduate students face a distinctive set of pressures.

For many, the relationship with an advisor is a major contributor. Advisors often wield different expectations for each student. The hierarchy of power dynamics among students and faculty can thwart your focus and lead to a gauntlet of stressful situations prodding you at every turn.

77% of graduate and professional students report above-average stress.

Since graduate and professional students tend to be older and more independent, balancing both finances and life outside of grad school can be challenging. Many have partners and children tugging away at their time and energy just as much as their studies.

These issues make it all the more important for grad students to consider this healthy and effective strategy for managing stress:

1. Make Your “Self” a Priority

Your physical and mental health is important and affects the quality of your work. Self-care should be as high a priority as schoolwork. Get ample sleep, eat three healthy meals a day and be active at least three times a week. Self-help apps can help you fine-tune that schedule.

Become aware of the symptoms of negative stress, so you can be aware of your need for greater self-care. There are several signs and symptoms that you may notice when you are experiencing stress. These signs and symptoms fall into four categories: Feelings, Thoughts, Behavior, Physiology and Academic Performance.  

Learn creative ways to support yourself during stressful times. Steal away breaks for yourself every day. Time spent on fun and relaxing activities isn’t wasted—it’s a vital component to a healthy lifestyle.

2. Take Control of Your Life

Say no to tasks and activities that don’t fit your academic and personal goals. This means penciling out your priorities, and following through with them.

To flesh out those priorities, build a to-do list and plan a schedule around it. Having a good plan is a valuable way to ensure productivity, especially when your schedule is more flexible, such as when writing your thesis. But don’t fall into planning paralysis! It should not be a means for procrastination.

Keep calm and grad school on!

Having trouble finding your voice? Find out what it takes to be assertive.

3. Be Smart About Managing Time

Vaguely-defined. Long-term. Few deadlines. Grad school projects can easily put you at risk for putting work off until the last minute.

Take the first step in combating this by breaking your project down into snack-sized portions. This gives you concrete tasks to tick through and ensures steady progress. It also helps with setting your own deadlines.

Read up on how to master time management and stop procrastinating. The UC Davis Student Academic Success Center also holds workshops on time management, along with other valuable study skills.

4. Seek out Social Support

Tap into your network and return to it often. Your peers are great resources for empathy and emotional support, as well as for practical tips on dealing with the drudgery of grad work.

At UC Davis, reach out to your classmates further along in the program to help steer you around the coming obstacles and consider engaging with the Graduate Student Association. 

Make time for lowering your stress levels with friends and family. They can be your lifeline to the real world and a respite from your office or lab. If your friends are also colleagues, keep the work chat to a minimum when you can.

Look into support groups geared to grad students offered by Student Health and Counseling Services.

5. Most Important: Breathe

Mindful breathing is a proven technique for grounding yourself, creating self-awareness and refining your focus. Meditation practices like this can lead to lasting benefits for your psychological well-being.

Managing stress now prepares you for more in life. It makes room for you to take pride in yourself and all that you accomplish in your graduate journey.