The Importance of Self-Care While Doing your PhD

by Rachel Surratt, MA, Associate Professional Clinical Counselor at Resiliency and Health Institute, LLC

As a therapist, I've seen first hand how demanding the sciences can be. The pressures of academic expectations, research, and deadlines can leave little time for self-care. However, taking care of yourself is essential for maintaining good mental health and well-being, and can even enhance academic performance. In this blog post, I'll discuss some barriers to self-care for graduate students and researchers, its benefits, and provide strategies for preventing burnout.


Barriers to Self-Care

Firstly, it’s important to acknowledge what may appear to be standing in the way of self-care. There are many barriers to self-care for students and starting professionals, including a lack of time, money, and resources. The demands of coursework, research, and teaching can leave little time for activities that promote self-care, such as exercise or hobbies.

Additionally, you may face financial barriers to self-care, such as the cost of therapy or gym memberships. Lastly, the lack of resources or support from the university or program can make it difficult for graduate students to prioritize self-care. This program culture of “work until you drop” is a humongous reason you may be experiencing burnout. Despite these challenges, self-care is essential for maintaining good mental health and well-being.


Benefits of Self-Care

Self-care practices can help reduce stress, increase resilience, and enhance academic performance. Self-care can also help prevent burnout, which is an experience you may have as a graduate student or research professional. Burnout can lead to emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion, and can have long-lasting consequences if left unaddressed.


What is Burnout, and Do I Have It? Aren’t I Just Stressed?

Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by prolonged stress and often results in a reduced sense of accomplishment, feelings of cynicism or detachment, and a lack of motivation.

Stress and burnout are often used interchangeably, but they are two distinct experiences. Stress is a natural response to a challenging situation and is often temporary. It might look like having a continuous sense of urgency, feeling highly reactive, anxious, or tired. In small doses, stress can be beneficial, helping us stay alert, focused, and motivated. However, when stress becomes chronic, it can lead to burnout.

Burnout, on the other hand, is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by prolonged and unresolved stress. It can result in reduced productivity, decreased satisfaction with work or personal life, and can lead to physical and mental health problems.

Here are some signs of burnout to look out for:

  1. Chronic fatigue and exhaustion, even after getting adequate rest
  2. Decreased motivation and productivity
  3. Irritability and difficulty concentrating
  4. Feeling helpless, hopeless, or trapped
  5. Physical symptoms such as headaches, stomachaches, and muscle tension

While stress is a normal part of life, and even graduate school, burnout is not. Burnout is a serious issue that can have long-lasting consequences. If you're experiencing symptoms of burnout, such as chronic fatigue, decreased motivation, or physical symptoms, it's essential to take action to prevent it from worsening. This may include seeking support, taking time for self-care, and reevaluating your priorities and workload.

So, what does all of this mean? It means we NEED self-care. Remember when your lab lead is stressing you over deadlines or pressuring you and your team not to take breaks, self-care and seeking support are key components of preventing and managing burnout.

The Self-Care Wheel

self care wheel large

Need some more suggestions? Here are a few strategies that I often recommend to my clients:

  1. Set realistic expectations: It's essential to set realistic expectations for yourself, your workload, and your goals. Avoid taking on too much and remember that it's okay to ask for help when you need it.


  1. Schedule regular breaks: When you're in graduate school or working long lab hours, it can be easy to get caught up in a never-ending cycle of work. However, taking breaks is essential for preventing burnout and maintaining your mental health. Schedule regular breaks into your day, even if it's just a 10-minute walk or a quick meditation session.


  1. Prioritize sleep: Sleep is crucial for maintaining good mental health, but it can be challenging to get enough of it when you're in graduate school. Try to establish a consistent sleep schedule and make sure that you're getting at least 7-8 hours of sleep each night.


  1. Exercise: Exercise is a great way to reduce stress and boost your mood. Find an activity that you enjoy and make it a part of your regular routine. This could be anything from going for a run to practicing yoga.


  1. Connect with others: Graduate school can be isolating, especially if you're working in a lab setting. Try to connect with others, whether that's through joining a club or organization, attending social events, or simply reaching out to a friend or family member. Change the culture of your lab to one that values each other’s whole being, not just a bunch of workhorses!


  1. Practice mindfulness: Mindfulness is a powerful tool for reducing stress and improving your mental health. Try incorporating mindfulness practices into your daily routine, such as meditation or deep breathing exercises.


  1. Seek support: Don't be afraid to seek support when you need it. This could be from a therapist, a trusted friend or family member, or a support group. Remember, nothing in your life has to be suffered alone.


  1. Set boundaries: Lab life can be all-consuming, but it's important to set boundaries and prioritize your own needs. Make sure you're saying no to commitments that don't align with your priorities and make time for activities you enjoy.


Remember, self-care is not a luxury – it's a necessity, especially when you're in graduate school. By prioritizing your mental health and well-being, you'll be better equipped to handle the challenges that come with your role.



If you’re looking for professional support with your experiences, here are some resources to start looking for a therapist:


If you’re looking for professional support with your experiences, here are some resources to start looking for a therapist: