In all the flurry and fury of graduate school, there is one lesson I wish I learned sooner: the importance of self-care. Amid assignments, readings, and classes, I placed academic responsibilities above the need to care for myself. Sure, I thought I had everything handled well. I was actively participating in class, getting good grades on my papers, and managing to get by on little sleep. The small things I neglected – eating well, doing non-academic activities, being physically active, checking in with myself – the things that would have kept me in balance, were no longer priorities in my daily life. And that’s when everything fell apart.
When I started my Master’s program, I was the eager student who wanted to do it all. I thrived in an academic environment, living on intellectual conversations, breathing in theory. I wanted to get a PhD and become a professor, and I knew that this would require an outstanding record of accomplishments, including an impeccable CV. The job market was declining at that time. It was 2008 and Canada was in a recession. Universities were cutting faculty as well as programs like Gender Studies. I knew I had to work hard to prove that I was the right material for a demanding academic career. But one thing I overlooked the entire time was the necessity of maintaining a healthy balance between school and the rest of my life. The concept of “self-care” was alien to me and not a topic of discussion among my professors and peers.
After four months of “burning the candle at both ends,” as my mom so often says, I felt off-kilter. In my first semester, I ran myself ragged trying to keep up with my workload. But this was not something I wanted to admit to others, or even myself. Many of us in academia (especially women) have the “impostor syndrome” and find ourselves continuously trying to measure up to others. As the new semester started, I realized that I was not OK. I was not in a healthy relationship, nor did I have financial stability. I wasn’t physically well and I felt stressed and isolated. I wanted my life to change for the better but worried I was stuck. Turning to family and friends, I realized I had the support I needed to get out of the messy situation I was in. I tried to stay positive by focusing on how I had recently been accepted into a PhD program in Ottawa and would be relocating in a few months.
It was a difficult time. I moved three times that year to keep a roof over my head. I worked multiple jobs in order to pay my bills, tuition, and student loan payments each month. As a result, I had to defer my PhD acceptance offer because I fell behind in writing up the final research project for my Master’s program. By the time the winter came, I was at a low point in my life. Half a year prior I was involved in an engaging academic environment, one where I discussed academic scholarship with my professors and peers every day. Now I was sitting at my kitchen table trying to write my last paper, with the heat set at 16 degrees Celsius to save costs. I was miserable. I lost interest in the research I was doing. I no longer wrote every day. I felt like giving up. I hadn’t done the self-care I needed to keep myself in check, or put things in place to help with my well-being. Every day I was not writing was another day of anxiety. I often woke up with panic attacks in the middle of the night, thinking about the emails I received from my supervisor because I had missed another deadline. I wanted to be upfront about how my academic work was not a priority at the moment, but I didn’t know how to start the conversation.
Finally, after many months of being worn down, I started to find my grounding again. I secured two jobs that brought in enough income to keep myself afloat financially. The new Fall semester was approaching and the graduate advisor for the PhD program insisted that we meet after I had written her about deferring my acceptance yet again. We met for coffee one afternoon, and she asked me about my progress in the Master’s program. “It’s coming along slowly. I’m getting it done,” I replied. She pushed further, not buying my lousy excuses. Suddenly, I found myself opening up about my struggles over the past year. This was the first time I talked openly with anyone in the academic community about what I was experiencing as a graduate student. I felt embarrassed that I had lost my ambition and that my life was messy. I used to be a student with good grades and scholarships. Now I felt like a failure. She listened attentively as I spoke and offered her support. In a compassionate but stern voice she said, “You can do this. Just get it done and move on.”
And I did. It took a few extra months but I finished.
Why do I share my story? Because I wish I had known about the importance of self-care when I was beginning my Master’s program. While my time in the program took a detour, it didn’t mean that I was a bad student. Life happened. It does that. Being a student is not our sole identity, our only mark of value, or our main responsibility. Sometimes other parts of our lives need to take priority and that doesn’t mean we are any less competent in our academic abilities. Self-care is knowing when to push on, when to take a break, and when to walk away. It’s knowing we need to be good to ourselves through it all.
Additionally, the realities of being a student – heavy course loads, poverty, stress, mental health – can have a huge impact on whether or not students succeed in their programs. I know more than one colleague who has had to quit a PhD program because there was not enough support to help them through. The academy needs to do more to help students get through their programs. Graduate programs are big time commitment, particularly PhDs, which can last 5 years or more as full-time work. During this time, life outside of academia continues. People take on outside employment, form long-term partnerships, move to new cities, grow their families, lose loved ones, take care of aging parents, experience health issues. Academic programs need to make spaces for self-care to exist so students can take the time they need to regain their balance without the fear of losing funding or academic support. Otherwise, the programs risk losing the students all together. Intelligent, competent students who need support and understanding, rather than the pressure to meet unrealistic and unhealthy standards of what it means to be an academic.
Photo by Christopher Campbell.