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September 12, 2021

Behind the Scenes of Graduate School: Student Mental Health [Back to School]

Yop & Tom

One of the biggest topics to come up when you chat with graduate students about their mental health?  Balance.

It’s no surprise to us that balance plays such a big role in the lives of graduate students. After all, grad school requires a whole other level of study. There’s so much more to juggle! 

That balancing act was a big part of the conversation when  we sat down with Priyanka, a 23-year-old PhD student at MIT and a talented  bullet journaler. You’ll likely recognise her creative spreads from her Instagram account.

Priyanka joined us for our back to school series, which has seen us interview a high school student, a second-time student and now a graduate student to discover how they look after their mental health whilst studying.

We spoke with Priyanka when she was midway through a family visit, feeling excited to be back together and enjoying the Californian sunshine! Here are our biggest lessons from the conversation.

Image of Priyanka in black dress


1. Look for a graduate programme youtruly enjoy

“I’m a PhD student in the Chemical Engineering department at MIT. I’ve had a love for chemistry, robotics, and programming from a pretty young age and thought Chemical Engineering would be a good combination of these things when I was applying to undergraduate programs. 

I ended up liking how interdisciplinary the subject was and also got involved in some research in college which I really enjoyed, and that drew me to pursue graduate school.”

2. Remember that balance is a process, not a destination

“When you’re away from home, it’s not just about studying, but also making time to cook, do laundry, take care of your physical health, and of course relax and hang out with friends (or just by yourself!). 

Sometimes it feels like there are not enough hours in the day to finish everything, and I think finding the balance is definitely an ongoing challenge for me.”

Back to School weekly double page spread

A back to school bullet journal spread from@priyanka.bujo

3. It can take a while to understand your mental health and what it means to you 

“Mental health is definitely something that I’ve had to come to understand, but it is extremely critical to me now. 

When I’m particularly stressed or down, it becomes virtually impossible to study/work at the same level, so addressing my mental health is really important.”

4. Bullet journaling is a powerful outlet to support your mental health

“I get pretty frazzled/stressed when I have a lot of different things going on, andbullet journaling helps me organize my life to alleviate some of that pressure. 

I used to use a planner, but with bujoing (bullet journaling) I can customize layouts and colors to my preference, and this creativity both helps me with planning and serves as an outlet after my research and classes.”

5. Graduate school can test your mental health, but you’ll learn how to manage it along the way

“Personally, my mental health is most affected by my academic work. Honestly, when I was younger, mental health was not something that I prioritized very highly. 

I’ve alwayshad a lot of goals, and believed that every second I wasn’t working was time wasted, which I realized was a very toxic mindset once I got to college and began to buckle under much-increased workloads. 

I think it’s important to recognize thattaking time off to relax or otherwise justaddress your mental health is actually beneficial to your studies because it helps you be in a better frame of mind to pursue your goals. I definitely put a lot more time towards relaxation now, and that’s helped me avoid burnout.”

Open journal showing a monthly spread and section for goals
A planning spread from@priyanka.bujo’s bullet journal

6. It’s 100% okay to take a break from studying

“I’m pretty introverted and mostly use my hobbies - reading, baking, dancing - as a break from my studies [...].

I take three to four 10-15 minute breaks during my normal workdays - usually, after I finish a task, or am feeling drained/stuck. For me, these consist of grabbing a snack, or doing one of the daily puzzles in the New York Times like Sudoku orLetter Boxed - just little brain recharge moments!

[...] I try to be in tune with my emotions and adjust based on how I feel. For example, if I feel particularly stressed or frustrated with studying, I’ll take a step back and do something fun for a while.”

Journal showing double page spread of habit and mood tracker

@priyanka.bujo’s mood tracker from her bullet journal

7. Adding a mood tracker to your bullet journal will help you manage your mental health

“Sometimes we undergo subtle mood changes without realizing it. I like to take some time at the end of the day to check in with myself and fill out my stacked mood/productivity tracker in my journal. 

Seeing how my mood trends over larger periods of time, and also correlating this to my productivity helps me make changes to my lifestyle to better suit my mental health.”

8. It’s worth taking the time to reflect with your bullet journal

“Keep a reflection page - I usually do this at the end of each month to track what went well and what didn’t, in all spheres of my life. It helps me think of concrete ways toimprove for the next month!”

9. Find people to talk to about your mental health

“I definitely feel comfortable talking about my mental health with my best friends if I need to. This came about organically as we became closer as friends and eventually felt safe talking to each other about these things. 

It also helped that they were in the same major as me in college, so we were taking a lot of the same classes and generally going through many similar academic struggles, and could therefore relate to each other.”

10. A good study-life balance is essential but can take a while to achieve

“Strive towards a good study/life balance! It’s something that is always changing and takes a while to achieve, but these two aspects play off each other and the balance helps your life overall.”

Priyanka suggests the following strategies to help you find that elusive balance:

  1. Keep yourself organized - digital/physical bullet journaling and/or Notion are good options! 
  2. Make time for friends and your hobbies - as tempting as it is to stay up late trying to get every single point on an assignment, sometimes it might be more important to prioritize your mental and physical well-being. I promise it won’t affect your life in the long term. 
  3. Build a support system - whether that be your friends, parents, guidance counselors, etc. For those going to college/university, many have a degree of free counseling and mental health services provided, don’t be afraid to take advantage of those if you need to!”
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