Managing Time and Stress

The Graduate Student Backpack

As a graduate student, you will quickly find yourself with a million things to do at any given moment, so you should be prepared to work at any free moment: waiting at the doctor’s office, getting out of class early, or using time during a cancelled appointment. To be most productive at the drop of a dime, you should carry what you need with you to be most efficient in whatever extra time you stumble across. Below are a few things you should have with you at all times, especially in graduate school classes [link to article “What to do in class”] to make the best of your time:

• Laptop

• Wireless mouse (if preferred to trackpad)

• Access to internet

• Red pen

• Stack of papers to grade

• Tablet with course readings (digital textbooks are often cheaper, save paper and are easier to carry than are five textbooks)

• Chargers for every electronic device (i.e., phone, laptop, tablet, etc.)

The Importance of Self-Care: Advice to Graduate Students

Here is a shocker for you: life as a graduate student is hard work and quality advice to graduate students is hard to find. Graduate school takes a lot of time, money, effort, and endurance. Earning a PhD has been hard since its creation, and though some technological advancements have made some aspects of graduate school easier (i.e., a little thing called the Internet), earning a PhD will still be one of the most difficult accomplishments of your life.

Above all of your responsibilities as a graduate student (e.g., doing coursework, reading, teaching, writing papers, being on a research team, writing a dissertation or thesis, etc.), the most important responsibility you have is to take care of yourself. Yes, there will likely be some nights when you do not get much (if any) sleep, but, overall, you need to be sure that you are taking care of yourself. In the long run, taking care of yourself is some of the best advice to graduate students that we can give, as it will not only help you maintain your sanity and well-being throughout graduate school, but taking care of yourself will also make getting through graduate school easier.

Imagine that you are on an airplane and that all of a sudden, the cabin depressurizes and yellow air bags pop down from the console above you. Across the airplane, there is wide spread panic, and the child in the seat next to you begins to cry and reach for an air mask. What do you do? You put your mask on first. In many ways, graduate school can feel like a disastrous situation, but the moral of this story is that if you don’t take care of yourself, there is no way that you can take care of others or your responsibilities.

Here is some advice to graduate students that can ensure that you are properly taking care of yourself during graduate school:

• Maintain a healthy diet but still allow yourself dessert in moderation.

• Exercise regularly.

• Get enough sleep.

• Engage in hobbies or activities that you enjoy.

• Spend time each day NOT working.

• Have “me” time.

• Spend adequate time relaxing with friends and family.


Time Management 101: Learning to Say No

Saying no is not always easy, although it is vital to time management. Telling your major professor that you do not have time to write a literature review for his or her upcoming manuscript because you have to study for your comprehensive exams will be really difficult. It might even be harder to tell your best friend that you cannot make it to his or her birthday because you have to grade papers.

Time Management Tip: Learning When to Say No

It’s hard enough to say no, but it can be even harder to learn when to say no. When trying to decide whether or not saying no is a wise choice, you should consider the potential consequences and missed benefits of saying no. For example, how might your major professor respond to you declining to work on a research project? Based on your work together, do you think your professor will be supportive, or might your professor respond poorly to you saying no? Would working on one extra project open doors for further collaboration and potential publications in the grand scheme of things?

Time Management Tip: Learning How to Say No

It may also be difficult to learn the language of saying no—especially when you are saying no to someone who is in a position of power, such as a faculty member. When saying no, you should convey a message such as the following: “This is a really busy time for me right now, and I am not sure if I will be able to dedicate myself to this in the way that is needed.” As you can imagine, this has a much different tone than something that conveys a message such as the following: “No, I don’t want to.” In many instances, the people in your life will understand and respect your decision not to take on additional responsibilities if you are unable to do so. Learning how to prioritize your activities, homework, and responsibilities is very important to ultimately graduating and earning your degree.


Relaxation Techniques

During graduate school you could be demanded to write a term paper, finish your research assignments, and plan a birthday party for your best friend all in the same day. Because you are so busy, you probably find yourself overly stressed from time to time. Although having a little stress in your life as a graduate student is a good thing and results in high productivity, too much constant stress results in poor work and can even be hazardous to your mental and physical health. Below are a few tips for activities and exercises that you could do when you feel you are under too much of the stress that comes with life as a graduate student. Keep in mind how you react when you become stressed. If you tend to become overexcited, you should use relaxation techniques that calm you down. On the other hand, if you become depressed and detached, you should use relaxation techniques that speed up your body and mind. Try some of the following advice for graduate students, and you will probably find yourself more at peace and ready to take on your life as a graduate student.


There are many forms of meditation, but one of the easiest forms is Mindful Meditation. Take a moment, sit gently in an upright position, close your eyes, and simply be present in the moment. Try to let your thoughts flow out of your mind; if it helps, you can imagine your thoughts floating down a river. Once you are situated, focus on your breath. Focus on each inhalation and exhalation, the rise and fall of your chest, and the feeling of air as it passes through your nostrils. Doing this for 5 to 10 minutes can boost your energy and reduce your stress.

Focus Small

A common reason people, or grad students, get stressed is because they have too much going on in their life as a graduate student, and thinking about everything all at once can take over their minds. If you are one of these people, try focusing on one small task at a time. This will not only cause you to create a better product with your current task but will also help you to forget about all your other responsibilities while you are working.


Maybe it’s too hard for you not to think about everything you have to do. Spending time with friends and family is an easy way to take a break from your stressful thoughts about life as a graduate student. If you don’t want to spend time around humans, give your pet(s) some quality time. Petting your dog or cat will lower your stress level.


Focusing on your favorite music is another good way to force yourself to relax. Get your mind off of your life as a graduate student, and really think about the music. If you are the type of person who gets overexcited and hyper with stress, steer clear of fast music, and stay with slow tempos. Even better, try classical music to relax your mind and to get yourself into a deep, intellectual mindset.


Picture an image in your mind that makes you happy. This could be a loved one, your long-awaited graduate diploma, or the ever-popular “happy place.” Whatever you prefer to visualize, you will become relaxed as long as you focus on the image and not on anything else.

What To Do in Graduate School Classes

Just because you’re in graduate school doesn’t mean that you will be an expert in every graduate school class you take. Maybe you have been in the corporate world and have forgotten how to play the academic game. Maybe your success as an undergraduate was mostly due to your good test-taking or essay-writing abilities, and you managed to graduate despite your tendencies not to go to class or pay attention. However, graduate school is another level entirely, and you need to be your best during class to survive. Below are some tips about what you can do if you find yourself having issues in a graduate school class.

Choose your seat wisely.

Don’t doom yourself to failure by sitting at the back of class with all the other students constantly texting and coming in late. Do yourself a favor by sitting in front, ensuring the professor knows who you are and increasing your chances of paying attention. You should sit around people whom you know will not distract you, as you will need to pay a lot of attention in every graduate school class.

Master note taking.

Even if you won’t go over your notes later, you are giving yourself a task during class that involves listening to the professor. If you do intend to study your notes, make sure that you take the time to organize your work and to make it easy to find later.

Have a snack.

There’s nothing wrong with eating in a graduate school class. Just make sure that this doesn’t bother your professor and that you are quiet enough to be courteous to other students. Giving your brain and body a little boost during a boring lecture can do wonders for your retention and memory later. A hidden benefit is to your time management; you’re saving time by eating and learning!

Ask questions.

Asking questions yields several benefits. Firstly, asking questions forces you to listen to what your professor is saying. Also, you will be more likely to retain the information because you are actively engaging in the graduate school class lecture. Finally, your professor will believe that you genuinely care about his or her course (whether or not this is truly the case).

Make friends.

Having connections in graduate school class is invaluable to your education. For example, if you do have to miss a day of class, you can ask the other students whom you have gotten to know for any material that you missed. Knowing other students is yet another factor that will encourage you to show up to every class. Also, friends might turn into study buddies later down the road; knowing students in every class is also one of our networking tips.


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