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I am a first year Ph.D. student and feel lonely all the time. There are several days when I go without any human contact except with students in my office hours. It’s strangely suffocating. I am still not part of any lab, so there are no labmates to hang out with. My classmates go to their labs straight after class so can’t hang out after class. —IsThisHowIt’sSupposedToBe

(This week’s answer is courtesy of Jaye Sablan, Core Programs coordinator, Office of Student Affairs in the the Graduate School.)

First off, thank you so much for reaching out. I know how hard it can be in academia to share emotional vulnerability, and I totally hear you. Graduate school and its demands can create an atmosphere that feels isolating and alienating to graduate students. No, this is *not* how graduate school is supposed to be, or how it needs to be, though we hear you that this is how it *is.* Know that your feelings are totally normal, and many grads have similar experiences. When I was in grad school, the cues that I was feeling disconnected were usually a combination of headaches, not being able to eat, inability to focus, and generally feeling alone on a campus with thousands of people around me. It also didn’t help that faculty, staff, and grad peers were busy in their own work that they (unintentionally) failed to notice I was struggling.

Here are a few things that helped me manage feeling isolated, and I’m wondering if they would be helpful to you:

  • What do I need right now at this moment to feel connected to my body? A stretch, deep breaths, a healthy snack, a glass of water.
  • Whom can I connect with to talk things through or feel vulnerable with (this one is a tough one, but you’ve already reached out to me ITHISTB)? Family members or friends via a visit, phone call or skype, my department’s GPA, off- or on-campus counselors (reaching out to more than one person is better).
  • If I can’t connect with peers in my department yet, what organizations on campus can get me those face-to-face connections with other grads? GPSS and their events, grad student organizations, Center for Teaching and Learning (you mentioned being a TA, so that might be a place to start), Core Programs, etc.
  • What other interests do have I have outside of academia that I need to intentionally make room for in my schedule? Dancing, going to see live music, baking, visiting museums, town hall talks, getting to know the city that I moved to for grad school.

Again, ITHISTB, I am so very grateful that you reached out, and I hope this message resonates with you. Again, no, this is not how graduate school should be, and there are ways to decrease isolation — including connecting with others, which is so important and vital for all of us studying and working in academia. If you’d like, please let me know if you’d like a specific list of campus resources to connect with. Looking forward to hearing from you.

Ask the Grad School Guru is an advice column for all y’all graduate and professional students. Real questions from real students, answered by real people. If the guru doesn’t know the answer, the guru will seek out experts all across campus to address the issue. (Please note: The guru is not a medical doctor, therapist, lawyer or academic advisor, and all advice offered here is for informational purposes only.) Submit a question for the column →

Keeping the Momentum Going Through the End of the Quarter

As we head into the last two weeks of the quarter, some of you are completing your first year of graduate school, wrapping up a capstone project, writing a draft of a dissertation chapter, or eagerly anticipating graduation—all the while juggling family and community responsibilities. Many of you are in the midst of a job search and interviewing for future employment. We at Core Programs understand that it’s crunch time, and we’re here to encourage you to keep your momentum going. Here are some tips to get you through that last leg of the quarter:

Plan and prioritize.  Make a daily list and prioritize what you must complete each day. De-prioritize anything that can wait. Because your time is scarce, create a “wish list” for things you can do after the crunch time has passed, and since they are on a separate list, you can trust you won’t forget about them!

Utilize your strengths.  We wrote about this a few newsletters ago. What time of the day are you most productive? Whether it’s the morning, afternoon, or evening, do your graduate work during the time you feel the most motivated. Incremental bursts of work will allow you to be more productive, rather than setting aside unrealistic chunks of time. You’ll also feel satisfied because you’re actually getting work done.

Get support.  Meet with a peer or two to review drafts of each other’s work or do mock job interviews in preparation for actual ones. Plan to debrief or release stress with a friend or colleague after you’ve worked through a milestone. Working with a colleague not only decreases isolation, it increases accountability.

Self-care.  It’s important to renew your energy level, especially during crunch time. Go for a 5-minute walk after writing for an hour, grade a set of student papers and then listen to relaxing music, or make plans to share a healthy meal with a friend before continuing work into the evening. Do whatever reduces stress, feels rejuvenating, and allows you to get in “me time.”

Acknowledge and reward milestones.  You’re nearly there, and that’s a feat in and of itself! Take time to recognize all your efforts each day and give yourself a treat for doing so! You definitely deserve it!

To all graduate and professional students who will complete your programs this year, we applaud you for your sheer dedication, tenacity, and passion. Best wishes in all your future endeavors! To all students who will be returning the coming year, Core Programs in the Graduate School will be here to encourage and support you! As always, we love hearing from you—your ideas, successes, frustrations, and thoughts on how we can better support your graduate experience. Contact us at

Building Resilience: Moving Forward During the Winter

Welcome back to campus! We hope that you enjoyed your well-deserved holiday break.

As you move forward into the winter quarter, we acknowledge that there could be a marked shift in your experience as a graduate student. The days are both shorter and longer as you spend hours working inside. Personal and work deadlines also appear to grow exponentially. The stress of it all can feel overwhelming. In light of this, we at Core Programs encourage you to build your resiliency so you can better navigate what will feel like an especially challenging quarter.

Here are a few strategies to build your resiliency:

Be mindful. Pay close attention to your mind and body. What kinds of thoughts are going through your head? Do your muscles feel tense? Is your breathing shallow? Are you hungry? Not hungry? Pausing to reflect on how your mind and body are working allows you to be present and take stock of what you truly need at the moment.

Be compassionate. Academia can make you feel like you’re never doing enough. When you couple this with how difficult it can be to stay motivated during the winter, you can become your own worst critic. The truth is, it is neither realistic nor possible to do it all, do your best work, and maintain your health. Be kind and gentle with yourself. It might not feel like it, but you are enough.

Be active. You’re thinking, “Isn’t that the problem?! It’s difficult to stay active during winter.” We’re not suggesting that you train for a marathon (although this may resonate with some of you). If you’ve been reading and writing for several hours, go outside for a ten-minute walk. Do light stretching in the living room. Watch your favorite tv show or read a non-academic book. Intentionally schedule time for family and community. Do activities that not only give you a break from school but also feel rewarding.

Be consistent. Having a daily routine is a helpful coping strategy for managing the stress of the winter. Set your alarm to get up everyday at the same time. Make or grab coffee afterwards. Listen to a podcast on the way to campus. Eat meals at regular times. Give yourself time to wind down before going to bed at night. Do whatever feels right and do it daily.

Renew and refresh. Finally, as during any busy quarter, focus on why you are here as a student. Remember your personal, intellectual, and professional motivations for working towards your degree and beyond. Keep yourself fresh and committed by placing reminders around your home or work station that surprise and ground you.

Taking Care of Yourself This Winter

Core Programs extends a warm welcome as you enter into 2016. We know that for many of us, the holidays can bring up mixed emotions for many reasons–let’s be real. Also, whether you’re new to the Pacific Northwest or a seasoned local, the winter months can prove to be challenging to your mood. We’d like to offer strategies that can help you navigate the quarter both logistically and emotionally.

Keep your energy up. During the winter months, getting vitamin D is important to lifting your mood. If you’re working inside, open your curtains and blinds to let light in or sit in a café with large windows. Take a couple of breaks during the day and go for a walk on campus or your neighborhood—the goal is to feel and absorb any light. Invest in vitamin D tablets. Cut back on sugary foods which tend to make you feel tired. Include fresh fruit in your diet which can give you that much-needed energy boost that lasts longer.

Monitor self-beliefs. Academia can foster an environment where you feel like you aren’t smart enough or doing enough. You can counter irrational thoughts with realistic strategies: Review and make a plan to get things done (daily, weekly, monthly). Meet with peers (they can be colleagues from other departments) to discuss your progress, and hold each other accountable for getting things done. Fill out an individual development plan and schedule appointments with your faculty advisor to discuss your goals. Practice resisting negative self-talk with neutral and honest affirmations.

Stay connected. Graduate life can be isolating, and this feels pronounced during the winter quarter when it gets dark and cold. Avoid isolation by sharing workspace at a café with colleagues. Call or skype a friend or loved one. Attend social events even if you can only stay for 30 min. Make time to relax and socialize with friends or family. If you prefer alone time (not the same as being isolated), schedule time away from work to do things you enjoy.

Seek support. There is no shame in seeking help from a mental health professional, if you are struggling to cope emotionally. This is especially true if you are experiencing depression or anxiety. The Counseling Center is an excellent resource for mental healthcare. King County also provides a list of low-cost mental health providers.

It’s the Home Stretch!

It’s nearing the end of the fall quarter, and we’re thrilled that you continue to invest in your intellectual and professional development as current graduate students at the University of Washington.

You may have had these thoughts rolling through your mind about graduate school:

“Why did I do this to myself?”
“I’m not good enough.”
“I’m supposed to be on top of everything.”
“Will I seriously get through everything I need to before the end of the quarter?

These worries are totally normal, especially during your first year of graduate study.  We also know that these anxieties impact graduate students differently depending on gender, race, class, ability, sexuality, nationality, and type of degree program.  And they weigh heavy on your mind, in addition to the seminar papers you have to write, student papers that need grading, or lab work that needs to get done.  You might even be studying for your generals, looking for a job, planning a family holiday, or dissertating.

Especially during these crunch times, it can help to remember your purpose—why are you here? Your core purpose, the contribution you want to make, the stability you want to provide your family, your passion and curiosity—these are the things that will get you through the tough times. You do belong here, and you can do it. You are in graduate school because you are already serving your community and want to deepen this, or because of a passion for creating innovative technologies, a desire to contribute to scholarship, a hope of getting a good job that matters and sustains you—the list goes on and on.

In addition to remembering your purpose and passion, here are some other tips to help encourage you as you finish out the quarter:

Surround yourself with people who can pull you out of a slump. Friends or peers (in and outside of academia) who can give you a reality check that graduate school is not the entirety of your life, even if it feels that way. Plan a potluck with them, hang out at a cafe, go see a movie.

Exercise. Even a short brisk walk helps calm the mind and gets the blood flowing. It also releases stress hormones that tend to build up during this busy time of the academic year.

Make a quick list of all your accomplishments so far. Attended first day of graduate school (check), taught your first quiz section as a TA (check), developing a specific skillset (check), others? Celebrate these accomplishments and reward yourself (time away from the computer, a date with a friend, a chocolate bar. etc.).

Create situations that help you feel motivated. Is there a quote you love? Tape it to your computer. A band whose music makes you feel like you can do anything? Listen to it before (or after) a big work session. An image of a place that inspires you to get things done? Put this up where you will see it several times a day (maybe by the coffee pot?).

What else keeps you going? Let us know and we will share your tips with others.

Core Programs in the Graduate School is here to root you on! You have made it this far (a big feat), and we commend you for working hard. Give it your best shot—and remember this is all a learning and growing process. You do not have to get it “perfect” right out of the gate (no one does!). You are nearly to that much-deserved break!

Thank you to Florence Sum, Masters student in the Evans School of Public Affairs, for these tips.

Living the Truth of Not Yet

Life in graduate school is challenging and stressful, not only because of program demands to excel and be productive, but also because there is life outside of the lab, classroom, and the university. The demands of health, relationships, and responsibilities don’t stop.

We seek to find a balance between our graduate studies, research and life responsibilities—and often feel unsuccessful. This can result in debilitating feelings of failure, perhaps negative thoughts that “something is wrong with me,” which only intensifies shame or guilt.

I find it important to move away from this binary and re-frame it as a work-in-progress. We need to give ourselves permission to live the truth of not yet!

When an infant is learning how to walk and takes her initial steps and falls, we don’t scowl and shout, “Get up, what’s wrong with you?” No, we smile, clap and cheer because we know her muscles are getting stronger and she will find her balance. We don’t expect a seven-year old to be doing calculus. Not yet! But we are good at imposing upon ourselves unrealistic expectations of perfection rather than give ourselves permission to grow, to live not yet.

What helps me is to view the areas of my life not as separate–or compartmentalized–and not to see balancing as an achievement. Rather, it is a process that I listen and pay attention to constantly because it is easy to lose perspective and balance. We must respond by being authentic—being human– and this includes being vulnerable and growing through our struggles and with our limitations.

What helps keep perspective and focus? For some it’s regular exercise—yoga, running, or cycling. For others it’s listening to music, creating art, or talking to a friend. For others it may be meditative or spiritual practices. Whatever helps you—practice it! Practice being present with yourself and others.  Stay connected to your passion and to that which grounds and centers you. Rather than being a selfish act, this investment in yourself allows you to be a better student, colleague, partner, friend, and parent.

Live your gifts as a practice. Be gentle with yourself and allow yourself to hold and appreciate the not yet. Then, your work and personal life will be acts which flow from your center, your heart, and will be powerfully generative and transformative.

This post’s guest author is Dr. Gino Aisenberg, Associate Dean for Student Affairs and Diversity in the Graduate School and Associate Professor of Social Work.