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Keeping your spirits up: Managing your mood in graduate school

Research shows that graduate students experience mood disorders like depression and anxiety (see Managing Time and Stress in Graduate School) at higher rates than the general population. In fact, some studies have found similar results for other creative and intellectual groups, such as artists, writers, and researchers. One possible reason for these findings is that the same personality characteristics that attract people to intense intellectual pursuits (characteristics like having intense focus, holding high standards, and developing obsessive interests) may also make people more susceptible to depression. Another possibility is that the demands of graduate school—including the need to perform at a high level, the constant evaluation of one’s work, and the pressure to continually improve—may contribute to depression. The truth is probably a combination of both possibilities. Whatever the case, many grad students may wrestle with negative feelings during, or about, their studies. And these negative feelings may actually impede progress and stifle creativity.

Of course, seeking professional support for negative feelings and other mental health concerns is a good idea. And you should definitely seek professional support services immediately if you are experiencing severe mental health challenges including, but not limited to, the following:

  • Clinical depression (defined generally as depression which impedes your ability to function and which occurs every day for 2 weeks or longer)
  • Suicidal thoughts and/or thoughts about harming yourself or others
  • Substance addiction or addictions to other unhealthy behaviors (e.g., gambling)
  • Eating disorders

It is common for students to experience low-level depressive symptoms and other negative feelings that may not be serious or prolonged. For many students, such feelings may not warrant a trip to a professional mental health provider but may still negatively impact both productivity and happiness. How can such feelings be dealt with?

Fortunately, there are a few strategies that work. These strategies may even be helpful as a complement to professional help (remember that these tips should not be construed as medical advice; for that, see the resources listed above)

Strategies for improving your mood

  • Time management is key to managing stress, and the less stress you have, the better your mood will be. For strategies and tips to improve your time management, read the post Managing Time and Stress in Graduate School.
  • Cognitive therapy, one of the most effective forms of therapy practiced today, teaches that changing how you think about things can change how you feel about them. For example, consider the following situation: your professor has returned your paper to you with the comment “I have told you many times before – use proper APA citation!” You can have many possible thoughts about this comment, such as:

Thought 1: “My professor is being rude to me. She is disrespecting my intelligence by talking down to me about a minor error.”

Thought 2: “My professor thinks I’m incapable. I’m so incompetent, and my professor knows it.”

Thought 3: “My professor is being direct with me, because she knows I can handle it. We have a good relationship in class and during office hours, so my professor is being upfront out of respect.”

Thought 4: “My professor may have different personal and/or cultural perceptions of what being rude means. What I take to be rude behavior, my professor may see as pushing me or motivating me.”

Notice how Thought 1 and Thought 2 are likely to make you feel very differently than Thought 3 or Thought 4. Simply acknowledging that there are many ways to look at a particular interaction may help you to feel more positively about it. To learn more about using cognitive therapy to change how you think, check out Greenberger and Padesky (1995) under “Further Reading” below. 

  • Psychologist and writing guru Robert Boice has discussed the importance of working in moderation to keep your spirits up. In other words, you should create a regular work schedule to tackle projects (e.g., class papers, presentations, or your thesis) piecemeal rather than by binge working. Binge working allows for indulging in traits like perfectionism or obsessive focus for long periods of time, and such indulgence can trigger depression or other mood disorders. On the other hand, working regularly on a schedule (e.g., daily or weekly) “brings consistent productivity and satisfaction,” in Boice’s words (1990, p. 12).
  • Chemist Derek Lowe suggests avoiding the extremes of taking on excessive responsibility, on the one hand, and paralyzing self-doubt, on the other; both poles steer students away from completing their graduate programs.

Further Reading

Lowe, D. (26 March, 2018). Depression and anxiety in graduate school. Retrieved from http://blogs.sciencemag.org/pipeline/archives/2018/03/26/depression-and-anxiety-in-graduate-school.

Boice, R. (1990). Professors as writers: A self-help guide to productive writing. Stillwater, OK: New Forums Press.

Greenberger, D., & Padesky, C. A. (1995). Mind over mood: Change how you feel by changing the way you think. New York, NY: Guilford Press.