The Cost of Calm

“Whoever said money can’t solve your problems,
Must not have had enough money to solve ’em”
-Ariana Grande, “7 Rings”

With mental health struggles so prevalent for graduate students, graduate programs and support networks are putting extra emphasis on mental health awareness.

My graduate program offers workshops and counseling to its students, providing training and information about the resources available within our institution. I have attended workshops on meditation, the importance of being aware of your own mental health, and mentally preparing for big presentations. The university’s recreation center also offers yoga classes, for a small monthly fee.

We’re taught that daily factors affecting your mental health include diet, sleep schedule, human contact/communication, and work load. To a certain extent, we have control over most of those elements. However, when we lose control over the last one, work load, we must find an outlet.

Every student is different in the way(s) we manage our stress. It is up to us to determine our preferred coping mechanism.

Some seek professional services through counseling or therapy. Some find solace in support networks on social media. Some keep journals to put words to everything swirling inside their heads.

While I do some writing, I, and many others, prefer more active pursuits. Some of us make regular trips to the gym, others go to yoga or meditation classes to clear their heads. A couple of my classmates take pole dancing classes and highly recommend them. A few other students sing in a local choir or play in an orchestra.

I know others who have taken up boxing or gymnastics, empowering activities which require a completely different skill set from what is utilized for their research.

All of this is to say that students exploit highly varied outlets to separate themselves from their work and take care of their mental health. Unfortunately, many of these endeavors cost a decent amount of money, making them not accessible for every student who wants to participate.

I grew up in an incredibly thrifty family. Both of my parents paid their own ways through university because their families did not have the means to do so. For them, growing up without money meant that when you had it, you saved it. I was raised with that mentality and, as a result, spending any amount of money over $50 is a mental hurdle, especially for things that I don’t “need”.

I recently started taking yoga classes at a studio near my house. These classes are more expensive than the ones offered through my university’s rec center, but they’re more varied and conveniently timed. With a student discount, classes cost $85/month. This may not sound like a lot of money to some, but to someone making $32,000/year and already paying a mortgage in addition to normal monthly expenses, $85/month can be a fair chunk of change.

This fee for classes is, admittedly, pretty low compared to more selective options (i.e. offered in fewer locations), like boxing or gymnastics. In addition, stipends in our program are very generous for PhD students, but expenses beyond necessities are a struggle.

The mental hurdle I had to jump to get here was that I don’t “need” to take these classes. I could stretch at home, I could go to my rec center’s classes, or I could find a different outlet that didn’t come with a monthly fee.

My instinct to not spend money is so ingrained that it risks my overall well-being. I have to convince myself that the cost of the activity is worth the benefit I will get out of the activity. Even then, I ask for a free trial period to take as much time as possible before I put any money on the table.

It is likely that my mental obstacle courses are particular to me, but I know that concerns over personal finances are common with grad students. I worked for a few years before grad school so I have a safety net. Many other students aren’t so fortunate. They started grad school immediately after undergrad, with no savings or are financially responsible for family members/children.

These are struggles we handle individually, prioritizing where best to spend the money we have. Increasing graduate student stipends would be a welcome financial relief, but that is not a path likely to be taken with increased tightening of research budgets. I would like to see better education for students interested in budgeting their finances, and greater acknowledgement of the funds needed by each student to find and pursue their own outlets for mental health security.

Planning to be Overwhelmed

For most students, across all levels of education, the summer represents a time for relaxation and recovery away from school and class responsibilities. Particularly responsible students may hold a summer job to earn some money and occupy their time. Graduate students don’t get that luxury. We work year-round, whether in class, in the lab/doing research, or gaining valuable job experience through external (outside the university) internships.

As grad students, we can’t stop being productive and I have no desire to put off necessary tasks until our academic year starts anew in August. My next big milestone towards my PhD is called a candidacy examination. The candidacy exam is a comprehensive evaluation of a PhD student’s ability to undertake a doctoral research project.

For my program, candidacy includes a six page written proposal detailing your planned experiments and the knowledge you expect to gain, in addition to a 20-25 minute presentation on your project. The written proposal must be submitted three weeks before your exam. On the day of your exam, your presentation is followed by 2-3 hours of questioning meant to assess your knowledge on the biological and experimental principles involved in you project.

At the end of your exam, a committee of six faculty members determines whether you receive an unconditional pass (no additional work needed), a conditional pass (some additional work needed), a re-take (a lot of additional work needed & take exam again), or a fail (most likely will remove you from the program). Re-takes and failures are extremely rare (one every ~10 years), but these are incredibly stressful for students both during the exam and in the weeks leading up to it.

I am currently preparing for my exam, which will occur sometime in the 2nd week of July. We are told to allot six weeks to complete all necessary components for candidacy though, in truth, preparations begin long before that.

As of now, I know who will be on my exam committee, the outline of my project, the information necessary to write my proposal and make my presentation, and the timeline of when things need to be submitted.

Some hard deadlines exist to keep us on track through this process, but I need soft deadlines as well to pace myself. I don’t want to burn out before I even walk into the exam room.

Right now, the only thing I need to do is submit paperwork asking permission to take my exam, though that is being delayed by the required 10+ signatures from faculty, who don’t necessarily respond to requests as promptly as you’d like them to.

In the weeks before my exam, I will be submitting my written proposal, practicing my presentation and receiving feedback from other students/faculty, and (hopefully) meeting with the faculty on my exam committee to gauge their reactions to my proposal.

Unfortunately, my candidacy exam is not the only thing I’m working on this summer. I will also be competing in the elevator pitch (if I get past the prelims) and poster presentation competitions in my graduate school’s annual Student Research Day at the end of June. I’m not stressing yet about the elevator pitch competition because I have to be chosen by my program first before I’ll be allowed to compete during Research Day.

For the poster presentation, I’ve laid out the data I want to include and the story it would tell but, unfortunately, I don’t have any of the data yet and will be working my tail off over the next couple months to get that work done.

My experiments have a natural pace to them, including down time while cells are growing, followed by chaos when setting up multiple analysis techniques at the same time. This predictable pacing allows me to know when I can study for my exam or continue writing my proposal, and when I need to prioritize my time for experiments. I will need to have all of my experiments completed a week before Research Day so have time to design the poster and send it out for printing.

Colleagues, especially faculty, keep telling me that I’ll get through this process fine. I believe them, but I’d rather over-prepare than under-prepare. However this turns out, I’ve already told my PI that I’ll be going on vacation for a couple weeks after my candidacy exam. On that trip, I’ll either be celebrating, sleeping, or looking for a new job.