How should I deal with discouragement as a graduate student?

Last week, Ashley blogged about finding balance as a grad student. She wrote about making the choice to stay in grad school despite the challenges she faced. Her guest post described what most of us grad students experience when we choose this path. Many of us become discouraged when we hit a brick wall or when things seem to fall apart around us. And when we reach that breaking point, many students choose another path.

A friend recently sent me an article that I wanted to share on the blog.

Aru Ray asked this question over at

How should I deal with discouragement as a graduate student?

You can read his full post here. As you know, I’ve asked similar questions on this blog before. Often when I’m feeling discouraged or depressed about grad school, I read as many articles as I can about what to do to get out of the funk. I ask for help, but mostly I seek help from strangers on the Internet.

Most of the advice I read involves the following words and phrases:



It’s not worth it

Move on

Find your calling elsewhere

Don’t torture yourself

Take care of yourself

We aren’t all meant to be specialists

If you don’t feel passion now, you won’t feel passion later

The comments on this other thread were remarkable. They were full of hope and encouragement.

I thought the end game was deciding I was a real mathematician, but it turns out it’s developing the confidence not to worry about this, and I’ve been much happier since that point.

Take breaks, find fulfilling things to do outside of work, and realize that everyone (even seasoned researchers) feel the same frustrations and highs that you do.

Do not listen to the Impostor Syndrome. Everyone “actually smart” is hearing exactly the same voice in their head saying “Oh, if only someone who actually knew how to hit walls with their forehead hit this wall, it would come down like a stack of cards” when in fact the wall really is made of brick.

Eventually, you’ll move from hoping that you’ll be able to knock down a wall with your head someday, to being surprised at how often the walls you hit with your head actually fall, to finally believing that you really can knock down walls with your head sometimes.

Part of the problem is that it’s tempting to focus too much on the destination: proving theorems, writing papers. These things happen only occasionally, and thinking about them (or their absence) too much is an easy way to become depressed. Instead, you want to reach the point of enjoying the journey itself. This takes some perspective and confidence, but it will come with time.

Sometimes we look for the answers we want, especially when we’re struggling. It’s easier for me to focus on the answers that tell me to move on because deep down, that is what I want to do. Reading comments like the ones on this thread nudged me in a different direction. They made me feel a little more hopeful for my future as a grad student.

Their comments also reminded me that grad school (at the PhD/JD/MD level) is not easy for anyone. It’s not even easy for those people who claim to love grad school (or for those who truly do love it). It’s not easy for those who are experts at memorizing details from every journal article. It is not easy for those who are the most productive in terms of publishing.

At some point, we all struggle as we pursue this degree. We dedicate 5 or 6 or 8 or, God help us, 10 years of our lives to this. Those are years beyond a Bachelor’s, by the way. Most of break at various points along the journey. Some of us struggle on a personal level (weight/health). Some struggle at home or in their relationships (divorces, breakups) or with their finances (ignoring debt). Others struggle in work, in research, and in classes (taking on too much, not publishing, not getting all As, not making deadlines). In the beginning, many of us struggled in all  of these areas.

But some of us make the choice to stay.

I think the reasons they cited in those comments above are excellent reasons to make that choice.

On the other hand, it is still absolutely essential to ask yourself tough questions in the most discouraging moments. Ask the why questions. Why should I stay? Ask questions like the ones Vivek Haldar asks in his blog post: Advice to Prospective Grad Students.

What it boils down to is that this is one of the most intense questions of self-knowledge you will ever face. The answer is simple: you should do a PhD if you really want to. Look into yourself to figure out if you really want to.

{Guest Post} Finding Balance (Or Not) As a Grad Student

So my name is Ashley, I blog at Writing To Reach You, and I am currently working on a PhD in theology. I met Alex on the internet, and we have spent the last couple years bonding over the soul-sucking nature of grad school and trying to offer each other encouragement. Alex is interested in whether balance is possible for grad students, and I am here to share my experience.

I finished coursework last year and am currently in a far more relaxed and self-directed part of my program where balance is a real possibility, but it was a bumpy road getting here.  Grad school has a way of being all-consuming, which makes it easy to sacrifice large parts of your life just for success in school.  My life has more than once become so unbalanced that the only way I could continue was to get things back on track.

The first thing to go was my health. Eating well is something I have always struggled with, and I had just moved away from home, so this was the first time in my life I had ever been completely responsible for all of my meals. Stress makes me lose my appetite, and late in my first year of grad school, I was extremely stressed.  I struggled to eat well and eat enough, but that’s really difficult when you don’t have an appetite.  I felt nauseated a lot of the time, and then I started getting dizzy.  Not light dizziness, but a feeling like the entire room was spinning.  I remember sitting in class trying to focus on a lecture while feeling so dizzy that I thought I was going to fall out of my chair. I left that class early and decided that something had to change.  I created space in my days for real meals, and let myself eat whatever I wanted, regardless of cost or calories.  Once I felt better, I reintroduced moderation and started exercising again.

The second thing to go was my finances.  This actually began the minute I started grad school, but I ignored it until it was a problem too big to hide from.  It took me two years to realize this wasn’t a temporary debt problem.  My debt had humble beginnings.  I thought I could afford what wasn’t covered by scholarships and student loans, but I had underestimated my living expenses (having never lived on my own before) and finally I was so far in credit card debt that I wasn’t just avoiding the problem, I was actively making stupid decisions to bury myself further in debt. It came to a point where I was either going to have to quit school or figure out how to work a full time job while remaining in school.  I did the latter, and after working 15 hour days, six days a week for the better part of two years, I paid off all of my credit card debt and could finally breathe again.

The third thing to go was my emotional well-being.  I’m a person with a lot of feelings, so I would describe my entire grad school career as emotional, but in the years where I was in PhD coursework and working 55 hours a week to pay off my debt, I was so busy that I didn’t have enough time to deal with my feelings and it started to show.  In one year, I had three out-of-character mini-breakdowns. Crying on the floor episodes that took a day to recover from. My work was unaffected, but I didn’t feel at all like my normal self.  And that, more than anything, was why when I had finally paid off my debt, I quit one of my jobs and slowed down.  It was a difficult decision, because I felt like a total bad ass being able to do so much and do it well, but I knew that I was ignoring parts of my life just to prove how hard I could work, and having accomplished my goal, it was time to make a change.

When your life for five years has been defined by success in school, constant stress, and an impossible-seeming workload, you feel a little bit lost when things are suddenly quiet.  And that was when I became grateful for the parts of my life that I never sacrificed for grad school. They made the adjustment easier.

When I was working on my MA, my life started to feel very small.  Everything was about grad school, and I felt like I had lost touch with my other interests.  So I started a blog. And this crazy thing happened as a result: I made friends. About the same time, I started writing fiction again, and I wrote a novel.  Through all of this, I remained a dedicated journaler and made sure that every week involved enough alone time to keep me a sane introvert.  I listened to music and enjoyed wine and kept in constant contact with people who make me laugh.  These things kept me happy along the way, and kept me from falling apart when I was suddenly not too busy to deal with the parts of my life I’d been avoiding.   Because as hard as it is to be a busy grad student, it’s the perfect excuse not to deal with some of the more difficult parts of life, but that stuff doesn’t go anywhere.  It just waits for you until you slow down.

I look back at mistakes I have made as a grad student and think, “how could I have been so stupid?”  They all still feel so real and immediate that it’s difficult to say that I have no regrets.  But I know that I wouldn’t be this person if I hadn’t gone through those struggles, and I feel like a better and smarter and stronger person not just for what I learned in the classroom.  My attitude to grad school has changed a lot over the last six years, but I didn’t just make the decision to come here. I have also made the decision to stay a million times.

So as for the question of whether balance is possible for a grad student?  Maybe. But you might have to earn it with mistakes, and you will probably have to fight to keep it.  It’s enough for me to know that every time my life got too extreme, I eventually found my way back to center. I’m probably not done doing that yet.

3 Ways to Decrease Test Anxiety

I’m taking “the” test of my graduate career in a month and a half. To say that I feel anxiety over it is an understatement. So, I thought this was an excellent topic for the blog. I have always had problems with test anxiety. My first real memory of anxiety during a test occurred as early as elementary school. Anxiety is common for many students. Anxiety is also major part of getting into graduate school, with various placement and entrance exams like the GRE. Anxiety is also a major aspect of graduate school as a whole, certainly during major exams and presentations.

Robert of LSATFreedom and David Greenberg of Parliament Tutors offer some advice for coping with anxiety on test day. As someone with a psychology background, I absolutely agree with the advice they provide. In addition, I’d like to add: Sleep. Fatigue exacerbates the feelings associated with anxiety.


For many students, the biggest obstacle to a good test score – whether on the GMAT, LSAT, or any other big exam — is psychological.  Dealing with anxiety and stress can be crippling for many students, particularly on life-shaping exams.  Below are 3  proven ways to ease your anxiety on these types of standardized tests.

1) Watch What You Consume

Drinking alcohol is a common way to deal with stress, and, in low doses, alcohol has the effect of lowering anxiety levels.  However, turning to alcohol to reduce anxiety is a bad idea, which is a fact recognized by experts in the field. Likewise, drug use, particularly depressants such as marijuana, can be tempting ways to deal with anxiety and stress. However, these substances inhibit brain activity and will lower your potential on the actual exam. Anxiety caused by marijuana is a disease all to itself as well.  This is a treacherous path for many people; don’t be tempted.

2) Exercise

Exercise is a powerful way to relieve anxiety.   By expelling your excess negative emotions and adrenaline through physical activity, you can enter a more relaxed, calm state of being from which to deal with the issues and conflicts that are causing your test anxiety.  Exercise is one of the most important coping mediums to combat anxiety and stress, and often overlooked by students maximizing study time.  It is important to do this regularly, so your anxiety does not accumulate.

Exercise increases blood flow to the brain, releases hormones, stimulates the nervous system, and increases levels of morphine-like substances found in the body (such as beta-endorphin) that can have a positive effect on mood.  Exercise may trigger a neurophysiological high, which is a shot of adrenaline or endorphins, that produces an anti-depressant effect in some, an anti-anxiety effect in others, and a general sense of “feeling better” in most.  In other words, it reduces anxiety and puts you in the right mental state to be at your best on exam day.

3) Take a Vacation

This may seem obvious, but is often overlooked by die-hard students looking to study every minute they can.  Taking a vacation from studying and allowing the material you have been studying to soak in will help you retain a lot more information and give your brain some well-needed rest, not to mention the obvious benefit of relieving stress and anxiety.


What other advice do you have?