By Emīlija Sarma
Your first year as a grad student in the U.S. will be an exciting time, but it will also present new challenges that you might not have faced before. I know that I really struggled keeping a close watch on my health when I started my PhD because it seemed like everything else was way more important. From poor eating habits, to completely ignoring any kind of exercise besides Competitive Standing in Line at Starbucks — a new sports discipline you might not have heard of before — I made a lot of mistakes that I then struggled to rectify later. However, eventually I did wise up and made health a priority.
Take a look at some of my life lessons learned on how to be a healthier grad student below!
“Remember Who You Are, Simba!”
Graduate students are notorious for being workaholics. This is not necessarily done by choice, but it tends to happen to us over time as most of us spend half of the time focused on our research, the other half focused on graduate, teaching, or research assistant duties of our jobs, and then another three quarters spent doing work that we signed up for on different student councils, committees, and other representative bodies at the university. I know the math doesn’t check out, but we make time to pile even more responsibilities on ourselves even when there’s no energy left — that's just how the cookie crumbles!
It can become all too easy to forget that you exist outside of research and your job when you’re at the university most days. The separation between your private life and your work can be difficult for a grad student, especially if you’re in the U.S. without family. You may end up working way more than you originally planned to just because there is no physical space that is entirely separate between your workspace.
I’ve found that I have to make a conscious effort to make time for myself and to remind myself of things that I enjoy doing that are completely separate from me as a scholar and researcher. Whatever it is that you decide to do doesn’t have to be completely disconnected from intellectual pursuits if that’s where your interests lie; for example, lately I’ve been trying to refresh my German by practicing different language skills with Duolingo, and it’s been great! It keeps my mind engaged in a different way while still being useful and fulfilling.
But you should give “brainless” activities a try, too. I love browsing Instagram for hours on end and then spamming my friends with the crème de la crème of funny memes. I also enjoy watching YouTube videos, finding challenging new recipes to try out on Pinterest, and window shopping online for things I absolutely do not need and cannot justify getting. That’s another thing to keep in mind while studying abroad — you won’t be taking much of the stuff you get back home with you! So as much as I love mid-century modern style sofas, there is no way I am getting one for the one year I have left of grad school here. *LONGINGLY SIGHS. * C’est la vie.
Whatever takes your mind off work and research — immerse yourself in that activity for a couple of hours a day to give yourself a break! Remember all the other facets of your personality that make you who you are.
Find an Exercise Routine You Don't Hate and then Sweat Until You Can’t Sweat No More!
Your physical health and exercise routine will never be more important than when you go to grad school — I can promise you that. The stress that you experience on the daily in grad school doesn’t just disappear on its own. Unfortunately, we store the lump sum of all of our daily stress inside our bodies, and it can seriously impact our well-being.
I realized that I was struggling with stress management a few years ago, when I found myself struggling to fall asleep and to stay asleep through the night completely (seemingly) out of the blue. As someone who thought of myself as a pro at sleeping, I was shocked! I LOVVVVVED sleep. Sleep has always been one of my most favorite pastimes. I was a sleep enthusiast, a sleep connoisseur! I couldn’t believe this was happening to me.
Eventually (much later than I should have, of course), I realized that I needed to address the problem by going to the university health center. I talked to my doctor, and he explained that even though nothing in particular was stressing me out at the moment, the stress I had accumulated every single day for the past couple of years while in grad school had stored up inside me, so to speak. This was messing up my sleep schedule big time and causing me to be unable to fully relax.
There are many ways to go about addressing trouble with sleep, but for me it all started with how I was handling my stress levels. Physical exercise is absolutely key when it comes to relieving stress. I used to detest going to the gym or having to work out, but now it’s something I quite literally can’t do without because it significantly impacts the time that it takes me to fall asleep at night as well as how well I can actually stay asleep once I get there. I think there are two key points to exercising successfully that I’ve found: Finding something you like doing (or at least don’t hate) and partnering up with someone.
Now, I can’t jog because I don’t want to. “I don’t think a person should run unless they’re being chased” is a great motto that definitely applies to my life in a big way. So, when I started weighing different options for exercise, I knew that jogging was right out. However, as it turns out, I do really enjoy the elliptical, cycling, yoga, and doing squats. I tried all kinds of different things at the University of Arkansas gym before I found out that this is what works for me.
The U of A has two gyms with a ton of equipment, and I think it’s just a matter of trial and error before you find what works best for you. The U of A also offers a wide variety of fitness classes that are included in our student fees. Most universities will offer something like that, so if you haven’t already, I encourage you to try out different things like HIIT cycle, yoga, pilates, and the like, to see what you enjoy doing. It’s easier to commit to doing something regularly if you don’t dread going to your next fitness class! (Note: Instructors are really important, too. If you find a fitness instructor that you like, try going to the classes that this specific instructor teaches — this has been important for me in sticking to going to fitness classes and avoiding some others where I just didn’t like the instructor.)
Gym buddies are also essential — my fiancé and I are always pushing each other to go to a yoga class, cycle class, or just go to the gym for half an hour. If you can find someone to go work out with, this will absolutely increase your chances of sticking to a routine. I have friends who I went to cycle class with at 6am on occasion last winter, and it was both excruciating and amazing at the same time. Waking up at 5:30am to go out into the freezing cold in my gym clothes to then spend 50 minutes cycling for dear life was extremely difficult — I went into every class grumpy, tired, and generally disappointed with the state of the world. However, I left each class feeling like the Tasmanian Devil! I have never felt so energized in my entire life and I also don’t think I’ve ever slept better the following night. I highly, highly recommend giving this a try!
Think About What Food You Put in Your Body
I think during my first year in the U.S. my eating habits were, in a word, horrible. Before I came here for my PhD, I never before had to learn to cook for one, and I’ve always been really used to a huge variety in my meals every single day. Now, I had to suddenly figure out how to make very small portions of seven different meals, find time to cook them, find time to do the dishes, and do grocery shopping on top of everything else.
Long story short, this did not work out well, and I ate a disturbing amount of mini powdered donuts during my first year in the U.S. If you’re like me, then you’re in for a bumpy ride! However, if you’re the meal-prepping type, this may be an easier transition for you.
All of my friends in the U.S. seem to be the meal-prepping types. This means that they make one huge batch of food to eat throughout the week for lunch or dinner. (I hope I’m not misrepresenting you, meal-prep friends!) I knew right off the bat that this would NOT work for me.
I love to cook, I love food, and I need variety in my diet every day to be happy. To me, cooking is a self-care activity, so I simply had to make room for it. I figured that I just needed to rearrange my time and streamline the process of prepping my ingredients to ensure that I did not go back to mini powdered donuts. Chop up whatever veggies or meat you can prep in advance for the week, so you don’t have to spend as much time prepping your ingredients for meals when you’re exhausted!
I’d say that what’s worked best for me is getting breakfast and lunch out of the way, so that I can focus most of my effort on dinner. Dinner is where I shine! Breakfast is where I struggle, and lunch generally doesn’t exist most days.
I’m currently trying to do smoothies or overnight oats for breakfast to just get it over with on weekdays. Throw in a whole bunch of fruits and veggies, some plant milk or juice in a blender, and you’re pretty much good to go! Oatmeal is another great option because it gives you a ton of energy. I love to mash up a banana, add a handful of oats, nuts, flax seeds, dried fruit — whatever I have on hand and then bake cookies out of this mixture. I highly recommend it!
On weekends all bets are off because I have time to make pancakes or a full English breakfast. It’s a glorious time. Indulgence is also self-care if done on occasion and in moderation! Make sure to get as much fresh/frozen fruits and veggies in as you can for at least one meal a day every single day, because powdered donuts are not the answer, friend. Take it from someone who learned the hard way!
Other key things to consider:
- Are you drinking enough water? (Are you drinking JUST water? Gatorade isn’t water and doesn’t count. Drink water. I wish someone had pressured me to do this during the first year of my PhD.)
- If you can, invest in an acupressure mat or an electronic deep tissue massager. The acupressure mat is fairly affordable, but I know some people find the experience pretty hardcore. It may just become your favorite thing for relieving stress before bedtime, though, so it may be worth a shot! As for the deep tissue massager, you can find a lot of affordable options online. We named ours Megatron (Tron for short), and it has been a valued family member ever since it came into our lives.
- Join a grad student support group at your local university health center. Talking to other grad students about your dissertation or letting out frustrations with your classes can be super helpful. I know several people who make use of these support groups at the University of Arkansas, and it’s really helped them manage the pressures of grad school better.
Thanks for letting me share my experience with you! I hope it helps you think about ways you can live healthier and be kinder to yourself.
Emīlija Sarma is a Fulbright scholar from Latvia and a PhD candidate in comparative literature and cultural studies at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville.