Published: Oct. 14, 2019 By

We all need some kind of external support network. Such support can range from professional counseling, journaling, meditation, working groups, or writing partners. While I was a graduate student, I developed the following coping strategies. Which ones work for you?

The Top Three

  • Water. Food. Sleep. These are so key to our health, and yet so difficult to maintain on a regular basis. That’s why I put them at the top of my list every week. Carry a water bottle. Pack a PB&J. Limit screen time after 8 pm. 
  • Practice self-nurturing and self-compassion. Do nice things for yourself—every single day—whether it’s enjoying a cup of tea, painting your nails, taking a 20-minute power nap, meditating, listening to podcasts, or taking a walk or a run at lunchtime. Take the time to stop, breathe and enjoy life for a few minutes. Also check out for more ideas and resources.
  • Take up a hobby. It can be anything: yoga, ceramics, painting, knitting, basketball, hiking, swimming, Pilates, kickboxing, rock climbing... Anything non-academic that requires learning a skill that you enjoy doing on a regular basis.

Sarah leads a group of graduate students through time management and focus tips during the Getting Started seminar.What else can I try?

  • Schedule professional counseling and mental health care through one-on-one therapy and/or support groups. Talking to a professional will help provide a foundation to support good mental health and establish your own strategies for coping with the stress and demands of grad school. CU Boulder's Counseling and Psychiatric Services is a great place to start. They offer free graduate-specific therapy groups and workshops to build skills around relationships, sleep, stress and more. 
  • Form working groups and/or find writing partners. These are incredibly helpful for being productive and having accountability for getting work done, and also for alleviating feelings of isolation and cultivating connections with colleagues. Last year, while finishing my dissertation, I attended Leslie Blood's Writing Accountability Seminar every week. That group was instrumental for me in getting my work done and provided another form of external support that helped immensely in maintaining my emotional and mental health. I currently run the Getting Started seminars that function similarly for MA and PhD students early on in their graduate careers who are not working on dissertations (see photo below).
  • Exercise. Get at least 30 minutes on most days. Even if it’s just walking. It will make you feel better physically and mentally. Graduate students are eligible for memberships at the campus Rec Center. Visit the Guest Services front desk to learn more.
  • Keep a gratitude journal. At the end of every day, write down three things you are thankful for. Then, every Monday morning read through the entries from the past week They will make you smile.

Keep Having Fun

  • Listen to inspirational music. Make a playlist of happy, upbeat, inspiring music that will make you smile . . . and dance at your desk, in the library or in your living room.
  • Read PhD comics. These will always make you laugh out loud and remind you that you are not alone.
  • Connect with friends. As grad students, we may become isolated in our work. Though this is necessary some of the time, make time each week for friends. Whether it’s grabbing coffee during the week, or going out to a movie or dinner on the weekend, consciously and intentionally make an effort to connect with at least one other person in real life—texting or Facebooking don’t count—for at least an hour every week.
  • Laugh. Keep your favorite comedic distractions on your bookmarks. They might be podcasts, YouTube videos, jokes or reruns of sitcoms. Try visiting a local comedy show or hosting a night with friends to play games like Cards Against Humanity or What Do You Meme.
  • Read fiction. As a graduate student, you rarely have time to read fiction, but during the semester try to have a book on hand for pure fun and pleasure. It can even be one of your favorites from middle school or high school.
  • Read the Pearls of Wisdom blogThe author, Dr. Karen has tips on everything from going to academic conferences and mental health issues to preparing for nonacademic and academic careers.
  • Take a mental health day. Sleep in, watch TV all day, don’t do any work, don’t respond to email, and turn off your phone. If anyone asks, tell them you’re taking a day for your own mental health.

These strategies helped me survive my seven years in graduate school. Try using them to help you brainstorm your own strategies.

Sarah Tynen is the graduate program manager at the Graduate School. She completed her PhD at CU Boulder in geography in May 2019.