Stress is one of the common issues that every grad student experiences. Experiments or simulations don’t work most of the time, and the relationships with advisors/lab mates/friends might have their ups and downs. We all know the feeling of getting closer to a deadline and not having enough data to present/submit. Being a graduate student at MIT can be particularly stressful. There is a huge workload, including but not limited to taking courses, writing papers, attending conferences, and networking. These can easily become overwhelming if not carefully planned. Grad life, especially a few years into the program, can also become a lonely experience, which can, in turn, drastically increase stress.
When I started my PhD, there were a lot of things I needed to take care of. This was my first year living in the US and being out of my home country. I was experiencing a huge transition. Aside from the language barrier, I felt that the culture, the society and the way to approach people and make friends were very different from what I was used to. I realized that I needed to work hard and go outside my comfort zone to acclimate to this new environment. Academically, getting used to a new lab culture and proving myself in research and courses was yet another challenge I had to face back then.
I have a few suggestions based on my personal experience on how to overcome or, at least, leverage stress during grad school. I’m going to share some rather inexpensive ways that I personally found helpful with stress management.
Pursue a hobby
I personally love arts! Music, painting and dancing are integral parts of my life. MIT is a great place for people who would like to learn a new art. There are a wide range of art classes that, I think, are unfortunately poorly advertised. I took oil painting classes for three semesters and really enjoyed them; I found painting to be a great stress reliever.
Dancing is another great way of socializing, exercising, and doing art! I’m still a beginner in dancing but really love to learn more whenever I find time. Fortunately, there are a lot of dancing clubs and events around campus. These are also a great way to meet fellow grad students.
Expand your social circle
For me, socializing is a great way to relax. When I meet people who share the same challenges as mine, I realize I’m not alone. Making new friends and socializing is also an important career skill. It teaches me how to deal with different people and improve my communication skills in the long run. There are a good number of social events going on at MIT that you can use to meet new people. I usually try to attend at least one every week and have found it useful to build up social self-confidence and improve my communication skills.
Exercise can literally change your entire life! Aside from a great way to improve quality of life, it can help get through tough times (preparation for the qualifying exam, paper rejection, etc.). For me, the fulfilling aspect of working out is the gradual improvement (physical and spiritual) over time. There are so many different indoor and outdoor activity clubs at MIT, such as ice-skating, table-tennis, outdoor running, etc. Team sports are also a great way of meeting new people and making friends. There is a wide range of swimming classes, as well as hiking and running. I took swimming classes for three semesters; it was such a fun experience!
In conclusion, spending some time to do something fun outside of research (even if it’s just watching a movie) could be a good way to relieve anxiety and stay focused. I used to think that working non-stop would be the only way to make progress during graduate school. But now, after more than two years at MIT, I have realized that keeping balance in life is crucial for being happy and avoiding stressful situations. Some stress during grad school is inevitable. That said, working smart and not sweating it out could be the key to a successful grad life.