Staying Afloat: Prioritizing Mental Health and Organization During Graduate School

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Graduate school and the importance of mental health

Graduate school is a marathon. The demands of coursework, getting established in the lab, and maintaining productivity for your PI are all daunting challenges. On top of these tasks, maintaining and prioritizing mental health can be incredibly difficult. Personally, the beginning of graduate school was tough for me, and I struggled with depression, finding meaning in my work, and isolation. This article highlights my journey in how I began to overcome my depression and how I found purpose and motivation to continue through my graduate studies. 

Before I begin, I would like to note that, unfortunately, it is common to struggle with mental health during graduate school. You are not alone if you have not been functioning at your best. Mental health is your most important priority during your graduate studies. If you are struggling as I did, please reach out and seek professional help. Many graduate schools offer mental health services or may even cover off-campus therapy. Here, I will describe my experience and a few productivity/motivation techniques that I have found very useful, but these may not work for everyone. I am not a medical professional, and I am only stating my personal experience in the hopes of helping someone else. Above all, I urge you to keep your mental health a priority.

During my time in graduate school, prioritizing two crucial things has enabled me to persist through these challenges: 1) my mental health and 2) organization. Learning how to harness and control these aspects of my life dramatically improved my ability to function and excel in graduate school and other areas of my life. In this article, I will describe the process of how I learned to prioritize and improve my mental health. I will also suggest the methods and techniques I used to stay organized, which translated into consistency and efficiency in the lab.

A personal experience prioritizing mental health

My mental health significantly declined within the first six months of graduate school. I struggled to get out of bed, let alone put forth the time and effort needed on classwork and my graduate research project. After a few months of little progress and a consistent decline in my mental health, I started talking to a few of my close friends. I quickly realized that I was depressed. I had difficulty doing things I used to love, including working out, and my apartment was consistently a mess. Aside from depression, remaining motivated and fulfilled became increasingly more challenging because of a global pandemic, civil unrest, failing experiments, and limited time with friends and family.

I decided to visit my physician and describe what I had been going through. They agreed that starting me on a low-dose antidepressant was best and find an outlet to relieve anxiety and stress. They also suggested that I spend as much time with family and friends as possible. After our discussion, I joined a CrossFit gym for the first time. I made it a point to set aside time to work out five times a week and spend time with my close friends, even with our busy schedules. Together with my prescribed antidepressant, these significantly increased my mental health and brought me happiness and motivation. I started to crawl back to baseline slowly. Finding something enjoyable and fulfilling is vital to help you cope with the trials and tribulations of academia and being in a graduate program.

A few tips (tested and proven) to stay organized and productive

In addition to prioritizing mental health, a clear and “uncluttered” headspace is vital in efficiently problem-solving, writing, correctly executing protocols, and thinking about the next step of your project. Time management is perhaps the most critical area to focus your time beginning a graduate program—at least, it was for me. I quickly became overwhelmed with the massive amount of class material to study and papers to read while at the same time trying to get up-to-date with my lab’s current projects and the associated literature. In this section, I will share a few platforms that have dramatically improved my organizational abilities and have helped me function at my best.

First, I would recommend beginning any graduate school program by creating an Individual Development Plan (IDP). There are a few different approaches to this method, but the main structure includes these components:

1) What are your long-term professional goals (3+ years)? Lay them out.

2) What are your short-term professional goals (<1 year)? When do you plan to accomplish these? How do you plan to achieve these?

3) What skills would you like to gain from your graduate program (lab skills/techniques, writing, publishing, or lab management skills)?

4) What are your networking and presenting goals? Do you plan to attend any conferences in the next few years? Which ones and when do they start accepting abstracts? Write these dates down. Are your LinkedIn and Twitter accounts up to date? Do you have an updated CV?

5) Do you have any plans to teach or mentor?

6) What are you passionate about outside of the lab? Write down your extracurricular and community service goals and what you would like to accomplish in these areas.

With these six items, you are laying out the majority of what you want to achieve during your time in graduate school. Revisiting your IDP every 3-6 months is a good idea to re-evaluate your recent productivity and readjust your goals and direction if necessary. Remember to focus on the long-term goals and what they will require to accomplish.

Accomplishing long-term goals require remaining organized daily. My favorite three platforms for daily organization are Google Calendar, Trello, and a reference manager. Google Calendar is a free, sleek calendar platform that syncs seamlessly between your devices (iOS, Google Chrome, Android, etc.). My calendar allows me to ensure I have all my appointments, experiments, meetings, and extracurriculars scheduled in one spot. It also allows you to enter information about an event, so you can write the zoom link for an appointment, jot down the location, or even take notes. You can even set it to remind you of a particular event 1 hour or 15 minutes before, so you get an alert and don’t miss anything significant. I also find simple color coordination a helpful method. I make events with a deadline a dark red, my scheduled workouts pink, light blue for meetings or events where I am required to prepare, and I mark everyday events a dark blue. The colors make it easy to see at a glance where my most important events are throughout the week (red and light blue).

Trello has proven to be tried and true for my daily task list and lab management. Trello allows you to create parallel lists while having different tasks in each list. My Trello method consists of setting up five lists:

1 – Projects

2 – Top Priorities for Week

3 – #1 Priorities for Day

4 – In Progress

5 – Done

Each list consists of tasks, and dragging a task from one list to the next makes it easy to track your progress. If I need to do something for my project in the upcoming week, I drag it from my “Project” list to my “Top Priorities for the Week” list. This way, it remains at the forefront of what I know I need to accomplish at some point during the week. During my daily planning, I will time block my tasks and drag that task from “Top Priorities for the Week” to my “#1 Priority for the Day” list, ensuring I complete it that day. Once completed, I drag it to the “Done” column. It sounds simple, but it is an effective method to track weekly progress and remain focused, allowing you to streamline your most important work. As a bonus, it is very satisfying to see the completed list of “Done” tasks at the end of each week!

Another element of my graduate student life that required organization was my reading workload. I was quickly overwhelmed with the number of papers I had to keep track of and read. I tried out a few reference managers and preferred EndNote, even though Zotero and Mendeley are free and share many of the same features as EndNote. EndNote is not free, but they provide a student discount, and it is worth checking to see if it is available through your university for free. EndNote allows for the import of references while writing directly in Word to automatically create a bibliography, which is incredibly useful and time efficient. This reference manager has worked the best for me, and I will continue to use it even after leaving graduate school.

Closing Remarks

As mentioned at the beginning of this article, mental health is and SHOULD be your most important priority. Although we all want to succeed in this phase of our careers, we cannot perform or do our best if we are not our best selves. I hope this article inspires its readers to keep their mental health at the forefront of their priorities, to rely on healthy coping mechanisms in the face of stress, and to be encouraged to remain organized and focused throughout everyday academic and recreational activities. If you are struggling as I did, please reach out and seek professional help. During one of the most challenging times in my life, prioritizing my mental health and finding strategies to remain organized allowed me to feel more like myself again and stay focused on my overall goals.

Your mental health is worth prioritizing. 

About the Author:

Donnell White, III (Twitter: @_donwhite) is a third-year graduate student in Dr. Qinglin Yang’s lab in the Department of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics at LSU Health Sciences Center in New Orleans, LA. He uses a novel ATP biosensor to investigate rescue mechanisms by which cells maintain metabolic activity under pathologic conditions in vitro. Outside the lab, Don likes to work out at his local CrossFit gym, try new restaurants in New Orleans, and read psychological thrillers.