Self-Care and Your Success in Graduate School

Blog post Shani Collins Woods, Ph.D., Guest BloggerSREB-State Doctoral Scholars Program graduate
An occasional series from the Doctoral Scholars Program on postsecondary topics.

Dr. Shani Collins Woods How do you honor your mind, body and spirit? Do you even think it’s important?

From 2007-2014 I was a full-time doctoral student in social work at the University of Alabama. The program involved writing an annotated bibliography, writing and defending an integrative paper, taking comprehensive exams, and writing and defending a dissertation. My life was consumed with this and travel between my home state of Mississippi and my surrogate city and state, Tuscaloosa, Alabama. I made little time for self-care. I would leave Tuscaloosa on a Friday and return either Sunday evening or leave at 5:30 a.m. on Monday morning. I missed my family, friends, and the comforts of my Mississippi Delta home life. My home was my outlet.

One day I had a wake-up call that helped me recognize that I was in control of my self-care. It was an early morning, and I was returning to Tuscaloosa from Mississippi. I had a class and could not miss it. The rain was so heavy I could hardly see the road. My sister, Kanika, stayed on the phone with me as I drove down the dark highway. Although I was not speeding, my tires were worn bare from the frequent traveling. As I crossed a bridge, I felt my car begin to hydroplane. I hit the brakes to slow down, but I just slid, and my world began to move in slow motion. I braced for the fall off the bridge, but somehow my car did not topple over, just turned completely around in the road. Only by the sweet grace of God was I not hit by an oncoming 18-wheeler or some other vehicle. There were no cars in sight, which was uncommon for this high-traffic bridge.

When my car finally stopped, I quickly regrouped, proceeded down the highway, made it safely to Tuscaloosa and headed to class. For months I had felt that God was telling me to slow down, but I didn’t listen because I was determined to keep pushing — to go, go, go. That near-death experience forced me to stop and listen.

My story is not unique. I have heard of countless other graduate students who have had a near-death experience or other major wake-up call (e.g. illness or an accident) that forced them to prioritize self-care. Afterward, I looked at life differently. I realized I had to plan more efficiently, avoid taking on too many tasks, and find a way to engage in self-care in Alabama. One of the most important lessons I learned was how to say no to others.

Your wellness is more important than deadlines or even disappointing others. Self-care is vital to your success in your doctoral program.

You may feel overwhelmed by being a doctoral student. It may be hard to fathom incorporating self-care into your schedule. Spending hours in the lab, at an internship or practicum, or at the university library writing your dissertation can be extremely stressful. Deadlines are hard to break, and you don’t want to disappoint your advisor or dissertation chair.

But guess what? You matter. Your wellness is more important than deadlines or even disappointing others. Self-care is vital to your success in your doctoral program.

Honoring the mind, body and spirit can be the last thing a doctoral student wants to do after studying or writing all day. But eating well, meditating and exercising are exactly what you should do to maintain a centered mind, a healthy body and a clear spirit.

It took me a while to get in the habit of slowing down. I realized I had grown comfortable saying yes to others and no to myself. After accepting that being selfish with my time and energy was sometimes okay, I became more comfortable telling others no. This alleviated a lot of stress. 

Toward the end of my program I took up a hobby: with the guidance of YouTube, I taught myself to be a soap crafter. In doing so I was able to take my mind off deadlines, dissertation revisions, and upcoming defenses. I even turned my hobby into a small business.

I would encourage you to get into the habit of practicing self-care now. After you earn your doctorate and enter the professoriate, you will have to advise students, publish research articles, attend conferences, teach, write dossiers, serve on committees and more. An academic’s work never stops. It is rewarding, but it is also stressful. 

Learn to prioritize your health by eating well and engaging in physical activities most days of the week. Take time to learn a new hobby; travel; spend time with family and friends. Plan out your days to the extent that you can and set a cut off time for writing and revising your dissertation. Walk away from your revisions for 24 hours and allow yourself time to process feedback before responding. Engage in meditation and any religious or spiritual practices that being you joy and peace. Deactivate social media for as long as needed. Seek therapy and counseling for any mental health stress you experience.

Friends, self-care is not optional. My wake-up call nearly cost me my life. I encourage you to listen to your body when it tells you to rest, and listen to your support system (doctors, friends, family, well-wishers) when they tell you to slow down or reduce your load. Most of all, listen to your heart. Do only those things that bring you fulfillment, and never fear walking away from people, environments or situations that no longer honor you. 

Shani Collins Woods is an Assistant Professor of Social Work at Austin Peay State University and former SREB State Doctoral Scholar. She is the author of SHE Devotional: 31 Daily Inspirations for a Woman’s Spirit, Health and Emotions and The Struggle is Real, But You Can Succeed. Visit her at: