Cover Story

As an undergraduate, Tiffany Griffin ate poorly, worked around the clock and isolated herself when life became really busy.

"I knew that I would not make it through graduate school using the same tactics," says Griffin, a first-year social psychology doctoral student at the University of Michigan. "So I made a shift."

That shift included several self-care strategies to help ease the stress, such as shorter study sessions, eating a balanced diet, regular exercise and forming a cohort with classmates for socializing and studying. Through those changes, Griffin says she has gained more focus during her study sessions, improved her health and gained more support from friends.

Experts and students offer tips on how you can do the same:

Assess yourself

Identify what you need to improve or change. John Norcross, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Scranton in Scranton, Pa., suggests students ask themselves such questions as: How stressed am I? How anxious? How depressed? How much sleep, healthy eating, exercise and interpersonal time am I getting?

"We do all these assessments on other people but not on ourselves," Norcross says. "We need to practice what we preach."


Adults need at least 30 minutes of daily moderate physical activity, such as walking one to two miles at a brisk pace, according to U.S. Surgeon General reports.

Jennifer Doucet, a second-year clinical psychology doctoral student at the University of Rhode Island, has made exercise a priority in her life by setting aside time at 6:30 a.m. nearly every day to workout for 45 minutes to an hour.

"It refreshes me and gives me energy for the rest of the day," she says. Doucet varies her workouts throughout the week. For example, she'll do an hour of cardio-such as running-at least once a week and the other days run for 15 to 20 minutes and lift weights.

Experts recommend hitting the university track for a walk or run between classes, parking on the opposite end of campus from your class to squeeze in more walking time or joining an exercise class-such as aerobics or yoga-through your university or a local gym.

No time? That's what many students say. However, research shows that people can find time by:

  • Marking off a set time to exercise in their schedules.
  • Finding an exercise that is fun and satisfying as well as working out with others to help stick to it.
  • Starting small-such as committing just 30 seconds or a minute and building up gradually.

For example, in one study, participants who were coached to take similar measures significantly increased their physical activity and cardiorespiratory fitness during the intervention. The study, led by principal investigator Andrea L. Dunn, PhD, appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association (Vol. 281, No. 4).

Eat well

Many students report unhealthy eating habits, such as hitting vending machines for quick sugary snacks.

Angela Zapata, a second-year counseling psychology doctoral student at Arizona State University, says that during her first year of graduate school, she often skipped lunch or ate while dashing to classes because of a lack of time.

"Sometimes I was eating one meal a day, if that," Zapata says. "That creates issues with your body and issues of fatigue." Now, she carves out an hour for lunch each day, which has boosted her energy.

Griffin cooks vegetarian meals on Sundays for the rest of the week to save time, money and the temptation of vending machines. She separates the food in several containers for each day, and she cooks foods that can be used in a variety of ways during the week, such as veggie chili that can be eaten by itself, on a veggie hot dog or with rice.

For nutrition tips, visit

Rest well

When it comes to getting her z's, Doucet is selfish. Her bedtime is 11 p.m., and she sticks to it. She also keeps a notepad next to her bed so whenever she ruminates about what all she has to do, she writes it down to erase it from her mind.

Sleep experts recommend seven to nine hours of sleep for the average adult, according to the National Sleep Foundation. Students who aren't getting enough sleep may have trouble concentrating, memorizing, handling complex tasks or analyzing new information. Lack of sleep may also increase a person's mood shifts- such as in depression or irritability-and stress and anxiety. To help judge whether you're getting enough sleep, psychologist and sleep researcher James Maas, PhD, developed a Web site:

Talk it out

When things get tough, Griffin leans on friends within and outside of her program to get advice, support and motivation (see Striking a balance). And some students also might find talking to a therapist helpful. Norcross says his research shows that more than half of psychotherapists tap the very service they provide.

Shamin Jaffer, a fifth-year doctoral student at Nova Southeastern University, found talking to a therapist helpful in getting through her program, especially since the professional she was seeing had been through the graduate process herself.

"It helped to normalize what I was going through," Jaffer says. "I feel that someone from the outside can offer a much more unbiased perspective and help you to tease out the important aspects of your experience as a graduate student."

Treat yourself

Many students find diversions that help rejuvenate themselves and stay motivated-whether that be rock climbing, going to the movies or spending time with friends. For example, Norcross gets massages for relaxation, reads books and watches films for diversion and plays basketball and tennis for exercise.

Griffin treats herself with monthly massages at a spa.

She says that the greatest self-care strategies are ones that keep you motivated and refreshed. Not to mention, her psychology studies help her keep the drive too: "I'm doing exactly what I want to do, which motivates me more than anything else."

"We do all these assessments on other people but not on ourselves. We need to practice what we preach."

John Norcross
University of Scranton