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Silver ball "Newton's cradle"

Finding solutions to survive and thrive amid the stress of graduate school sometimes means students must call on a variety of resources and think creatively about ways to address problems.

Here's a few situations faced by graduate students, and examples of how they took action.

  • Take a break. Shannon Hartley, an eighth-year clinical psychology doctoral student at the University of Alabama Birmingham, took a three-month break from her program in late 2003. Her research for her thesis wasn't working out, she was eating poorly, not exercising and was often tired. Her faculty adviser took an appointment in another state during the ordeal, throwing her research program into further turmoil.

"If you need a break, take it. I was so burned out, and so no longer in touch with my goals, that just being able to get away from it for a second allowed me to regroup," she says.

  • Seek therapy. After an unsuccessful attempt to seek counseling at the university's employee assistance center, Hartley switched to a clinical psychologist in town during her break through an arrangement worked out with her department. The psychologist, who had been through some of the same struggles during graduate school, helped her gain perspective on her experience.

Many schools have some type of method set up for students to take advantage of counseling. At Texas Tech University, students can get eight counseling sessions at the student counseling center, says M. David Rudd, PhD, chair of the psychology department. The department has also worked with private practitioners in the community, offering therapy on a sliding scale to students at a reduced cost of $45 to $50 a session.

"That can get expensive for a graduate student," he acknowledges. In a typical year, Rudd estimates that about 10 percent of the students in the department seek therapy, either for personal reasons or to experience therapy as part of their professional growth.

  • Get healthy. Last year when second-year Iowa university doctoral student Rebecca Brock grew concerned about not having enough time to cook healthful meals, she worked with a university dietician to come up with a plan for nutritious snacks and recipes for meals she could make on a tight schedule.

To keep in shape and reduce stress, Brock consulted with a university fitness specialist, who helped her develop a stretching regimen. Because of her sessions with the fitness specialist, Brock now climbs stairs instead of taking the elevator, looks for fun physical activities such as long walks and tennis, and has taken up yoga.

Those services are available to all students at the university free of charge, says Brock, who says any student can discover details about the perks by reading through her school's health center Web site.

For her, eating healthier meals and staying active means she has more energy to attack the demands of graduate school.

"It's so helpful, because it's so easy to fall into that trap of just working all the time," she says. Meanwhile, Hartley, with the encouragement of a supervisor, started exercising every day, getting into a pattern of lifting weights and running three miles several days a week. She also cut television back to one hour a week.

  • Build a peer network. Tracy Moran, a sixth-year psychology student at the University of Iowa with a 4-year-old son, says an informal social network of colleagues at Iowa helps her meet her obligations, babysitting her son if she has to teach an evening class, or proctoring an exam for her if he's sick.

"That's one of the things I've been most surprised at, the incredible support from other graduate students," she says.

Hartley cultivated friendships with people outside the university, volunteered with different public service organizations and joined a long-distance cycling club. Now back on track, she completed her internship at a consortium in Ohio this summer, and starts a postdoctoral fellowship this month in Louisville, Ky.

  • Be willing to rethink your priorities. Scott Debb, a third-year graduate student at the Adler School of Professional Psychology in Illinois, says his attempt to balance being a new father with the demands of a practicum didn't work out earlier this year.

His girlfriend Sharon had a baby girl, Ellie, in September 2005, three days before Debb started a nine-month practicum at a community center in Chicago. Despite the fact that Debb had taken extra courses his first year to free up time for the baby in his second, beginning his dissertation research and the three-days-a-week practicum demanded much of that free time. Debb says the practicum required travel to three different sites, and that the extra travel time, combined with scheduling difficulties created by a separate grant-funded testing project he was required to collaborate with at the sites, resulted in a situation where he struggled to form a dependable schedule.

The problem came to a crisis in April, when Debb's practicum was cut short at the request of the training site.

"In reality, the balancing act is very difficult, because every hour you spend studying, you take away from bonding, and every hour you're bonding, you take away from studying," he says.

Debb now plans to switch to pursuing a master's degree in counseling psychology from Adler, work for a few years, and then go back for a PsyD once his daughter is older and starting school.

And the next time he searches for a practicum slot, Debb says he plans to ask specific questions about how much time is actually expected of students and how flexible a site is in working with a parent's dynamic schedule.