Take the Stress Out of Grad School

woman at computer appearing stressed

It’s not a big revelation that being in graduate school can be stressful. As adult learners, the stress is amplified with added challenges such as being the primary bread winner, taking care of children and perhaps elderly parents, and working full time. We may presume high stress is just the nature of the graduate school beast, but we’d be wrong. While many students are completely stressed out, there are actually some who are not and take things in stride despite very similar situations and circumstances. Why? In large part, because the major contributor to stress is not what is happening outside of us in the environment but rather what is happening in our heads. Graduate school is not stressful, your reaction to it is.

Pressure vs Stress

Chances are at this point you’re not buying that graduate school is not stressful. The primary reason you may find it hard to agree is because we fail to recognize the difference between pressure and stress. Pressure is the external demand of the environment, and no one is excluded from it, i.e., dealing with family, work, paper deadlines, projects. This is not stress, this is life. Stress is how we deal with pressure in our minds.

Derek Rogers (1997) has researched the area of stress for over 30 years and has identified a key cause of stress. The cause is rumination, the mental process of thinking about something over and over again and attaching negative emotion to it. It may be something that has happened in the past or something that may happen in the future. When we ruminate about past events, it results in regrets and guilt. When the rumination is focused on the future, it may result in anxiety. These results don’t mean we shouldn’t learn from the past or plan for the future. When done with positive emotion we can reflect on the past and learn, and we can look to the future and plan.

Four Steps Toward Resiliency

So of course the key question is how do we keep ourselves from ruminating? The answer is to build resiliency, and there are four steps Rogers suggests:

1. Wake up 

Rogers estimates we spend as much as 70% of our daytime hours in the state of “wakeful sleep.” Think about it. Have you ever driven to work or the store and when you get there, have no memory of the drive? Or when reading a book, realize you have no idea what you read in the last two pages? That’s wakeful sleep. The problem with wakeful sleep is this state is when rumination happens and subsequent stress is created. The remedy is to be mindful and present to what you’re doing right now in the moment.

2. Control your attention

Keep your attention focused on what you can see, hear, or feel. With all we have going on in our lives, it’s easy to have multiple thoughts going through our heads. You’re having a conversation with someone and something they say triggers your memory about a meeting tomorrow. Now you start thinking about the meeting and what you have to do to prepare. You’re no longer engaged with the person you’re talking to or hearing what they’re saying. You begin ruminating and become anxious.

3. Detach

Appropriately distance yourself from the pressuring situations. Put things in perspective. What is the worst that can happen? You turn in an assignment late and get a B instead of an A. I assure you when all is said and done, and you have a graduate degree in hand, no one will care what your GPA was! Think about whether this particular issue or situation will matter a year from now. Probably not.

4. Let go

Often we obsess over things that don’t matter. The question to ask yourself is how will continuing to focus on this thing be beneficial? Will it be helpful to remain angry at someone, to feel guilty about something you did, or worry about something you can’t control? If the answer is no, then let it go.

The importance of building resiliency and managing stress is paramount for being effective in all aspects of our lives. The skills needed to do so are applicable for everyone, from leaders in today’s organizations to those aspiring to become such. This topic has become a cornerstone for many leadership development programs and considered vital to the development and growth of today’s leaders (Petrie, 2014). As graduate students and future leaders in your profession, the pressures will be great, but the stress doesn’t have to be.


Written by Dr. Gina Hernez-Broome, program chair, Master of Arts in Leadership degree program at Ashford University

Petrie, N. (2014). Wake up! The surprising truth about what drives stress and how leaders build resilience. Center for Creative Leadership.

Roger, D. (1997). Managing stress: The challenge of change. Maidenhead: Chartered Institute of Marketing.

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