Balancing School, Stress, Research, Life, and More Stress
Graduate school is rewarding, but challenging.
The purpose of this page is to provide guidance on how to balance your daily schedule as a student, provide examples of typical student schedules, and advice on how to get help when you feel overwhelmed. Due to the nature of graduate workloads, each of you will have to go through an adjustment period where you try to find your personal balance between classes, research, and personal care. Always remember that your peers, mentors, the BME department, and JHU are here to support you. Never be afraid to ask for help!
AN IMPORTANT NOTE ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH:
Some students can and do push themselves up to and even beyond their limits for many reasons. If you ever feel that your mental health and well-being is at serious risk, please be aware of the following resources:
- 911 – If you ever find yourself in a mental health emergency, are about to commit self-harm, are entertaining serious suicidal thoughts, or anything similar, call 911 immediately.
- University Mental Health Services – This is the official medical source for any serious mental health concerns (before things get serious enough to call 911). Your student insurance will cover a vast majority of services and medications should you need them. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/uhs/university_mental_health.html
- The Johns Hopkins Student Assistance Program (JHSAP) – JHSAP is a life management resource that can help you identify and manage challenging issues in healthy ways. Getting help is free, convenient, and confidential. Their website can be found here at: http://jhsap.org/
The Path to a PhD
There are many strategies to approaching graduate school. However, you should always have a general set of plans about what you want to accomplish, what you desire to learn, and how to do it. As the saying goes, failure to plan is planning to fail. The first couple of years in graduate school begins with establishing yourself in a laboratory, completing coursework, and passing your doctoral board oral (DBO) exam by year two. Some students struggle during this time, especially with the demands of research on top of classes. After the DBO is completed, many more students can struggle depending on their situation. From the start, know the path is difficult, yet rewarding. Know that you can succeed, and most importantly, that you are not alone. The PhD degree is a journey, full of hills and valleys, but it is not a final destination.
Getting started (Pre-DBO). When you begin, your main goals should include setting up rotations, starting classes to complete your requirements, and preparing for your DBO. While most of you are experts at taking classes and acing exams, the challenge now is to make sure you can balance those classes while remaining reasonably productive in very time consuming research. Too much focus on classes and extracurricular activities, and you can miss out on joining a professor of interest. Conversely, spending too much time on research by neglecting classes, fellowship applications, and personal care can be disastrous. Therefore, it is up to you to determine what type of schedule and balance is optimal for your personality and interests. Whatever that balance is, the most important item on the list is your personal health. Failing to take care of yourself with enough sleep, leisure time, social activities, and fun can lead to serious effects on both your physical health and mental well-being.
Keeping momentum (Post-DBO). After the DBO, besides thesis committee meetings and mentor guidance, most of graduate school becomes undefined. You receive general guidance by your mentor, but almost everything from this point on is determined by you. You continue until you find a thesis project, publish several papers on that area, and meet your thesis committee demands in order to finally graduate with a PhD. Those 2-4 years after the DBO exam are where most people struggle due to how self-motivated, self-determining, and ambitious you are without anyone giving you clear answers about anything. This is because you literally begin working on the forefront of scientific discovery where no one knows what to expect from your research. At this time, it is especially important to keep a balanced lifestyle, utilize the resources available to you, and reach out if you need assistance.
Manage your time wisely. Our student population has a full spectrum of personalities and work schedules. Regardless of the one you choose to maintain, one of the most important aspects of graduate student life is achieve a sense of balance and to recognize when you are risking your personal health. You will quickly find that one of the greatest challenges in graduate school is the variable level of change in everything you do. Some weeks seem to have little to nothing to accomplish and other weeks will be like a non-stop sprint. The best way to manage this is to become a better planner, yet to learn to be adaptable and expect drastic changes to your schedule at the last minute.
Maintain a balanced lifestyle. Remember to take time for yourself and to engage in your hobbies and interests outside of school. This can include anything from getting involved with the department, becoming a part of the greater Hopkins community, or exploring the Baltimore area and beyond. Additionally, physical health and exercise are extremely important. Take advantage of the resources available to you! For instance, as members of both the School of Medicine and the School of Engineering, BME PhD students have access to fitness centers at both the Cooley Center (at the SOM) and the Ralph S. O’Connor Recreation Center (at Homewood). There are also many sports leagues at Hopkins and in Baltimore that can be great ways to both socialize and stay active.
Prioritize mental health. Stress, anxiety, and depression are very real aspects of student life when too much is loaded onto your shoulders. As such, Johns Hopkins (and the BME PhD program) provides many resources to help students manage stress and improve the overall quality of life. Your mental health is of the utmost importance, and if you find yourself struggling, it is vital that you reach out when you need help. Similarly, if you have friends within the program who you believe need help, reaching out can literally save a life. Never risk your mental health and safety for the sake of research. It is far more important that you find a healthy balance. If you ever feel alone, anxious, or depressed, please reach out to one another for help. If you feel that you need medical intervention, the student insurance EHP program covers mental health services. Another important resource is JHSAP, which specializes in mental health and in counseling students with various concerns. These services are strictly confidential to protect your privacy.
You are not alone. Graduate school can seem very lonely and isolating at times, but many others will go, are going, or have gone through the same struggles you are facing. Don’t be afraid to reach out and talk to your peers and mentors! We, along with our department and school, are here to support you. Please take advantage of BME PhD student events. These are set to occur regularly at both SOM and Homewood. Food and drinks (not just alcohol) will always be available, and this is where you can meet many lifelong friends from any background. If you find these activities to be outside your interest area, please contact one of the council members to offer new activities you think yourself and others would enjoy!