Learning personal effectiveness in grad school: Choosing to connect and practice mindfulness

student behind pile of book

Last year, I started grad school. After taking four years away from academics, starting a Master’s program was a big transition. Between the mountain of readings, assignments, duties as a teaching assistant, and taking advantage of opportunities for professional development, I began to feel overwhelmed. It was easy to spend my bus ride to school worrying about the work that I needed to do and then spend the time I had meant to be working on assignments thinking about the various ways that I might not “measure up” to the expected standards of a graduate student. However, thanks to input and recommendations from those close to me, I chose to engage in two activities that focused on my own wellness, which positively impacted my personal effectiveness as a grad student.

First, I enrolled in a mindfulness meditation workshop offered by Counselling Services. Mindfulness practices focusing on the present moment, rather than thinking about the past or future. Simply taking an hour out of my week to practice mindfulness in this workshop reminded me that though grad school was busy, it did not require my attention 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The exercises recommended by the facilitator also encouraged me to take short breaks throughout the day to practice mindfulness, a helpful exercise when anxieties about upcoming assignments were keeping me from working productively to complete them. Mindfulness meditation was not a panacea, or a cure-all, but it certainly helped me to manage my stress and increase my productivity.

"though grad school was busy, it did not require my attention 24 hours a day, 7 days a week"

Second, I chose to become more engaged and connected with students in my program. When I first began my program and met the diverse and intelligent group of students that were a part of my cohort, it was easy to think that I would not be able to perform at the same academic level. Each time I handed in an assignment or spoke up in a seminar, I found myself thinking “they are going to find out that I don’t belong here, that I am not qualified to be in grad school” (a way of thinking I later found out is so common in academia that it has its own name – impostor phenomenon). However, as I took the time to connect with classmates through committees, social activities, or time spent talking in our grad office, I began to understand that I was not the only one with these fears and insecurities. The specific worries differed from student to student, but each one was experiencing difficulties in the transition to life as a graduate student. Understanding that I was not alone was comforting, and it also allowed us, as a cohort, to support each other by offering advice, guidance, and encouragement.

As my adventure as a graduate student wrapped up last summer, I was immensely thankful for the lessons I learned about mindfulness, which helped me to manage my anxieties and focus on my work, and I was deeply grateful for the friends I made in my cohort, who had shared advice and encouragement. If you are feeling overwhelmed by the transition to grad school, or even if you just have the occasional worry, I would encourage you to make choices that consider your wellness and personal effectiveness as a grad student. Whether it involves committing to a workshop, downloading a fitness app, or taking the time to get to know other grad students, make time for yourself.

Sarah Howard recently completed an MA in Political Science at the University of Waterloo and currently works with the GRADventure program as a Professional Skills Communications and Events Specialist in Graduate Studies and Postdoctoral Affairs.

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