|Photo by Mae Mu on Unsplash
Contributors: Drs. Marian Kennedy and Marieke Van Puymbroeck
What are self-care and self-love?
Self-care encompasses any action that you do to care of yourself. These are actions to maintain your physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual health. Self-care does not have to be a huge event- it can be very simple. It can include anything from cleaning your teeth or getting enough sleep each night to cultivating a time to call family or friends to a luxurious vacation in Iceland. Dictionary entries highlight that self-care can be done during both periods of low and high stress (Google’s English dictionary provided by Oxford Languages). Most importantly, Brianna Wiest wrote “Self-care should not be something we resort to because we are so absolutely exhausted that we need some reprieve from our own relentless internal pressure.”
Self-love may be the prompt for self-care, but it isn’t always. As the blog Relish explained, self-love is showing kindness to yourself or being accepting of yourself. So, a graduate student could go to bed by 10 PM as an act of self-care, whereas they could practice self-love by integrating new mantras into their self-talk. Doctoral candidate Natascha Chtena suggested in her blog post on Higher Ed that students could experience self-love by replacing negative talk with positive ones using mantras like “I’ve already achieved so much, I can do this.”
What does literature tell us about the impact of implementing self-care during STEM graduate programs?
Unfortunately, not a lot. A quick scan of published literature using Google Scholar for articles related to self-care by STEM graduate students or STEM graduate programs in general did not yield results. However, there has been some work published on the need for self-care training during psychology graduate training. [Side note: While there is an ongoing debate on whether psychology (a social science) is part of the science referred to in “science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, we side with the American Psychological Association and believe that it should be included.] In “A systematic review of self-care measures for professionals and trainees,” the authors pointed out that insufficient self-care is a distal cause of the deterioration of professional functioning of healthcare providers and can lead to burnout. They found that professionals who practiced self-care provided better patient care. These authors also highlighted the commentary by Jeffrey Barnett and Natalie Cooper (2009) that suggested self-care training be integrated into psychologists’ graduate education – that it begin at a graduate student’s first orientation session, be supported by integration of self-care concepts into classes and seminars, that faculty model their importance, and that it continue throughout every phase of their professional careers.
While we should not generalize finding from one field to another, our own observations suggest that graduate students in engineering and science, as well as the fields themselves, would benefit from integrating Barnett and Cooper’s suggestions. STEM graduate training is known to be associated with high levels of stress, much like the graduate training of health care professionals.
We must not be alone in this thought since non-peer reviewed articles pop up on the internet such as “Self-Caren Medium, The University of Pennsylvania Graduate Student Center offers oself-care tips for returning graduate students (written by Tianyang Zheng) and the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy has a post on “The Importance of Self-Care for Graduate Students” (by Victoria Sellas).
Medical professional training typically includes support groups for graduate students where they discuss distress and burnout. We think it will be some time before STEM departments and colleges follow suit. However, we hope that this blog might inspire you to integrate self-care into your weekly routines as graduate students.
Examples of practices that you can use for self-care
- Ask for help (from friends, colleagues, your mentor, your advisor)
- Create a support network
- Develop a mentoring team (could be from your program or others)
- Eat to fuel your day
- Exercise at whatever time is good for you, perhaps in the middle of the day
- Move your body in a way that feels good to you
- Get enough sleep (If you do not currently, try practicing good sleep habits)
- Keep a gratitude journal
- Reach out to your network for emotional support
- Talk to a professional counselor
- Practice mindfulness
- Schedule a massage
- Practice meditation and breathwork (insight meditation timer and calm)
Closing: What forms of self-care are important to you? How have you managed to incorporate self-care into your busy schedule as a graduate student? Share your experiences in the comments below.
Acknowledgements: This blog post was edited by Kate Epstein of EpsteinWords. She specializes in editing and coaching for academics, and she can be reached at kate at epsteinwords.com.