Burning the Candle at Both Ends: Why Self-Care Is Important for Making It Through Academia
In all the flurry and fury of graduate school, there is one lesson I wish I learned sooner: the importance of self-care. Amid assignments, readings, and classes, I placed academic responsibilities above the need to care for myself. Sure, I thought I had everything handled well. I was actively participating in class, getting good grades on my papers, and managing to get by on very little sleep. The small things I neglected - eating well, doing non-academic activities, being physically active, checking in with myself - the things that would have kept me in balance, were no longer priorities in my daily life. And what’s when everything fell apart.
When I started my Master's program, I was the eager student who wanted to do it all. I thrived in an academic environment, living on intellectual conversations, breathing in theory. I wanted to get a PhD and become a professor, and I knew this would require an outstanding record of accomplishments including an impeccable CV. The job market was declining at that time. It was 2008 and Canada was in a recession. Universities were cutting faculty as well as programs like Women Studies. I worked hard to prove that I was the right material, cut out for a demanding academic career. But one thing I overlooked the entire time was the necessity of maintaining a healthy balance between school and the rest of my life. The concept of “self-care” was alien to me and not something I discussed with professors and peers. Despite being involved in student activist groups focused on the well-being of others, I was not part conversations about taking care of ourselves.
But how I wish I had been part of them.
When Self-Care Isn't There
After four months of “burning the candle at both ends,” as my mom so often says, I was feeling off-kilter. In my first semester I ran myself ragged trying to keep up on my workload. But this was not something I wanted to admit to others or myself. It's funny how many of us in academia have the “impostor syndrome” and find ourselves continuously working to measure up to others. As the new semester started, I realized that I was not OK. I was not in a healthy relationship, nor did I have financial stability. I was not physically well and I was feeling stressed and isolated. I wanted things to change for the better but I felt like I had let things get to a horrible state. A point of no return. Turning to family and friends who were worried about me, I had the support I needed to get out of a messy relationship. I tried to stay positive by focusing on how I had been accepted into a PhD program and would be able to move away in a few months.
It was not an easy time. I ended up moving three times that year in order to keep a roof over my head. I had to defer my PhD offer because I fell behind in completing the major final research paper for my Master’s degree. I lived on cheap food to get by because I had student loan payments every month. By the time the winter came I felt depressed. I used to be involved in an engaging academic environment, one where I discussed theory with my peers and found new inspiration daily. Now I was sitting at my kitchen table with the heat set at 16 degrees Celsius to save money and I was miserable. I lost interest in the research I was doing. I stopped writing. I spent my days picking up shifts at my two part-time jobs. I felt like giving up.
I hadn’t done the self-care I needed to keep myself in check, nor had I done enough to maintain my positive well-being. Every day I was not writing was another day of anxiety. I often woke up with panic attacks thinking about how far removed I was from my original plan in academia.
Making Self-Care a Priority
Finally, after many months of wearing myself down, I started to find my grounding again. I was working two jobs that brought in enough income to keep myself floating financially. The new fall semester was approaching and the graduate advisor for the PhD program insisted that we meet after I had written her to say I was planning on deferring my acceptance yet again. We met for coffee and she listened to the struggles I had been going through for the past year. It was the first time I had talked openly with anyone in the academic community about the hardships I was facing. I felt embarrassed that I had lost my ambition. I was a scholar with good grades and scholarships. I felt like a failure in admitting my defeat. Compassionate but stern, my advisor looked me in the eyes and said, “You can do this. Just get it done and move on.”
And you know what? I did. It took a few extra months but I finished and moved on.
Hearing my advisor's words of encouragement changed everything for me. I stopped telling myself I was a "bad" student because the other important aspects of my life, namely relationships and finances, needed more attention than I had given them. I started prioritizing things outside of academia without my usual feelings of guilt. I made an effort to reconnect with family and friends. I started writing in a journal so I could check in with myself and my mental health. I spent the extra 30 minutes to cook myself a nice dinner rather than rushing to get back to writing papers. In just a few short weeks I felt better than I had in over two years.
Why do I share my story? Because I wish I had known this when I began my Master's program. After my conversation with the graduate advisor I realized that I hadn’t come this far just to give up. While my time in the Master's program had taken a detour, it didn’t mean that I was a poor student. Life happened. It does that. Being a student is not our sole identity, nor is it our only responsibility. The realities of being a student - heavy course loads, poverty, stress, lack of work/life balance - these happen and they need to be talked about. It’s OK to admit to ourselves that we don’t always have our life together. But it’s not OK to place the blame on ourselves. We need to recognize that our anxieties and stress do not stem from our inadequacies but from an institutional system that places more and more pressure to outperform others for what little opportunities still exist.
Self-care needs to be an important part of the discussion. It’s knowing when to push on, when to take a break, and when to walk away. It’s knowing we need to be good to ourselves through it all.