You’ve received your acceptance letter, filled out financial aid forms and signed your lease, and you’re ready to get started with the first semester of your new MBA program.
You’ve prepared for everything … or have you?
As rewarding and exciting as pursuing graduate education can be, the experience can also bring a tremendous deal of stress due to the studies required and the evaluative and competitive nature of graduate school. In addition to these stressors, graduate students often must manage other aspects of their lives, such as research, assistantships and familial and social obligations.
Graduate students across the globe, especially in a post-pandemic timeline, are facing increased rates of struggle with their mental health. A transnational survey of 14,000 students showed that 35% of students fulfilled the criteria for one or more identified mental health conditions — a rate that sits at more than 1 in 3 students. And, statistically, these students are at a disadvantage, rarely receiving the help and support they need.
It is important for prospective graduate students to understand the challenge ahead, both in terms of academics and career goals and in terms of the challenge to them as individuals, so that they not only succeed but thrive during their MBA experience.
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a theory best visualized with a pyramid. The human needs categorized in a section at the base of the pyramid, such basic needs to eat, drink, sleep, live in a safe environment and socialize, must be satisfied in order to meet the needs higher up, including — at the very top — the human desire to become the absolute best we can be.
Graduate students can find a lot of truth in Maslow’s hierarchy. Graduate school, while rewarding, can come with a difficult lifestyle that turns this pyramid upside down. Adjusting to this new lifestyle can be done, but it’s far from easy.
Take some time to recognize your own hierarchy of needs. In your day-to-day life, what resources do you need to survive? What resources do you need to be happy? What do you need to be fulfilled?
From this knowledge, you can organize your thoughts, such as knowing you need a certain level of funding for your day-to-day lifestyle, then understanding that you can accommodate this need with financial planning. It could also be knowing you need the fulfillment of feeling successful by finishing a project important to you, then noting that you can accommodate this need by setting aside time every week to work on that home DIY project you’ve wanted to tackle.
Recognizing the urgency and importance of these basic needs will be what sets you up for success. Like the hierarchy of needs implies, it’s unnatural to try and become the best version of ourselves unless we are actively taking steps to build a stable and secure foundation for ourselves first.
Know your needs, know your hierarchy and be able to recognize when a particular need isn’t being met to help you navigate through difficult times.
When your mental health gets difficult to manage, it can feel like the world is a giant pit of quicksand. Every new task is just another grain of sand, and no matter how much you struggle against it, you just keep sinking in. Beginning a graduate program can be a sudden lifestyle change, and this feeling can be amplified by the amount of work in and out of class, as well as social and personal expectations. In times like these, it might feel like there’s no solution but to keep fighting against the quicksand. But, as the famous warning goes, fighting quicksand can make you sink faster.
Before you begin graduate school, it’s important to establish your “battle plan” — that is, define what your everyday experience with mental health looks like, and then ask how you are going to maintain yourself on a day-to-day basis. How can you pull yourself out of quicksand if you fall in?
Sometimes, the best we can strive to be is “OK” — and that’s OK.
Take time to examine what “OK” means for you. Most likely, it’s not sticking to a perfect, flawless routine, with unforgiving expectations and pressures, but granting yourself forgiveness and respect and being able to flex with the stressors you face daily. If you’re someone who may be new to thinking about mental health, consider the last time you experienced hardship. What did that hardship look like? What is your “OK” before and after? And how did you get back to “OK” after those difficulties? What helped you at that time? What didn’t?
Answers to these can vary based on the person and situation. Your plan for maintaining your “OK” or taking steps from “not OK” to “OK” can be anything from delegating time to spend with yourself or loved ones, to just getting out of bed in the morning and making your favorite meal. If you aren’t sure, talking with a professional about your past experiences in depth can help you explore new, healthy strategies for helping yourself in challenging times.
Writing this plan and having it saved somewhere can be helpful during times that you may not remember effective coping strategies and self-help methods.
We don’t have to be perfect — we just have to know when we aren’t OK. Having ideas ready for how we can help ourselves when we’re experiencing overwhelm can bring us back, not only to our “OK,” but to our “better.”
Maybe you’re new to thinking about mental health and you don’t know where to begin with these steps. Maybe you’ve been thinking about connecting to resources, but you’ve placed it on the back burner. Maybe you don’t think you need resources, or that they may not benefit you as you are right now.
Connecting early with a counselor or mental health professional to check in with on a regular basis is essential for every prospective graduate student. Think of it like a form of insurance: You can meet with these professionals as much or as little as you need. But when things get difficult, you’re going to need that resource to lean on.
Consider the experiences you’ve had and research a professional that can best fit your needs. There are mental health professionals for every background, whether you’re someone who experiences repeat or specific mental hardship or just someone looking to have a little more support and someone to talk to.
No counselor or therapist is one-size-fits-all; it’s best to get an early start on finding the best fit for you, so you can have effective support available as soon as you need it. It’s normal for a connection to a mental health professional to not be a perfect fit (consider the idea that every therapist is like a pair of shoes) — but know that waiting to research and connect with these services can add to the feeling of overwhelm and stress, should you have to do it alongside other stressors.
A battle plan that fails isn’t a “failure”; it’s often a result of the situation. Insurance for your mental health, in the figurative sense, is your back-up plan for when your battle plan might not work out.
Sometimes, health can be unpredictable, and you must give yourself room to heal. Make that room for yourself by making your life just a little easier in the moment.
Establish your “go-bags” of routine to summon when you might be struggling or just short on time. These consist of strategies that make your day less overwhelming in some way or form, such as eliminating tiny stressors, reducing the number of decisions you have to make in a day, and limiting the window of your work hours (as feasible) to allow yourself to recuperate. By doing this, you can hold space for yourself to process the other situations you may be facing.
These eliminations can be anything from setting out your morning granola bar so you don’t have to worry about what to eat for breakfast, to taking time to plan your day ahead on an hour-by-hour or task-by-task basis the night before.
Additionally, identify what tasks and situations you might struggle with the most when things get difficult. Common struggles, like household chores, can be worked apart piece by piece as part of an ongoing “project” or a daily routine, down to doing dishes as soon as they’re used to avoid a piled-up sink. Exercise can be accomplished with just a five-minute yoga session as soon as you get out of bed. Even something as simple as verbalizing how you’re feeling to yourself or to someone in your support system can allow you to hold space and respect for yourself in tough times. Small, simple steps often make the biggest impact — and figuring out what small steps you can use as insurance for a time of struggle can grant you the chance to bounce back.
Additional accommodations in education and the workplace for mental health and disabilities can be stigmatized, preventing many students from reaching out and receiving help that would ultimately benefit them and encourage their performance. It’s OK to want to be the best we can be, especially in an environment like higher education, where the stakes are high and the expectations feel higher.
But it’s detrimental not to know when it’s all right to — or when you should — ask for help.
If your mental health is getting in the way of your daily life, consider a conversation with someone from your personal support system or a mental health professional to see if additional accommodations could benefit you. From there, you can identify which accommodations would best suit you, and reach out to your program’s resource center for disabilities to talk about your options.
Progress isn’t linear, which is why it’s best to have the support you need available even when you don’t need it.
Mental health is a struggle for many, especially for graduate students entering or participating in a new program. Although the experience of earning an MBA will grant you many positive experiences, learning opportunities, memories and long-term connections, it comes with a set of challenges often overlooked. But by knowing our challenges, knowing ourselves and having a plan to fall back on when things get tough, we can ensure our success.