Milk and Honey Magazine advice for surviving graduate school. Use these tips to succeed, relax, and have fun!

Graduate School Survival Guide

Gina and Don Martin

Graduate school can be an intensely challenging time that tests an individual’s strength, integrity, mental capacity, and work ethic. I want to share a little bit about my grad school experience that may offer some hope and insight into the dark depths of the mid-quarter blues and the insurmountable stress levels that seem to never abate. Despite loving the content, enjoying classes, and desiring to do well, the daily grind of grad school can still permeate those positive qualities. In my opinion it is through time with God, self-care, clear boundaries, and a strong support system that grad school becomes manageable and even (dare I say it) enjoyable at times!

I had a unique grad school experience as I went through the graduate school grind at the same time as my husband, Don. Going through graduate school at the same time as your life partner not only challenges both individuals, but it also challenges the relationship. We got married right after college, and shortly after we both decided to pursue our graduate studies at separate universities in vastly different fields; but the common experience of graduate school brought us together in many ways, and we attacked the challenge as a team. We would love to share our perspectives and how they played into our relationship, our success as graduate students, and ultimately our survival.

I pursued my Masters of Art in Counseling at Northwestern University. This program challenged its students to dig deeper, self-reflect, push their limits, and become outstanding counselors and researchers in the field. I enjoyed this program immensely as I am an avid reader, researcher, and reflector (especially on the self and anything else related to the human mind and/or psychology). Though I enjoyed the coursework, I was pushed to my own limits and it made me question my personal boundaries, my levels of commitment, and my self at times. At the end, I can appreciate the questioning I did, and after all I did survive, but in those moments it can feel hopeless and lonely, so this guide is to help others know that you are not alone.

Don pursued his Masters in Business Administration at The University of Chicago. This program required high levels of commitment and intelligence, as it is one of the top ranked programs in that field. On top of that commitment, Don also worked full time, making his weeks long and difficult; in his words sometimes “unbearable.”

The following are four areas that personally challenged us, and where we grew individually and together. We found our growth in these areas to be helpful in surviving our grad school experiences. While these things were helpful for us, it is important to figure out what works for you personally to be able to survive and even thrive in graduate school.

Milk and Honey Magazine advice for surviving graduate school. Use these tips to succeed, relax, and have fun!

Chair Time

Gina: In my opinion, the first aspect of surviving graduate school is devoting time to be with God. I call this Chair Time. I attend Willow Creek Community Church where Bill Hybels, the Senior Pastor, promotes the idea of Chair Time. This is where you devote a few minutes each and every day, preferably at the same time, in the same chair to building your relationship with God. Taking these few moments to immerse yourself in Scripture, prayer, or meditation are rejuvenating and allow your relationship with Jesus to grow despite extremely busy schedules and cluttered minds. Taking this time allows me to center my thoughts, start my day right, and stay grounded in my personal faith.

Don: “Chair Time” or “Quiet Time” or “Let’s Slow Down For Once and Listen to God Time” is the first and most important tool to surviving graduate school. At our church, Willow Creek, Pastor Bill Hybels challenged every member 1) to find or buy a comfortable chair and 2) to sit in the chair for 15 minutes a day to pray, meditate, read the Bible, and journal. The purpose of this time is to clear your mind of all the ‘things’ that you have to do and to open your mind and heart to hear from God. I must confess that throughout the two and a half years that I took to complete my graduate program, I was not always the most consistent with this. When I would get lax with my chair time (usually because I had pressing things to do) I would find myself worrying more about my schoolwork and how much studying I needed to do. This led me to being more irritable at home, and I would push others away. Not cool. I believe that God wants to have a relationship with us all the time, but that He really wants us to lean on Him when we are struggling to climb the mountains in our lives.

Milk and Honey Magazine advice for surviving graduate school. Use these tips to succeed, relax, and have fun!


Gina: In the field of counseling this term is thrown around quite a bit. Despite its prevalence in my counseling training, it wasn’t until later on in my program that I fully understood what this means to me personally. Earlier this year I participated in doctoral program interviews. I thought I was a prepared candidate as I had a clear idea of what I wanted, confidence, and both research and clinical experience. In the interviews, however, some professors asked me what I do for self-care. This question threw me for a loop! I did not know how to answer as I had implemented very little self-care practices at that point in my graduate studies (what dark days those were!). I made up an answer about working out and moved on with the interview, but the question stuck with me afterwards.

In my college days, I was a swimmer for Pepperdine’s Division I Swim Team. I loved swimming, but these days in graduate school it felt like work. I attended undergrad in California, so the pool was easily accessible, outside, and early morning practices were cold, but like a 40 degree kind of cold at the worst. I attended graduate school in Chicago where 40 degrees was ideal in wintertime. Instead of the pool being outside, it was inside and still chilly when the winter temperatures would descend well below zero. I decided that it was time to try something different. I tried running instead and that even became too miserable in the dead of winter. I then tried P90X and other assortments of video workouts that continued to feel like work. That was when it hit me that my “self-care” does not have to involve working out. It is important to maintain healthy exercise especially when you sit for long periods of time, but that does not have to be your self-care.

Eventually I found yoga. As a college athlete and long time work out girl, I felt that yoga might not be “physical” enough to constitute a work out. I decided to give it a shot when friends began to recommend it. I went into my first yoga class with an open mind and it totally changed my perception of the work out. Not only was I drenched in sweat afterwards, but my muscles were sore, my mind and spirit were relaxed, and my anxiety about clinicals, homework, and tests was a distant memory. I found that the focus and the practice of clearing my mind was exactly what I needed for myself. This became my primary method of self-care for the remainder of graduate school and I wish I had found it sooner.

I understand that yoga is still a form of exercise, but it is a type of exercise that is kind to your body, easy on your joints, and it is not a way to beat yourself up. Throughout my years of swimming and running I was always comparing myself to the clock. If my sprints weren’t fast enough, I could always keep practicing and continue beating myself up for my lack of progress. Yoga provided a different type of work out where I could only surrender to the stretches and allow my body to take over in order to maintain the poses. This provided new insight into what my body was capable of, and it allowed me to love my body for what I could do, instead of beat myself up for failing or what I could not accomplish.

In addition to yoga, self-care, to me, is being silly and laughing! I love to sing to myself and to my dogs, and I have learned to never take myself too seriously. I enjoy being silly and it alleviates the pressure of being so serious in classes, clinicals, etc. If you are embarking on the journey of graduate school, I highly recommend a sense of humor and the ability to make fun of yourself, because these defense mechanisms certainly help ward off the grad school blues.

Don: Buzzword alert! Counselors (Gina) love the term ‘self-care’ when talking to students about balance in their lives. I prefer to call this “don’t forget to have some fun too!” For the vast majority of us, grad school is not extremely enjoyable. Yes, we love to learn and are going to school because we want to better ourselves, but honestly how many of us look forward to three-hour lectures, taking notes, and cramming for exams? If you raised your hand, please proceed to the next section. If not, this section is paramount to surviving grad school.

We all need to have at least one or two outlets beyond the classroom where we can unwind and fill up our empty tanks. For me, I love basketball. I played basketball through college and cannot get enough of it in my life. I watch games on TV, listen to podcasts, read books about basketball, and play pick-up when possible. Basketball has absolutely zero implications on my schoolwork and that’s why it is perfect! It allows me to step away from my studies completely and recharge my batteries. Other forms of self-care that I enjoy are exercising, making homemade pizzas, and playing Pokemon GO (yes, I just admitted that…).

Milk and Honey Magazine advice for surviving graduate school. Use these tips to succeed, relax, and have fun!

Defining Boundaries

Gina: Another aspect of surviving graduate school is defining clear boundaries. This one is probably the toughest for me, because I like to say yes to everything. I always learned growing up, and in school that being an overachiever led me to success. I enjoyed being the most dependable one, the one who always did everything. When graduate school started I thought I could continue this trend. I worked part time as an editor, a swim coach, and a babysitter in addition to being a student and counseling intern. I booked myself and overbooked myself and double booked myself almost every day. When I would come home at night I did not even know who I was or what I was doing. I was in way over my head, because I was spread way too thin. I decided that this had to change, and I worked on developing my own personal boundaries as well as working on committing to only what was most important to my goals. I had committed to graduate school, so I decided that should take precedence and the part time jobs should be lower priorities. It was still important to me to do things that made me happy and weren’t exactly “school”, so besides being a student I continued to babysit, because it allowed me to be joyful and young at heart again. But that was it, and I quit everything else. I still struggle with creating firm boundaries, but in this area there was quite a bit of growth throughout graduate school.

Don: I have found that most graduate students are really talented and have many interests. These are great qualities but can also get you into some trouble during grad school. People in your life will recognize your abilities and ask for a piece of your time. What starts as an occasional favor can easily turn into weekly tutoring, memberships in several clubs at school (at least one of which you somehow ended up leading), weekly small group at church, a plethora of volunteer opportunities, and a part-time job to make a little extra cash. This is before mentioning that you have a family who want to see you every free second, friends outside of school, and in my case a wife…remember her? While nothing listed above is bad, the compilation of demands on your time can weigh heavily on you and start to affect your academic progress. This is where boundaries are important. Establishing boundaries are important during grad school to ensure that you are not becoming overbooked or overworked. Learning to graciously turn down opportunities during grad school and being open in your communication with friends and family will aid you greatly during this time.

If this sounds like an area where you could use some ideas and encouragement, I recommend the book "Boundaries: When to Say Yes, When to Say No – To Take Control of Your Life" by Henry Cloud.

Milk and Honey Magazine advice for surviving graduate school. Use these tips to succeed, relax, and have fun!

Support Network

Gina: Our final aspect of surviving graduate school is having a solid support network. For me you could say that this piece was built in with having Don as a constant support. It also might even help that he is in grad school as well and he can commiserate and understand what I am going through with the struggles of homework, tests, essays, papers, clinicals, etc. However, this piece is so important especially for couples to have support outside of the relationship as well. In a marriage it can be easy to depend on one another for everything and no one in your life can fulfill every need you have except Jesus Christ – and your spouse or partner is not Him! This is why it is important to develop a network of people who can support you and your partner when the going gets rough.

For me, this group became my cohort in my graduate program. We all attended classes together, did the same courses, commiserated together, celebrated together, reflected together, and encouraged each other together. We became a tight knit group that always had each other’s backs. Having this sense of community, togetherness, and this sense of friendship was essential. We were able to share the experience of graduate school and clinical hours. This was our first time being counseling interns, and the long hours, the mental strain of sitting with someone else’s discomfort, and the sense of responsibility were all difficult, but knowing that we weren’t handling these things alone provided comfort. The bond that grew because we had this shared graduate experience provided such meaning, and will keep us all together well into the future.

Additionally, I had the privilege of having a supportive team of people at my clinical site. I had a supervisor who challenged me, encouraged me, and supported me even when progress felt stagnant. I also had coworkers who became friends and again the shared experience provided that bond. I am grateful that these people became my support network and encouraged me every step along the way.

Lastly, I am blessed with parents who care about me and Don so much that they are willing to help clean my house, make us dinner, or take me out for some retail therapy. This support made me relax in the most stressful times, and it provided me a safe haven to escape school sometimes. I could not have made it without their support and encouragement along the way.

Don: You cannot do grad school alone, or rather I should say it is much more difficult alone than with a support system. I believe that in any great endeavor you undertake you need an ‘army of others’ marching with you to make it to the end. My army of others included my wife, my younger brother Joseph, my parents, a few co-workers, and my dearest grandmother. Each of these individuals provided me with unique support and encouragement at different times throughout my program. My wife was the rock. She knew better than anyone the challenges I was going through working full-time while taking classes on weekends and weeknights. Gina had a great sense for when I needed to be left alone to grind through homework and when I simply needed a big hug. Joseph was my distraction and comic relief. I would text or call him and complain that I was doomed to fail all of my upcoming exams. As any great brother would do, he would reply by laughing and then changing the topic to fantasy football. It is good to know at least one other person has their priorities in line. My parents and grandmother were my biggest cheerleaders. Because they lived in Kansas City, they did not always know the details of all that I was doing, but they never minimized my concerns and always responded with love and encouragement. Lastly, I had two co-workers who had also obtained their MBA’s while working full-time. These two individuals understood the rigorous schoolwork and the term ‘burned out’ better than anyone else. They were instrumental to lean on and seek wisdom from during stressful weeks. All in all I believe it is very important to surround yourself with a solid yet diverse group of people who will shower you with love and support along the way.

All in all, graduate school challenged Don and me, but helped us recognize what tremendous treasures we have with faith, family, each other, and our unique talents both in business and counseling. Through many trials and errors we came up with a schedule that works for us as a couple, and we wanted to share some of the things we discovered to let others know that they are not alone in the grind of graduate school. Some days it feels as though it will never end; it feels like papers, presentations, and exams are piling up and seems as though the work will never end. I am here to assure you that there is a finite time that you will be in graduate school, and “This too shall pass.” These words were an encouragement to me, but as time went on I began to cling to my graduate school days and the wonderful memories and community that I gained doing it. These will be forever cherished, so don’t let them slip away from you.

We are about to embark on another journey as I begin a doctoral program, and I am sure that will bring different challenges my way. I will be sure to report back what I find. :)