Welcome dear graduate student to-be, has-been-for-a-while, soon-not-to-be-#finishline… How are you? Truly?
Just because background may be of importance to you and you may be asking yourself “why does she care?” Well, firstly, I am the current Wellbeing Director for Rice’s Graduate Student Association - it is my job to care. Secondly, I struggle with both depressive and anxiety disorders. During the Winter Freeze in February of 2021, I slipped into a major depressive episode without a strong Houston-based support system and had the fortune of being able to continue classes, remotely, back home in Florida.
Understanding that I even had that option and gaining the courage to ask came from someone caring about how I was feeling (shoutout to Dr. Dani!). So, I repeat: How are you?
Though it is customary in the United States to inquire about someone’s being or current life happenings, there is a strong expectation that the response is short and positive. Don’t do that here. I am giving you space to vent or gloat to the universe, tell me everything.
Ready? Let’s continue.
Your entire being is important and valuable along your entire life journey - with your time in graduate school being no exception. To ensure that your wellbeing is being taken care of, it is important to know what are the resources available to you. You do not have to do everything alone.
Let’s first define wellbeing. According to Oxford Languages:
Wellbeing - The state of being comfortable, healthy, or happy.
This state of comfort does not imply a necessity for perfection, but rather a level of contentment with the current state of your circumstances. Wellbeing is often lumped into categories, with a few of the main ones being physical, mental, spiritual, occupational, financial, and social.
Your university of choice should have resources to assist in your progress towards contentment in all categories of your wellbeing. Below you will find some examples of what you can look for resource-wise when scouting a school or specific things to ask for at your current school. Note: I will be including links to Rice University resources directly related to each topic.
This encompasses the health and safety of your physical body. Resources to look for would be access to gym(s), a safe walking space, food options on/near campus, and food banks. In regards to your safety, inquire about the police/security presence on campus (can I call for someone to walk to my car?) and if self-defense classes are offered throughout the school year.
Though it is highly unfortunate that this is a concern, your university should also have a prevention and support office for sexual and domestic violence. Some schools even have groups of students who work with Title IX offices to ensure the campus is a safer place (see Graduate STRIVE).
My favorite! This section of wellbeing had the largest impact on my graduate school selection.
Your mental wellbeing encompasses your thoughts, emotions, and general daily functioning within your mind. Resources to look out for would include therapists and/or wellbeing counselors, psychiatrists (important to look out for as many schools have short contracts with psychiatrists that only involves them coming in once a week), and yoga or meditation classes throughout the semester (and are these resources free or included in your fees?). You may also seek to ensure that the process for requesting accommodations is to your liking.
This part of wellbeing is near and dear for many people and can be catered to in many ways. Some things you may look for are: places to worship on or near campus, clubs that focus on spreading knowledge and internal growth of your faith, and accommodations for diet restrictions at eateries.
My mother always told me that school was my job - often after I would inquire on how I could earn money in my youth. (What can I say? I like to shop!)
Her statement has never been more true than with being in graduate school - it really is a job!
Do you have sick days or specific vacation time? What happens when you are thinking of family planning? There also may come a time where you need to take a break, is it allowed? Look at the graduate handbook for your program and policies for your institution to see if you have a Leave of Absence or Voluntary Separations option. What is needed to be able to take advantage of this benefit?
There’s a common saying: “People quit their bosses, not their jobs.” If you have an issue with your advisor, who are you supposed to turn to? Your department may have an ombudsman or your university may have a specialist in the graduate office. Look for a title like “Graduate Student Support Specialist or Manager.”
This is an ESPECIALLY relevant topic for all graduate students. In general, I feel as though all college students should have a budget (or spending plan if that makes you more comfortable) and a general understanding of their financial situation.
It is generally recommended that your rent should be less than ⅓ of your monthly income. Have you seen stipend amounts? Have you seen the cost of living for some places? Especially if you are trying to live alone!
I’ll just provide a few questions that you can ask yourself while finding resources on this topic:
- Does the school provide assistance for finding and applying to fellowships?
- How often does your department raise their minimum stipend amount?
- Are there grants and fellowships available from the school?
- If I need emergency financial assistance, are there programs available? (We have one provided by the GPS Office and one by the Graduate Student Association.)
- Will I have to file my own taxes? Is there help for that process?
- Medical Insurance? Payment Plans for Account Balances? Is Parking Free?
Let’s not forget though, life should not revolve around school! Are there programs provided by your university for you to explore the city (did someone say discounts?) or will you be located in a college town that caters to cheap fun?
How is campus life? Is it poppin’?
Is there a Greek life presence on campus? (Rice has no Greek life!) If not, you should evaluate whether you would prefer there to be or if there are chapters within the city.
What clubs and organizations are available? Are there specific affinity groups for your identifiers? If not, how easy is it to start a club?
Is there a spot where graduate students typically hang out?
I came out the gate with questions on this one! I’m an extrovert, so these were the types of questions that came to my mind during my university search. You may have different questions focused on your unique socialization wants and needs. View this article to understand more ways to get involved.
With all of this being said, I would like to reiterate that wellbeing focuses on contentment not perfection. You do not need to find every single resource available to graduate students before selecting a school, just look for the resources that are most important to you.
My only qualifier was whether or not counseling was free. Your qualifier may be different and you may have more than one.
Take the time to understand what is important to you while making the decision about graduate school. Once your decision is made, take the time to understand what is available before you or a friend needs it.
About the author: Daziyah Sullivan is a second-year Ph.D. student in Mechanical Engineering. Originally from Florida, Daziyah earned her B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from the FAMU-FSU College of Engineering in 2020. Read more.