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Student perspective

Nash Turley’s academic career has taken him from Cascadia Community College in Bothell, Washington to the University of Washington, then to graduate school at North Carolina State University and the University of Toronto. Nash is a biologist who studies ecology and evolution.

I should be an expert on transitioning to new schools and environments. In every phase of my education I have moved at least once to a new institution. And while most life transitions bring opportunities and (eventually) rewards, they also involve initial difficulties.

A pile up of pressures

My most challenging transitions were in grad school. I moved 3,000 miles away from my friends and family. Then in the middle of my doctoral degree I moved to a new country. Both of these changes came with academic stresses and dramatic changes in my personal life. (For students who don’t physically relocate, the challenge can be experiencing their familiar environments and relationships in unfamiliar ways.) I struggled with depression and anxiety, which eroded my productivity and well-being. Transitions often bring not just one or two problematic factors, but rather a range of stressors that take a combined toll.

Academic demands can displace life’s pleasures

Transitioning students at all levels can expect challenges relating to their coursework and fear of failure. It’s common to feel overwhelmed or inadequate. Whether we’re at community college or grad school, we’re out to prove ourselves. Graduate students have the added demands of teaching and research, and establishing a productive relationship with their academic advisors. This hardly leaves time for socializing and other enjoyable and relaxing activities.

Transition anxiety can become a mental health issue

Academia inevitably brings challenges. But chronic anxiety or other mental health issues should never be considered normal. We don’t tolerate damaging environmental conditions that risk physical injury: the same standard should apply for mental injury.

What works for me

While I have not found any magic tricks, I’ve learned my mental health is not something to be ignored. It’s one of the most important predictors of my success and productivity. Awareness of my mental health is now my best tool for successfully transitioning from one important life stage to another. For me, that involves yoga, meditation, and being honest with others about how I feel. And it’s not easy, but I seek out help as needed. I’ve committed to staying mentally healthy, and this is a critical key to my success in academia and beyond.

Counselor perspective

Dan Jones, PhD, ABPP, is Director and Chief Psychologist of Counseling and Psychological Services at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina. Dr. Jones received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors (AUCCCD), 2011.

What are the demands facing nontraditional students?

Graduate students and nontraditional students re-entering education are often dealing with the demands of marriage and families, the financial pressures of paying for a degree and/or not bringing in a full salary, and part-time or even full-time jobs. These can create stress and exhaustion.

How tough is community college or grad school on marriages and families?

There’s a lot of pressure. Graduate school is pretty consuming. It can be hard for the spouse to understand why you’re not as available. Your working spouse might think you’re having it pretty easy because you have a more flexible schedule, but you might think your spouse is having it easy without all those deadlines. You’re living such different lives.

How does academic scrutiny play into students’ stress?

Nontraditional students have moved into a very different environment than they’re used to. They may have been skilled and respected in the workplace, but going into community college or graduate school they are under scrutiny in a new way. They might be part of a competitive cohort. They might also be dependent on an ongoing relationship with an academic advisor, and can struggle if that person leaves partway through or if there is a conflict.

Strategies for easier transitions

Counseling 
University and college counseling services are free or low-cost and can include couples or family support. If you’re ever going to get counseling or therapy, this is a good time to do it.

Choice of advisor
If you’ll be working closely with an academic advisor, choose one who seems understanding about the realities and constraints of your life.

Invest in your friends or family
Trusted friends and family can be a source of emotional support and fun. Don’t let those relationships get lost.

Self-care
Boost your resilience and ability to cope by eating, sleeping, and exercising well. Explore meditation or another mindfulness practice to help with relaxation.

Bonus Tip

Re-orient and re-define yourself
“Transition involves an inner re-orientation and self-redefinition that enables us to handle change, says William Bridges, author of Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes (2004). For most students it’s important to actively and intentionally commit to this process. Use the strategies outlined above.”

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Maria Yagoda graduated from Yale in 2012. Her work has appeared in Jezebel, The New York Times online, Al Jazeera America, and The Philadelphia Inquirer.