graduate & online enrollment

Understanding the Journey: Exploring Graduate Student Mental Health and Well-Being*

Kelsey Freidel NelsonAssociate Vice President, Campus EngagementMarch 28, 2024
Blog: Addressing the Well-Being of Graduate Students; image of woman in her kitchen working on her computer
Graduate students face many challenges with work-life balance.

In the pursuit of knowledge, students enrolled in higher education often find their educational path intersects with the pressures of performance. Amidst the excitement of discovery and the pursuit of scholarly excellence, they tend to focus on keeping up on coursework, maintaining their relationships, and attending to their work, all while disregarding their own personal needs. Graduate students are the cohort often overlooked in the increasingly prevalent conversation on mental health and well-being.

As a current student in pursuit of a PhD, I often feel the strain of balancing my leadership role at RNL, my coursework and research for my degree, my personal life and family, and my health and well-being. Due to expectations, pressures, and external prioritization, I find that mindfulness and health are often overlooked. Which is why I found so much value in exploring this relatively missed aspect of adult education.


When students embark on the academic journey of graduate school, they often find themselves navigating a unique terrain where intellectual curiosity converges with personal growth. Yet this interplay, which requires support and affects persistence and graduation rates, is often overlooked by college and university administration.

To understand this aspect of graduate education, I have recently completed a micro-research study designed to explore the complex landscape of graduate student mental health. We aimed to shed light on the unique stressors, coping mechanisms, and institutional factors that shape the psychological well-being of graduate students. With the current social climate focusing intensely on well-being and mental health and students seeking guidance and resources to help them achieve their goals, higher educational professionals have a great opportunity to adapt and create support opportunities for graduate students.


As higher education evolves to meet the needs of the ever-changing student persona, understanding the shared experiences of students (specifically, those pursuing a graduate degree) is imperative for college and university administrators. To explore this issue, I developed a qualitative case study to examine the commonalities in challenges faced by graduate students in maintaining a healthy work-life balance. We also sought to investigate the intricate relationship between courseload, financial stress, and interpersonal relationships in shaping the well-being of graduate students.

The study included participants from a mid-sized university in the Midwest, all of whom are pursuing a graduate degree. The analysis explored the role of academics, relationships, and stress in either mitigating or exacerbating the impact on graduate student well-being.


Results of the study highlighted five themes related to students’ emotional well-being: career connections, burnout, impact on personal relationships, avoidance and compartmentalizing, and course structure and instruction. These results indicate that participants are experiencing stress related to many facets of their graduate careers.

  1. Career connections—Participants indicated a relationship between the information they were learning in their graduate programs and what was expected of them in their careers, often citing that they required a connection between the classroom and their career to stay motivated.
  2. Burnout—All participants discussed the theme of burnout in their interviews, sometimes at multiple points. Participants can experience burnout due to timing, complexity of assignments, or on a more pervasive basis.
  3. Impact on personal relationships—All participants touched on the correlation between their role as graduate students and the impact their relationships have on their mental health. They shared that time with family, friends, and significant others is affected by the time constraints and mounting pressure derived from their courseload. They can’t devote as much attention to curating these relationships, and they experience resentment and frustration in return.
  4. Avoidance and compartmentalizing—All participants also shared that they used a coping mechanism of avoidance or compartmentalization. This was done in various ways, both positive ways (time blocking and time management) and negative ways (complete avoidance and procrastination).
  5. Course structure and instruction—Another common theme was course structure and instructors and presented positive and negative connotations. The support of faculty and advisors was viewed as an asset, while modality and course structure were adding to setbacks.


Results from this study emphasize that self-care and coping strategies are crucial to maintaining the well-being of graduate students. Adult learners have a wide variety of experiences and backgrounds, and some may be in a position to incorporate self-care into their life independently. However, many do not have opportunities to do so.

Build well-being and self Care into curriculum. One obvious solution that could help graduate students who are struggling with time management and well-being is including self-care into the program curriculum. Campus faculty and administration could incorporate self-care into specific course workload or into the overarching curriculum of graduate programs to make stress management techniques and mental health services easier to access.

Destigmatize mental health. We, as higher education professionals, must explore initiatives that promote mental health, provide resources, and destigmatize the discussion. By championing the mental health and well-being of graduate students, we not only nurture a healthier academic experience but also pave the way for students to carry these skills into their careers and personal lives.

Recognize both intellectual growth and personal development: The journey through graduate school is as much about intellectual growth as it is about personal development and well-being. It is crucial to recognize that mental health challenges are an inherent part of this journey, and addressing them requires collective effort from academic institutions, faculty, peers, and students themselves.

Reach out to talk with our graduate enrollment experts

My colleagues and I at RNL work closely with graduate programs on numerous challenges and opportunities. Reach out and we can set up a time for a complimentary consultation on how you can best serve your students.

*Adapted from “Well-being of Graduate Students:Exploring the Effects of Course Workload, Financial Stress, and Interpersonal Relationships During Graduate School”, C. Thomas & K. Freidel Nelson, University of South Dakota, Fall 2023

About the Author

Kelsey Freidel Nelson

Kelsey Freidel Nelson brings more than 13 years of enrollment and fundraising experience to RNL. As associate vice president, campus engagement, Kelsey is the key point of contact between campus leadership and RNL service units...

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