Life doesn’t stop when you’re in a doctoral program.

Erin Ayala, Ph.D., has done extensive research into self-care, stress, and quality of life of students, particularly those in human service doctoral programs (like medical students and those in nurse anesthesiology, psychology, and counseling).

She knows the recipe for stress and burnout:

  • These stressful programs tend to attract high achievers. It’s already in their nature to balance several commitments and responsibilities.
  • These programs and professions have a high level of responsibility.
  • Students in these programs are frequently at an age where they are also going through significant developmental milestones (marriage, children, purchasing homes).

“When you bring all of that together, it can be really difficult to prioritize time for self-care,” she said. “Prevention and health promotion are really important, and it’s not just about mental health. It’s not just about being reactive and addressing distress or burnout when it hits. The question is what can we do on the front end to help prevent negative consequences down the road.”

What is self-care?

Often, Dr. Ayala said, media romanticizes and glamorizes self-care with advertisements for fizzy bath bombs and manicures.

“What we have found is that it is completely personalized,” Dr. Ayala said. “For women, social support is really important. Ultimately, there needs to be time to disconnect, whether it’s doing nothing, or just taking a break from your dissertation. You’ve got to give yourself permission to do that.

“Nutrition, exercise, hydration, spiritual life, different people have a different recipe for what their self-care looks like. It ebbs and flows just like any exercise or meditation or spiritual practice. Some weeks we’re doing great and other times we’re not, and that’s part of the process.”

Dr. Ayala’s most recent research involves analyzing qualitative data, coming from over 200 students throughout the U.S. in clinical counseling and school psychology, all high achievers in the middle of doctoral programs.

She’s investigating what faculty are doing to model or not model the importance of physical and psychological wellness.

“Students might know that self-care is important, but it can be hard to act on it if they’re in an environment that doesn’t support it,” she said. “The biggest supportive theme that came up was faculty simply encouraging them to do it, asking their students, ‘What did you do this weekend for self-care?’ They take the time to check in with their students and give them permission to take time for themselves. That takes zero effort.”

“What can we do to make sure faculty are also able to model self-care for their students? The behaviors students are picking up now pave the foundation for the rest of their career. If faculty are working themselves to the bone, it sets an expectation for their students that they are supposed to do the same. If faculty model self-care and talk about its importance, students may be more likely to do it themselves.”

Dr. Ayala said when her team asked students what programs can do to support self-care, answers ranged from formal programming and talking about it in the classroom, to referrals for therapists, discounts for gym memberships, or places to meditate on campus — ways to make self-care easier to access.

When students are asked what the biggest barrier to self-care is, the answer wasn’t surprising. The majority of students responded that time was an issue. “That’s a tough one because there’s only so much programs can do to minimize the amount of work required,” Dr. Ayala said. “Students have to balance all these professional responsibilities and don’t know what to give up.”

Are you looking to know more about self-care and other similar topics when it comes to high education? Or, are you a journalist covering this topic and looking to book an interview? That’s where we can help.

Dr. Erin Ayala is a licensed psychologist and core faculty member in the counseling psychology doctoral program at Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota. To book an interview with Dr. Ayala, simply click on her icon to arrange a time.

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Erin Ayala, Ph.D.
Core Faculty, Doctor of Psychology Program
Expertise: Women’s health and sports psychology
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