Health and Wellness Thoughts for Grad Students – Inspired by the University of Maryland College Park’s Dissertation House

This week, I am sharing time with the Dissertation House at the University of Maryland College Park.  College Park provides participants with breakfast and afternoon refreshments as well as dining cards for meals that can be used at any of the campus’ eating establishments.  I was happy and surprised to see so many students choose healthy eating alternatives.  Some of the students opted to get food from UMCP’s Co-op which sells hot and cold organic and vegetarian foods. Students had dishes with broccoli, brown rice, and sides of falafel.  (It was interesting to see because my own planned dinner last night consisted of a roll-up using lavash bread with lettuce, tomatoes, falafel,  tahini, and hummos.)   This post was prompted by seeing the afternoon snacks roll into the room around 2:00 PM …  Stonyfield yogurt containers on ice, Nutrigrain bars, and whole fruit! (I’m a fan of Stonyfield yogurt as you can see from my short post on yogurt and granola.)

Students often talk about having a lack of energy and believe me, I know the feeling! However, there are some simple things that can be done to increase energy so that you can accomplish your goals for the day.  Here are a five easy tips:

  • Limit sodas. While having an extra Coke or Pepsi in the afternoon may seem to give you an extra boost, you might find that you have to continue to consume those products to keep you awake and motivated.  I’m not a fan of mass consumption of products with high fructose corn syrup, so I would advise students to consider reducing or even eliminating sodas.  We often work with catering for campus events and we’ve started to notice that water is grabbed first, and that sodas are often left behind. This is a good sign! If you need carbonation, consider a beverage like a mineral water that has the fizz without the calories.  My favorites are Perrier and San Pellegrino.
  • Limit sugary products. I love cake (and cookies, pie, etc. — I even blog about food!) but our human bodies need extra energy and sugary products often add extra, empty calories.  When you’re studying for class, studying for comps, or working on your dissertation, you want your body to be working at optimal capacity.  I’ve found that drastically reducing sweets from my diet has dramatically reduced my craving for them.  I still like cake! But in the case of yesterday’s delicious offerings (a student shared her strawberry shortcake birthday cake and chocolate cupcakes), I had a cupcake — suffered through the headache that it caused after the fact, but did not have any sugary products for the rest of the day.  In summary … consider eliminating processed foods with excess sugar. That may mean saying either a temporary or permanent good-bye to those childhood sandwich cookies or chocolate bars. But afterall, you’re training your body to be able to handle the stresses of the dissertation.  Is it worth a whole pack of cookies or a whole pint of ice cream? Think about it.
  • Exercise.  Some students do this very well. One Dissertation House participant came in at 9:00 AM ready to go after spending morning time in the gym.  If you’re not a gym person, consider getting some kind of movement … as much as possible … whenever you can fit it in.   Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Get up from your computer and walk around the building. Re-condition yourself to meet with people on campus in person instead of talking on the phone or writing an email (this is a tip from UMCP’s Associate Dean, Dr. Carol Parham.)
  • Work with others. The concept of working with other people and not taking on the challenge to work by yourself is one of the themes behind The Dissertation House.  If you don’t have a structured writing group or people to talk with regularly, first look for something on your campus, then consider being the leader and starting your own group. Your group can be within your department or it can consist of other students across disciplines.  My dissertation topic dealt with automatic speech recognition systems and the common cold — a multidisciplinary mix of electrical engineering, physiology, and speech pathology.  But my dissertation buddies were in Kellogg, Northwestern’s  school of business.  My friends, now professors, Dr. Brenda Booth and Dr. Jaquelyn Thomas, used to go to brunch *every* Sunday after the early morning church service.  We also met in the Barnes and Noble bookstore of our local mall during the week with the pact that we would continue to meet there to write until each of us finished.  The group connection was so motivating that I was able to continue to write in that bookstore even after they’d graduated.  Learning that working in a group helped, I continued to write with others from time to time so that I could maintain connection, and frankly, so that I could have company on my journey.
  • Faith-based outlets.  Some students have prayer groups, others take time during both the week and weekend to attend services.  The key is to remember your spiritual base. You don’t have to abandon your church life or prayer life just because you’re now in graduate school.  When I was writing my dissertation, I spoke with one of the ministers of my then-church (Second Baptist Church, Evanston, IL) and asked if I could use one of the Sunday school rooms with the long table on the 2nd floor so that I could write. Happy to help, the minister said that as long as the church doors were open, that room would be available to me. I used that room during some afternoons throughout the week and on some evenings. It was a comforting place to be and to this day, I remain thankful.

When I was ready to begin study for my comprehensive exams at Northwestern University (back in the day!), I knew that I was not ready for 24 hours of writing.  Our comps consisted of 8 hours of writing per day for three days, with neither books nor notes.  We had a 24 hour break between exams; my exams were taken during one week … on a Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.  Knowing that this day was coming, 6 months in advance of the exam period, I began to train so that my body could physically handle the mental stress. I incorporated lots of water, reduced sugars and fats, and walked for at least 40 minutes a day.  These were small concessions, but they worked!

Writing a dissertation can be stressful, and for some it is a lonely process.  If you’re writing by yourself, join us online! We will respond to you!  In fact, with new technology, I can get your message on my Blackberry and can let you know that you’re not alone! Plan now to take care of yourselves! Your health is valuable, don’t squander it for the sake of the dissertation.

Be well. Be strong. I congratulate you now as you journey toward your Ph.D.

5 replies »

  1. Dr. Tull,

    I was drinking water and soda yesterday, just because the soda was there not because I really wanted it. I usually only drink water during the day. But water is empty calories as well so how does that help? I love the San Pellegrino Orange flavor.

    I am going to walk the stairs today after lunch when I get sleepy. Changing environments usually helps me to focus. Like switching between the library and my office for writing.

    I am sorry about your headache..:(

    I usually ride my bike to school, but I can’t this week which means my energy is a little lower.

    Thanks for this post.



    • Hi Nikki,

      No worries about the headache. It was my choice, and I chose to endure it for the sake of a delicious cupcake! 🙂 Good luck with your work and with continuing to stay healthy.



  2. Great post Dr. Tull! We were wondering where we could get your healthy eating recommendations and here they are online! Have a great weekend in Puerto Rico!


    • Thank you Frances! I’ll need to follow my own advice over the next few weeks since I love the food in PR! Take care!


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