Are You A “Stressed Out” Student?

By John B. Mansdorfer, Ph.D.


Do you recall the school-related stresses you experienced when you were a student?  If you are currently a student, are you aware of stresses related to being in school?  From the first day of kindergarten through the last day of graduate school, being a student offers constant opportunities for growth, along with continual demands to master new material.  In addition to the prescribed school curriculum, the social and emotional and psychological demands on student require ongoing adaptation and assimilation.


Although this school year is nearing completion, many of CPA’s student members (who are mostly graduate students in clinical or counseling psychology) attend school the year ‘round.  As the end of spring term approaches, the beginning of summer term (or perhaps an internship) follows and there will be the inevitable stresses that accompany change – even though some of these tensions stem from positive events.


Graduate students in psychology programs face special stresses.  Doctoral programs in clinical or counseling psychology are among the most difficult graduate programs to enter.  The cost of such programs runs into thousands of dollars per year.  Year after year costs mount, often after the costs of undergraduate school, with little chance for meaningful remuneration during these years of study.  Even after graduation, few post-doctoral internships pay a salary that allows one to pay back student loans and still live well.  Compared to what a graduate of a top business school or law school earns starting out, psychologists are poorly paid indeed.


These economic facts are well known, and most of us don’t become psychologists primarily for the money.  But that doesn’t make the economic realities of graduate school any less stressful.  Another source of stress is the length of our training.  Law school requires three years after the bachelor’s degree; business school programs are often only two years of graduate study.  For a psychologist, four years of post-baccalaureate studies are a minimum and five years, or more, are common.  For many mental health workers such long training is unnecessary.  Master’s level practitioners can do psychotherapy.  Computerized scoring programs give non-psychologists the ability to administer and score psychological test batteries.  More and more lay practitioners are “doing therapy”.


And most of these alternative programs don’t require a dissertation.  Dissertations are long and difficult to complete.  While every graduate program is different, none make the dissertation process easy.  And most spouses or significant others don’t understand why it takes so long to complete the dissertation and graduate school, especially if their dreams or goals have been put on hold until after graduation.


Graduation isn’t the end of students’ stresses.  The post-doctoral internship awaits the new doctor.  Most internships pay little, but more stressful than that is the need to get “a good one”.  This means one approved and likely to advance your job prospects after you overcome the next big stress, licensing.


What Can I Do?

There are many ways to cope with the stresses of being a student.  Most of them apply to practicing professionals, as well.  Self-care starts with basic attention to your health – eating properly, getting regular exercise and getting enough sleep every night.  It is also very important to have a balance between school/work time and personal time for self-care, socializing and related pursuits.  Peer support groups and/or personal psychotherapy can be a very valuable way both to increase self-knowledge and to cope with life events.  Many students find support in study groups focused on coursework or the dissertation process or the licensing examination, etc.  Another important boost, at any stage of early professional training, is to find a mentor – a more senior psychologist who can be a positive role model to help further your professional development.  This is usually a teacher or supervisor who encourages you and helps you learn how to advance your psychology career, from a practical “nuts and bolts” perspective.


The Colleague Assistance and Support Program (CLASP) is here to help our CPAGS (graduate student) members, as well as our colleagues who experience stress due to personal or professional events.  We are here to listen and to help psychologists in training, at any level, deal with the stresses of their training.  You can contact us by e-mail at or see our website at


Dr. Mansdorfer is a member of the CLASP Executive Committee; he has a private practice in Carlsbad.


If you have topics or comments for this column, please contact the column editor:  Mary Ann Norfleet, Ph.D. at 555 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto, CA, 94301; 650-327-4442;


November, 2001