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The workload associated with graduate programs, especially MBAs, can cause stress in students.

According to Jim Bennett, executive director, Daniel Horne, clinical director and Laura Scarnecchia, director of admissions, all at Hopewell Therapeutic Community in Middlefield, and Scott MacDonald, director of the University of Dayton’s MBA program in Dayton, students in these intensive programs tend to experience stress more than their undergraduate counterparts.

“We find there are usually three main reasons MBA students experience more stress than their undergraduate counterparts – time management, reentering school and performance anxiety,” MacDonald said. “Most of our students are working full-time and trying to balance work, school and family. They also have not been in school for a few years, so reacclimating to an academic environment is difficult. Things like writing in graduate school versus an undergraduate or in the workplace is very different.”

MacDonald noted students face added pressure on the financial end of things, especially since many companies will reimburse students for classes on a sliding grade scale. 

Bennett added, “The pressure for success is very high because of (a few) factors – graduate school represents a career choice. You have decided where you want to be and this could influence your whole life. Also, it takes a lot of money so the stakes are high. Also, in graduate schools, you spend a lot of time in an interactive classroom and in teams. The pressure to perform in front of your peers is very considerable.”

When a student is struggling with stress, there are a few warning signs that can point to serious mental illness.

“(You start by) looking at the difference between normal functional stress and acute stress,” Scarnecchia stated. “This is noticing when pressures such as deadlines and upcoming presentations give you physical stress. Be aware of these manifestations of stress and aware of when they get to the point where they aren’t really manageable.”

MacDonald added, “Stress affects individuals differently, so it’s important students understand how and when stress affects them. Some people have physical reactions. Sometimes stress is low but constant for things like homework but high and short-lived for exams or projects. Students need to listen to their bodies and to others around them. Students need to take these signs seriously and understand the root cause.”

As a student deals with stress, it’s important to use healthy coping mechanisms.

“Reach out, talk to others and don’t suffer alone, which is a very natural tendency,” Bennett said. “Make a particular effort to talk with others, with friends and classmates with whom it is natural and to share how you’re feeling. Getting isolated is the single worst thing to happen.” 

Horne said, “One of the things we look for a lot is encouraging a healthy balance. When people are in a graduate program, there becomes a singular focus. So, maintaining healthy social balance, friends, athletics, spiritual religious involvement – it’s the things they came to the program with and not losing that.”

MacDonald added since stress is unavoidable in graduate programs, students should learn healthy habits like getting enough sleep, exercising regularly, healthy eating and finding time to relax.

It’s important for universities to offer support for students struggling with stress.

“Some of the ways the University of Dayton helps students alleviate stress include helping students balance their course load or types of classes,” MacDonald said. “For example, we advise them to alternate quantitative and qualitative classes. Or if a student struggles with one type of class more than the other, we will suggest taking that type of course by itself. We also encourage students to build strong relationships with other students. Often talking about your stress, knowing others feel the same way, or sharing coping mechanisms helps.”

It’s important to remember everyone experiences stress, Scarnecchia added.

“Last year, in 2018, we had 972 inquiries of people calling or sending email inquiries asking questions,” she said. “We’re a real point of contact to help people learn more about their options for care. It is important to emphasize that stress is an important and normal part of the graduate school experience – and can be managed.”

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