From surviving to thriving: on resilience as a graduate student

We would be remiss if we did not give some sort of explanation on our long silence over here at Gradlife. Part of it was due the pandemic and the toll it has taken on all of us, but the other part (and this is the good news) was because we were in the midst of recruiting a new team as we underwent some changes in leadership!

So, as we emerge from the long silence, we are very excited to be kicking off this new season in Gradlife with a piece from our very own editor-in-chief, Vivienne, on a timely topic for the time:

resilience and how we can grow in this skillset as graduate students.

P.S. Stay tuned for more regular blog posts from our new blogging team!

It is one of those blustery, bitter-cold January mornings in Montreal. The kind of morning all you want to do is huddle in a warm cafe and sit in your winter jacket the whole time.   

 I meet Nicole at the entrance of Cafe Parvis, grateful for the double-door insulation. It is the pre-pandemic era of 2020 and the cafe is bustling at 9 in the morning. We order coffees and cheddar-chive scones.   

“So, how is the PhD?” I ask between bites of scone.   

 She sighs heavily and I nod knowingly.

Nicole and I work part-time giving workshops together at Teaching and Learning Services (TLS) and since the beginning of our friendship, she has  always been someone I felt comfortable talking about the PhD experience with.   

I am in my 3rd year, she’s in her first, and yet the struggles we faced always resonated with each other.

Questions of purpose (what am I doing this research for?) or motivation (why do I feel so guilty when I don’t want to work?), questions we were too scared to raise to anyone else, always seemed to surface in our conversations.

Yet, I always left feeling more uplifted. Like there was someone else in the world who felt a small bit of what I was feeling.  

This time, however, the conversation takes a slightly different turn.  

We start to wonder whether other grad students have  this type of outlet. 

Are they seeking to have these sorts of conversations and if so, why doesn’t it seem to happen more frequently?

What will  it take to change culture?   

 As student assistants in TLS, our solution came in the form of a workshop called “From Surviving to Thriving: Resilience in Grad School” , that we developed in collaboration with the Student Wellness Hub.

We hoped it would not only encourage directed discussion around the major questions that arise during grad school, but also equip students with the skill set of resilience.  

Our workshop hinged on two main beliefs:

1. the path to mental wellness is prevention: developing a skill set of resilience can help students handle the stresses of grad school;

2. the responsibility of a mentally-well student population should not rest only on the shoulders of the Student Wellness Hub, but in developing a more sustainable peer-to-peer support network.   


We structured our workshop around four main questions we believed most grad students wrestle with throughout grad school: 

  1. Why does this matter?
  2. Why isn’t this working?
  3. Why do I feel so alone?
  4. What is next? 

Participants would have the opportunity to anonymously describe stressors in their own graduate experience (e.g., imposter syndrome, burnout), and collectively as a group we would identify reframing strategies and develop a plan to apply resilience skills. 

As peer facilitators, Nicole and I would deliver the workshop, and we also asked Devon Simpson, Local Wellness Advisor for graduate students at the Student Wellness Hub, to attend in case the conversation ever extended beyond our abilities.  

 Little did we know that right after the conception of the workshop, the COVID-19 pandemic was about to hit the world and reinforce just how important developing resilient individuals and communities was so that we have the resources to withstand such stresses when they arrive.   


We held our first virtual workshop on October 22, 2020 and we were overwhelmed with its reception. Students opened up to share their experiences and brainstormed solutions to help others; we simply stood back as we witnessed the peer-to-peer model of support we had envisioned.

When asked what their biggest takeaways were, the responses were unanimous: more than a specific piece of information they had learned,

it was the fact that they were not alone.   

Several more virtual workshops were held over the course of the last year and another two are scheduled for the fall semester, with the hope of eventually transitioning to an in-person format that will look more like the cozy cafe hangout Nicole and I originally had at Cafe Parvis.   

These workshops are just the start of building a community of emotionally resilient graduate students.

Imagine a McGill where each of us are not only equipped with the skills to cope with the specific stresses of the graduate experience but reach out to our own communities in a model of peer support.

I think that is how we would change culture.  


If you are a grad student and are interested in participating in our upcoming virtual workshops, please sign up at the following links: 

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