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Grad School Zen: How Mindfulness and Meditation Can Help with Your Master’s

As a grad student, you may be looking for new approaches to managing your stress. Mindfulness that incorporates meditation as part of the practice can be a useful tool in your arsenal. This guide helps you get started being more mindful and incorporating this practice into your daily life.

Author: Emily Kelley

Editor: Staff Editor

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A young woman with curly hair wearing headphones sits peacefully on a bed, her eyes closed in relaxation, surrounded by soft pillows and a basket nearby.

Without a doubt, the most important tool you have in graduate school is your brain. However, when you’re stressed out and overwhelmed, your brain isn’t functioning at its best. So, what can you do to manage the pressures of graduate school and achieve a calm, productive flow state? A rapidly growing body of research indicates that mindfulness and meditation may produce psychological and emotional benefits for graduate students. One such study, published in the Journal of American College Health, found that doctoral candidates who engaged in a daily mindfulness practice reported less depression and higher self-efficacy.

But what exactly is the science behind these benefits? How does mindfulness actually impact the brain? And furthermore, what is the best approach to incorporating these practices into your daily life? In this guide, we answer all of these questions (and more) as they pertain to master’s students. Keep reading to discover strategies for building a mindfulness practice that works for you.

The Science Behind Mindfulness & Meditation

Although some people may be skeptical, scientific studies have proven that mindfulness practices, including meditation, can help manage both psychological and physical conditions, such as stress, depression, and chronic pain. In this section, we’ll take a look at some of the science that explains how the brain responds to these practices and explore the specific benefits for grad students.

Neurological Impact of Mindfulness Practices

One Harvard study of depressed patients showed improved response on MRI scans in the amygdala, the part of the brain associated with fight or flight. The study’s subjects implemented a mindfulness practice and were then tested over time by walking through negative self-talk and destructive thought patterns common to depression.

Other studies, such as those summarized by the National Institutes of Health, have shown mindfulness to help with a number of ailments, including:

  • Depression and anxiety
  • Chronic pain
  • PTSD
  • Addiction
  • Heightened stress response

The efficacy of mindfulness and meditation may be highly dependent on the individual practitioner’s intentions. One study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology compared the benefits of control-based meditation to an acceptance-based approach. It revealed that subjects who meditated with the intention of controlling or avoiding negative psychological states (depression, anxiety, etc.) experienced much less benefit (and even harm) from the practice compared to those who focused on increasing openness and accepting difficult emotions.

When it comes to treating conditions such as the ones previously mentioned, most of the studies on mindfulness agree on one major conclusion–mindfulness is generally more effective (although not significantly so) than no treatment at all. However, because the research also indicates that practitioners’ actual responses vary quite a bit, the only way to know for sure whether it will work for you is to try it out for yourself.

How Mindfulness and Meditation Can Help Students

Grad students often struggle with the stress of juggling work, school, and personal life. Although being pulled in so many different directions at once can be difficult, integrating a mindfulness practice may provide the following benefits:

  • Help you to stay calm through exams or high-stress moments: The pressure of graduate-level exams can induce feelings of fear, dread, and self-doubt, and these negative emotions often interfere with how you score on exams and other high-stakes measurements. However, mindfulness can help you cope. A study published in the National Library of Medicine on collegiate test anxiety found that increased mindfulness led to lower overall levels of test anxiety.
  • Help you keep a clear mind when you need to be organized: Mindfulness can help when negative emotions scatter your thinking and make it difficult to discern which tasks to prioritize. For example, the complicated steps of an expansive project may induce anxiety and uncertainty, but a mindfulness practice can sweep away those jumbled thoughts and clarify which item to tackle first.
  • Help you focus better in classes: One Harvard study discovered that we are lost in our own thoughts about 47 percent of the time. But a meditation practice can help you be “in the moment” instead of worrying about the future or dwelling on the past. This ability to tune into the present really benefits you when it comes to paying attention in class.
  • Help with sleep regulation and relaxation: A mindfulness practice can help you shut out racing thoughts and elicit a relaxation response. Participants in a 2015 study published in JAMA Internal Medicine reported less insomnia, depression, and fatigue at the end of a six-week period during which they were taught mindfulness techniques.
  • Lower anxiety and improve your mood: According to Anxiety.org, mindfulness can help us calmly and impartially analyze our emotional responses to stressful situations. This ability to view events from a different perspective reduces negative feelings, thereby leading to an improved mood.
  • Increase your self-awareness and emotional regulation: The participants of a study published in Frontiers in Neuroscience were taught a 15-minute mindfulness meditation that focused on calmly noticing, observing, and accepting emotions rather than attempting to change them. At the end of the study, subjects demonstrated reduced intensity of emotion in response to negative stimuli.

Mindfulness Practices You Can Try Now

Although the concept of mindfulness may initially seem vague or mystical, Mindful.org notes that it’s actually an ability that comes naturally to human beings. When we are fully immersed in the moment and not lost in hectic thoughts or overwhelmed by our surroundings, we are being mindful. There are many ways to access this natural state, so the key is to try different techniques until you discover the ones that work well for you. Use the techniques below as a starting point. Observe how you feel after each one, but be aware that you may have to try them more than once to fully decide whether you are experiencing a benefit. Once you discover the techniques that are effective for you, integrate them into your daily practice.

Body Scans

A body scan, as defined by Mindworks.org, is a type of mindfulness meditation that allows you to anchor yourself to the present moment through the presence or absence of bodily sensations. Start by directing your attention to your feet, and work your way up. Simply be conscious of each part of your body in relation to your surroundings, but also take note of tension, discomfort, or other physical sensations. This technique is useful for achieving better sleep, managing chronic pain, and developing greater emotional awareness.

Breathing Exercises

Although breathing is essential to life, we don’t often notice it since it’s an involuntary function of the autonomic nervous system. But actively focusing our attention on the sensation of breathing can ground us and increase our awareness of the present. Specific breathing exercises, such as belly breathing, 4-7-8 breathing, and roll breathing, are particularly helpful for managing stress. Positivepsychology.com notes that mindful breathing also helps relieve pain and decreases negative thinking.


Visualization involves using your imagination to picture positive imagery and focus on sensory information. An article from Well+Good advises that this technique helps you improve your overall well-being, boost creativity, and develop a more positive self-image. Some practitioners, including professional athletes, also use it to visualize themselves achieving their goals. To get a better idea of what this technique entails, check out the collection of guided imagery and visualization exercises on the counseling page of the University of Houston Clear Lake.

Meditation Techniques

Although many methods of meditation have their roots in Eastern religions such as Buddhism, your practice does not have to be religious in nature. The Cleveland Clinic explains that a common goal of all meditation practices is to clear or focus your mind. This is achieved through both mental and physical techniques, including repeating a mantra, focusing on a desired emotion, contemplating a specific question or contradiction, or incorporating movement such as walking, yoga, or focused breathing. Some practitioners also find it beneficial to incorporate mindfulness tapping into their meditation practice. This technique involves tapping specific points on the head and chest (an idea influenced by the practice of acupuncture) while practicing measured breathing or emotional focus exercises.


Journaling to record and reflect on life events, emotions, conflicts, and triumphs is a great way to practice mindfulness and/or offload negative emotions. The content can consist of many things–paragraphs, drawings, poetry, or even mind maps–so you can make your own rules. Although you can begin with a blank page, many people find mindfulness journal prompts help to get the mental gears turning. Another thing to consider when creating your journaling practice is format. The author of this blog post asserts that a physical journal (paper and pen/pencil) is more effective than a digital journal since it cuts down on distractions and physically engages you through the act of writing by hand.

Mindful Movement

Incorporating movement into your mindfulness practice helps tie your mental state to your physical one by increasing awareness of your body. The four main types of mindful movement as explained by Mindful.org are breathing exercises, walking meditation, stretching and yoga, and working out. Another common mindful movement practice is tai chi. No matter which activity you choose, it’s important to maintain focus on the feeling of your body during the movement to gain mindfulness benefits from it.

Applying Mindfulness Techniques to Grad School

After you have experimented with different mindfulness techniques and discovered which are most effective for you, the next step is to apply them in key areas of grad school. Setting intentions, carving out time for daily practice, communicating mindfully, and striving to make your study time more effective are all great opportunities for putting your new tools to the test. Keep reading below to learn more about how to implement your mindfulness practice in grad school.

Set Intentions

Setting intentions can take the form of a daily practice, or it can be geared toward a specific event (like an upcoming exam) or goal. Intention-setting helps you actively take control of your circumstances because you are deciding beforehand how you will approach or react to the events. Also, clarifying your purpose through intention-setting makes it easier to drown out distractions and focus on what you want to achieve. According to an article in Shape magazine, mindfulness experts recommend stating your intentions verbally or in writing. Aim to keep your intentions clear, simple, and positive.

Create Intentional Time for Daily Practice

How can you create a daily practice? Here are some tips:

  • You don’t need a huge chunk of time. An article from Headspace points to research that indicates frequency is more important than duration when it comes to a mindfulness practice. So, even 10 minutes could be effective as long as you are consistent.
  • Choose a dedicated spot in your home to practice. It should be quiet, comfortable, and free of distractions. Some possibilities include a clear spot in a large closet, a cozy chair beside a sunny window, or the floor of your bedroom.
  • Practice on a schedule. Choosing a specific time of day holds you accountable to being consistent. Sticking to your schedule helps your practice become an indispensable part of your daily routine.

Communicate Mindfully

What does mindful communication look like? See below:

  • Active Listening: Make eye contact, don’t interrupt, and indicate interest by nodding or making appropriate facial expressions. Check your understanding by restating or reflecting the other person’s ideas or emotions. Ask open-ended questions that elicit deeper connections.
  • Clear Communication: Use direct, concise speech. An article from HelpGuide.org also recommends pausing to collect your thoughts, focusing on one point, speaking in an even tone, and ending with a summary. Always be honest and assertive; avoid being demanding or aggressive.
  • Respect and Empathy: Truly immerse yourself in others’ experiences and imagine how you would feel if faced with similar situations. Actively strive to view various subjects and conversations from these new perspectives.
  • Awareness of Tone and Body Language: Try to keep your nonverbal communication congruent with your words, and use others’ nonverbal cues to adjust your own messaging. Be aware that many aspects of body language may be interpreted differently across cultures.
  • Using “I” Statements: A handout from Boston University explains that using “I” statements keeps the focus on your own experiences and helps you express yourself in a less accusatory manner. Using “you” statements creates a sense of blame and may make the listener unreceptive to your words.
  • Seeking Feedback: Don’t waste others’ time–reflect on what you will actually do with feedback and refine your questions so they will help you achieve that specific purpose. Be polite when you receive critiques and focus on maintaining a growth mindset.

Integrate Mindful Study Habits

What do mindful study habits look like? See below:

  • Take planned breaks: Planned study breaks prevent burnout and give your brain a chance to process information. Research from the National Institutes of Health shows that your brain uses breaks to replay and remember information that it has just learned.
  • Stay focused: Set aside a specific block of time for study, and use a visual timer to prevent getting lost in your thoughts. Ensure that your study area is comfortable and free of distractions.
  • Be aware of stress or frustration and step away when needed: Negative emotions such as stress and frustration are distracting. If it’s possible that you are pushing yourself too hard, take a moment to check in with your feelings. Refocus using one of your chosen techniques (breathing exercises, for example), or simply close the books for a while.
  • Don’t ignore your basic physical needs: Are you fed? Are you hydrated? Are you rested? Have you exercised? Check in with your physical self to see what your body’s needs are and take care of them before you sit down with your books.

Ways to Integrate Mindfulness into Everyday Student Life

The best way to become truly mindful is to utilize multiple practices in all aspects of your day. No matter what you’re doing, strive to stay grounded in the present moment. If you succeed in fully incorporating mindfulness practices into your daily life, you can reap the benefits, which include reduced stress and anxiety, improved focus and concentration, and better mental health and well-being. Keep reading to learn some practical ways to become more mindful every day.

Begin the Day with Mindfulness

Start your day off on the right foot by immersing yourself in positivity and calm. There are many ways to achieve this, so you can choose the technique that suits your specific needs best. For example, you might find engaging in a specific style of meditation (mantra, guided imagery, visualization, emotion-focused, etc.) or performing a centering breathing exercise to be especially helpful. Also consider setting positive daily intentions to focus on throughout your day.

Take Mindful Breaks

The demands of graduate school can lead to burnout unless you are careful to take opportunities to refresh and recharge yourself. As your day progresses, take breaks to do a quick body scan or breathing exercise. You could even do a short meditation to refocus and center yourself when you feel yourself becoming distracted or overwhelmed by negative emotions. Incorporating physical movement, such as stretches, yoga, or even walking meditation, is also an excellent idea for breaks.

Practice Mindful Eating

The full roadmap to mindful eating has many steps that begin at your shopping list and end with actually consuming the food on your plate. But to boil it down, this practice is chiefly centered around carefully considering your food choices and appreciating their sensory qualities of flavor, texture, and aroma. You can apply this main concept to any food on your plate by eating slowly (put your fork down between bites) and avoiding multitasking (don’t check your emails or watch TV while you eat).

Be Mindful During Daily Tasks

Instead of viewing daily tasks and chores as drudgery, become fully present by attuning yourself to the sensory aspects of each experience. For example, when you shower, notice how pleasing the warm water feels on your skin, inhale and appreciate the fragrance of your soap, and luxuriate in wrapping yourself with a fluffy towel. Even washing the dishes can become a meditative experience when you concurrently perform breathing exercises or focus on the emotions of pride and satisfaction that come with completing the chore and taking care of your home.

Make Time for Mindful Movement

A study published in Psychology of Sport and Exercise indicates that pairing movement with your mindfulness practice may significantly increase the mood-boosting benefits. You can use virtually any type of movement for this purpose–yoga, tai chi, stretching, walking, hiking, biking, swimming, dancing, yard work, or even weightlifting. As long as you are focused on the movements of the activity, your breath, and the sensations these create in your body, you’re practicing mindful movement.

Use Mindfulness Apps

If you need a little extra guidance on incorporating mindfulness practices into your day, a variety of apps are available to help. Many apps, such as Headspace, Calm, and Insight Timer, offer multiple mindfulness techniques through their platforms, so it’s easy to find a combination of approaches that works for you. Common features of mindfulness apps include guided meditations, breathing exercises, and music for sleep.

Prioritize Self-Care

According to the International Self-Care Foundation, self-care has seven pillars. However, in the context of mindfulness, the pillar of mental well-being is the most relevant. There are several approaches you can take to address this need, but the major ones include setting clear boundaries in personal and professional relationships, saying no to unnecessary commitments, and making time for leisure activities. Taking these steps helps you avoid extra stress and enables you to experience greater joy and relaxation.

Mindfulness and Meditation Resources

If you’re looking for even more information on mindfulness and meditation, the internet offers a wealth of resources. You’ll find books, podcasts, websites, forums, and much more to support you on your mindfulness journey. Check out some of the tools and references we’ve collected and see which ones best suit your needs.

  • 21 Mindfulness Exercises and Activities–PositivePsychology.com presents comprehensive instructions for mindfulness exercises and activities accompanied by examples and videos. Also available as a PDF.
  • 32 Mindfulness Activities–Healthline offers creative suggestions for mindfulness activities of different lengths. Includes activities to complete alone or with a group.
  • Altered Traits by Daniel Goleman and Richard J. Davidson–Book discussing the scientific evidence for the efficacy of mindfulness and meditation and how these practices lead to beneficial and long-lasting brain changes.
  • Creating Your Meditation Garden–Article from Nature’s Path Organic foods. Learn how to create a peaceful outdoor oasis for your meditation practice.
  • How to Meditate–Well Guide from The New York Times that includes definitions, explanations, and guided examples of mindfulness meditations and techniques.
  • Meditation with Raphael Podcast–Hosted by Raphael Reiter, a certified life coach and meditation guide. Listeners discover guided vibrational meditations and contemplation of existential questions.
  • Mindful.org–Offers content, courses, trainings, directories, and a bimonthly magazine to spread the benefits of mindfulness.
  • Mindfulness and Meditation Resources–The Dartmouth Student Wellness Center offers exercises and guided meditations to reduce stress and release negative emotions. Includes a regularly updated SoundCloud page with a large selection of mindfulness practices ranging from five to 25 minutes.
  • Mindfulness Worksheets–Thirteen printable worksheets for beginning or improving a mindfulness practice, created by Happier Human. Worksheet topics include mindfulness journaling, self-awareness happiness assessment, emotional regulation, and more.
  • Mindworks.org–Nonprofit organization offering online meditation courses ranging from a few days up to two weeks; the introductory course is free. The website also features a blog with tips and advice.
  • The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh–Practical instruction for living in the present and appreciating the small details of life that we often overlook. Contains insights into Buddhist philosophy.
  • r/Meditation Subreddit–Forum focused on meditation experiences, stories, and instruction. Beginners are encouraged to reference the FAQs or post new questions.
  • r/Mindfulness Subreddit–Online forum for learning mindfulness concepts and tips, interacting with other practitioners, and asking questions. Search content to find posts that interest you.
  • Sleep and Relaxation Sounds Podcast–Nature sounds, white noise, relaxation music, and binaural beats to enhance your mindfulness or meditation practice. Reduce stress, lower anxiety, and fall asleep more easily.
  • Study Breaks and Stress-Busters–This article from Cornell Health contains a list of ideas for purposeful study breaks that last from five to 60 minutes. You’ll also find a collection of five-minute stress-busters.
  • Ten Percent Happier Podcast–Host Dan Harris discusses meditation and mindfulness with scientists, meditation instructors, and others in the field. The show aims to provide practical tips and make the idea of meditation more accessible.
  • UCLA Health Guided Meditations–Collection of guided meditations available in over 15 languages. Available for streaming, download, or through the UCLA Mindful app.
  • Verywellmind.com–Extensive article library on mental health topics. Articles are written by mental health experts and reviewed by physicians and mental health professionals.
  • Wherever You Go, There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn–Written by a mindfulness expert who demystifies the topic and explains how it can be useful for everyone. Contains simple tips for practicing mindfulness in your everyday life.
  • Yoga with Adriene–Free yoga instructional videos available through the website or on YouTube. Also offers downloadable yoga video collections in exchange for donations.

Interview with a Mindfulness Expert


Mario Jovan is an artist, storyteller, life coach, and mindfulness instructor. He utilizes these tools to help people to be present, have peace, and fulfill their life purpose. His work started as a 7th-grade teacher in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools where he created the Brotherhood, a program to address the needs of young Black males in his classroom. He later cofounded a multimillion- dollar organization that worked to retain male educators of color through mindfulness practices. He has been recognized by Forbes “30 Under 30” as one of the world’s brightest social innovators.

Q. Which specific mindfulness techniques are particularly effective for grad students dealing with stress, anxiety, and depression?

A. I recommend quick breathing exercises that help to immediately eliminate stress and calm the nervous system. It gives us space to think so that we aren’t reacting to situations blindly.

Q. How long does it take to see the benefits of mindfulness and meditation, and how often should one practice to get the most benefits?

A. You should practice mindfulness as often as you can. Practically, you should find at least 10 minutes each day to clear your mind and have a little headspace. It does take time for you to see long-term benefits. However, practicing your breathing can provide you with almost immediate results. Your mind is clear and you have space to think.

Q. How can grad students integrate mindfulness and meditation into their busy schedules, and what strategies can help make it a consistent habit?

A. I believe that we have to first stop using the word “busy.” I think saying “busy” automatically creates impulsive and chaotic energy inside of us. Instead, we should use more productive, specific words that truly reflect the moment we are experiencing. Words matter. Often, the word “busy” means that we should be doing something. But mindfulness is about being present. Being busy doesn’t allow you to be present—it’s always longing for the next thing. Once we eliminate that word, I believe we can find 10 minutes in our day to practice mindfulness. You can practice it while doing something as simple as brushing your teeth. How often do we brush our teeth while thinking about other things that we need to get done? Instead, while brushing your teeth, simply focus on the act of brushing.

Q. How can mindfulness and meditation help grad students sharpen focus and concentration, which can ultimately improve academic performance and productivity?

A. The key is to be consistent with your mindfulness practice to maintain the advantage of sharper focus and concentration. And I do believe it’s an advantage. Most people are drifting off. Meanwhile, your mind is sharp and laser-focused on the subject.

Q. Can mindfulness and meditation improve a student’s relationships with peers, advisors, and mentors in a master's degree program? How?

A. Mindfulness helps you improve your relationship with the most important person—yourself. We often skip over ourselves to establish stronger relationships and bonds with other people. We give up things we like to please others. But when we practice mindfulness, we create boundaries and establish systems that enable us to show up fully. Therefore, being your most authentic self will attract the right people to you.

Q. How can someone overcome resistance or skepticism toward mindfulness and meditation, especially if they have tried it before and it hasn't worked or they struggle to get through it?

A. It’s okay to have a little skepticism around mindfulness, especially if you tried it before and it didn’t work. Most people think mindfulness is just sitting down and breathing, but it is actually about being present in whatever you’re doing. So, for example, if you like to draw, ask yourself if you are being present with creating this one picture. Instead of focusing on your art, is your mind actually busy with something else, like making a grocery list? We experience suffering in our minds because we are focused on the past or the future.

Q. What role can mindfulness and meditation play in helping a student manage challenges such as imposter syndrome or burnout in grad school?

A. Being present helps us to understand that we can only do the best we can at that moment, nonjudgmentally. It’s a concept that we all must follow because it will help to eliminate any suffering that’s in the mind.