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Managing stress during the PhD

Impostor syndrome, stress and anxiety are commonplace for most of the post-graduate students doing a PhD, with 42% of them suffering from mental health issues during their doctorate journey [1]. Uncontrolled stress may be translated into physical symptoms, such as headache, stomach-ache, sleeping problems and difficulties in focusing. In the worst case, excess anxiety may even lead to lack of motivation and depression [2].

Learning how to deal with stress is probably one of most difficult and most important things to learn in life with the final aim of finding a good balance between work and social life. One of the biggest problems when considering mental health issues is that PhDs do not really talk about it, and most of the time they feel alone and drawn by an ocean of problems, expectations, deadlines, and incapability of communicate their own thoughts and fears.


Therefore, it is very important to talk about stress, and share some tips and motivational advice may be useful for those PhDs struggling with mental health problems.


1. You are not an impostor

Do not play a competition game with others, as each one has different learning times and abilities, and this does not make someone worse or better, but just “different”. Try to change your perception of failure, because failing at a task is an excellent way to learn something new and develop yourself. Critics are not always bad, so do not take them personally, as most of the time they are just another means of improvement [3]. Always remember that almost every PhD student on earth feels the same. Are they all impostors? NO


2. Everything has a solution

During PhD studies, individuals are entitled to make mistakes, and have not to be perfect in everything they do. PhD is another degree, and after all, PhDs are just students in the middle of a learning process. It is important to remember that even if mistakes are made, it is fine, and that nothing comes without a solution. A workaround can always be found!


3. Face one problem at a time

According to the different Universities or scholarships/programs, a predefined amount of time is given to every student to finish the PhD. This usually requires optimal organizational skill and multi-tasking ability with the aim to perform experiments/tasks in a timely manner and to gather all the necessary results to write in the final thesis. However, the amount of work to perform may seem excessive sometimes and overwhelming when tasks are seen all together. Learning how to prioritize is essential and organizing the experiments/tasks in an agenda may be useful. Reserving a certain amount of time for a task and facing one problem at a time is the key to carrying them all out safely and with minimum stress.


4. Set boundaries and get some time for yourself

Most of the time, PhD students keep thinking about working issues, data, and results way over their working hours, or they may feel forced to reply to emails and still perform tasks even when they just need to relax. Setting some boundaries for yourselves is important to establish a good work/social life balance [4]. You are entitled to take your time to reply to an email, or to relax during the weekend or in the evening. Going out with friends, focusing on different activities such as sports or else is essential to give your brain a bit of well-deserved rest!


5. Don’t be scared to talk

It is important to establish a good relationship with your supervisor and to do so it is important to talk. To talk about your impressions, thoughts, ideas in a respectful and assertive way. In the case of stress and mental health issues, is even more important to talk and try to communicate your needs without any fear. Everyone, at least once in their life, felt anxious about something and your supervisor may help you out in finding a solution to this, suggesting some tips, giving you more support, or advising about services available at your campus.


6. PhD is temporary

Remember that the PhD is temporary and that all the uncomfortable feelings will not be there forever [5]. The PhD is just a stage in your life, a stage that you have to use to grow as a person, to get new knowledge and experiences. Trust me and many others, at the end of your journey you will be thankful for all the difficulties encountered because these will teach you how to be a better and more skilled version of your previous self. And you will be proud of that.


7. You are not alone

I think this is the most important tip of all. You are not alone. Sometimes PhDs may feel like their struggle is isolated, while other people just go on with their life with no issue at all. This is not true. Most of the time, other PhDs, researchers, lecturers, professors, and professionals in general, may feel the same stress, anxiety, and lack of motivation. They just try to hide it.


Mental health issues are a serious problem, even outside the working/educational/academic environment. Universities, provide students with counsellors and help them cope with stress. Seeking help when needed is important, and this does not make “you” weaker than the others, but actually stronger, as acknowledging limits is the first step for self-improvement.


By Francesca Corduas


References

  1. Coping with stress at work”, American Psychological Association. Oct 14th 2018.

  2. Cassie M. Hazel, Clio Barry “Is doing a PhD bad for your mental health?”. Jan 12th 2022.

  3. What Is Imposter Syndrome And How To Overcome It”, Better Help. Oct 6th 2022.

  4. Coping with stress: Workplace tips”, Mayo Clinic. Jun 16th 2021.

  5. 39 PhD Mindfulness Exercises To De-Stress Your PhD”, The PhD proof-readers. Aug 16th 2019.

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