In my last post, I said that a PhD is not stressful by nature. I never meant to argue that PhD stress is not real if you experience it.
Stress is real, it has real physical effects, and if ignored it can severely affect your life beyond just your PhD.
I say that a PhD is not stressful by nature because if you see stress as just being an unavoidable and necessary part of the process, then you will ignore it. If a PhD just is stressful, then there’s nothing you can do about it.
Stress is a warning sign that something is wrong, and ignoring it and trying to work through it by sheer force of will can only make things worse.
PhD stress: signs you should not ignore
- Constantly feeling you can’t work hard enough
- Feeling overwhelmed by the workload
- Felling like you are not working to your true ability
- Inability to focus
- Feeling like nothing you do has any impact, and that you have no control
- Feeling that even easy things have become difficult
- Constant fear of failure
- Feeling like you don’t belong on a PhD program, and that you will be “found out”
- Physical or mental exhaustion
Just working harder, or trying to be more organised is not going to make a difference if you feel any of these things. You must address the root of the problem.
The most important thing to do (and often the hardest, when under pressure) is to slow down.
Give yourself time to think, and simplify what you are trying to do.
At a simple, practical level, reducing the number of things you are working on is a good start
- How many different things are you trying to work on at the same time?
- If you were to just focus on one thing, what would it be?
- How can you break it down into steps, and what’s the simplest thing you can do?
This is easy in principle, BUT there may be deeper psychological forces at play.
If you feel you cannot simplify things, or if you try and it doesn’t work then you have to go deeper…
How do you react when things go wrong?
When something goes wrong, how do you react? Do you take it as personal failure? Do you just run from it to check email?
Or do you engage with the problem at hand and find a creative solution?
The only thing which is inevitable in research is that things will go wrong. It’s how you react when this happens that is the determining factor in success or failure.
Fear can be a cause of stress, and it can be profoundly limiting. You may not fear the work, directly, but it can often take on a deeper meaning.
- What does the PhD mean to you? Is it a measure of your self-worth?
- If you were to fail, what would that mean about you?
- When you work, do you fear that whatever you do won’t be good enough?
- Does that fear prevent you doing your best work?
- Are you afraid to make mistakes?
Obviously, failing your PhD is tough, but it is not the worst thing that could happen.
The key is to trust in your own ability to cope with whatever happens.
In 2006, I decided to quit my PhD. I was stressed, exhausted, and thought I was going to fail, so what was the point in continuing?
I rehearsed what I would say to my supervisor, my family, my friends. I thought about what I would do after I quit… It might be hard to find a job, but I would manage somehow.
But then I realised there were still a few things I could try to make my research work. So I figured I might as well give it a shot, but if it didn’t work then I would quit.
Doing things meticulously, regardless of the outcome
I didn’t want to make some half-committed effort. If I was going to quit, I wanted to know that I had done my best.
So I went back to the lab and decided that I would do these last few things as carefully as possible, whether I thought it would work or not.
And because I did things meticulously… they started to work.
I was no longer afraid of failure, and so I could just focus on doing the work to the best of my ability. This is what saved my PhD.
Trust in your own ability that whatever happens, success or failure, you will be OK. You will cope. You will find a way.
Don’t just accept stress as a normal part of a PhD, and don’t ignore it. Address the fear, acknowledge that stress is a signal that something is wrong, only then will you be able to dedicate yourself fully to your work, and achieve what you are truly capable of.