PhD stress: don’t ignore the warning signs!

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.

Slow down

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.

Ask yourself…

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.

Fears

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?

Letting go

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.

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Comments

  1. Bianka says

    Thanks James! I read your blog at the right time. I definitely have all the symptoms and I have my qualifier in 3 weeks but still finding it hard to focus. Reading you post has really boost my confidence. Thanks again.

  2. magdalena says

    More than one year later than the last comment, and I feel such a huge comfort from all this reading. I need to finish my PhD. Not because I want to, since I know too much about how Science goes and I know that I don’t want to dedicate my whole life to that theater play. But everybody around me is telling me: finish it, or you may regret it someday! I am almost sure that I won’t, but not completely, so I am taking the advice from those people that I love so much :D

    I found a way to be happy during my PhD: take some time off to do a course about something that I love (aviation), to be able to have another career path and not be completely left in the void after finishing that disgraceful university diploma.

    Let’s be strong and kick some ass :) yes we can!! :D

  3. Liz says

    My supervisor said a while ago that she thought there was a positive benefit to stress. Having said that, I see the negative results of stress in her life all the time: she is emotionally up and down, when she is down she takes it out on others, and she puts too much effort into things that are not very important and then gets angry when she doesn’t get the appreciation she feels she deserves.
    Is there a positive side to stress? Or is stress always bad?

  4. Deepak Ponvel Chermakani says

    Hi All,

    I did my Bachelor Degree and Master Degree, and then went to attempt a PhD. I just completed my first year of PhD.

    I will say, just focus on doing something useful and original in your life. Don’t care whether you will get the PhD or not, or whether you piss off your adviser or not.

    Even if you have to quit after 5 years or 10 years, its that many years of learning. All that time did not go to waste.

    I know a lot of people whose PhD theses are as boring and ordinary as Sh**

    100 years down the line, people will not ask how many PhDs you got, but what you did in life (like Steve Jobs).

    Thats all folks !!!
    -Deepak

  5. Kaleb says

    Thank you so much for the great advice. When I started my PhD 5 years ago, I was told that the road to PhD was going to help me develop my academic track as well as personal charachter. But 5 years later, I feel like I am far less mature than i was when I began my PhD study. Having spent most of my time lived with constant fear of failure and feeling inadequat, I have started to question if I have anything worth at all to contribute. Wondering if I qualify for anything. Going home everyday feeling like you have wasted another day without any producing anyting tends to take a toll. The end seems nowhere near and I have no idea how long my lab is going to tolerate having me around wasting resources.

  6. lak says

    Dr. James,
    You are doing a GREAT SERVICE by sharing your ideas/experience. Thank you very much.
    I’m planning to start a PhD recently. I have to do it not just because i want to do it but unless i may not survive in this career. I think this is weird.
    However, i think i am capable of doing a PhD. The word “PhD” is a scaring thing for me. I want to change. I want to make this interesting.
    I found a talk which you delivered in you tube “How to get through your PhD without going insane” which made me feel inspired. Thank you again and hope your blog will help me in future as well..
    Moreover, i am KEEN TO KNOW your opinion regarding the stress….as in…
    how to balance academic life (when we are in stress) and personal life (family..spouse, children, household work etc..

  7. Diana says

    Wow…. Not that I wish other people to feel like I do, but it was a relief to see that I am not the only one feeling like this. I have all the signs, and I feel at the limit of everything. I am really tired of feeling a failure, useless, having criticizers but no one with any good advise… Moreover, tired of having people abusing of their power to make me feel as good as garbage. I guess I will find a way of managing all this.

  8. Jessica says

    I needed to hear this. Thank you so much. I have all the signs and it has now developed into a full fledged fear of even going to the lab. I am so tired and so clueless but I will re-read and apply this article.

    • James Hayton says

      It’s OK to ask for help! Most universities have a counseling service you can use and it can be very useful to let all that stress out in a safe and confidential environment

  9. Mopple says

    I really wish I had read this a year or two ago. I am near the end of my PhD and have spent far too long feeling awful, physically ill, getting barely any sleep, spending as much time as possible in the lab and getting no results. To the point where my supervisor has told me how unhappy they are with me and they are not sure if they want to sponsor me anymore. I feel as though I have worked hard but not achieved anything, and that everything that goes wrong now is because I am useless and a failure. I’ve never been good at asking for help from my supervisor and that is a huge part of the problem, I kept telling myself that if I was really smart enough to do a PhD I would be smart enough to figure it out on my own.

    The worst part is it is all my fault and I know it, but I am a broken man now.

    I implore any PhD student with time left to read this post and take in EVERYTHING

    • Min says

      How things going now? Do you still continue your PhD? because i’m having exactly the same situation as yours and in a process to decide whether to put a stop to my PhD

      • Mopple says

        Yeah I am continuing. I am writing up now, in fact nearly finished. I am feeling a lot better now but not after some serious dark times. I am working 14-16 hour days to finish off the last bits of experimental work/write up but I can see the light at the end of the tunnel so it is not so bad.

        All I would say about that is if it is making you ill, then seriously consider your options. That doesn’t mean quit, but perhaps seek a doctor’s advice and maybe take some time off (you can use this time to brush up on areas you believe are weak, but more importantly, relax).

        How far in are you?

        • Gaurav Shukla says

          Hi guys,
          Same story here and i have just finished my first year and my bosses keep telling me that they are unhappy and i have given only very limited output till now and they dont see it turning up as a successfull doctorate after two years.
          Its a hell!!!!

  10. Welsh Trainer says

    I have been feeling like this. I tried to tell my department but they ignored my email. What I find odd is that we are expected to work to a contract but we have no rights, unlike employees.

  11. kent jones says

    This is very interesting. My wife recently completed a doctorate. I have never seen someone so emotionally distressed. I have supported her throughout, it was five years of real torture. She finished two months ago. Two weeks ago out of the blue, she asked for a divorce. It was so shocking to me. I am convinced that the studies is part of the problem, but she does not want to see a counsellor. Any ideas to help, I dearly love my wife and do not want to lose her.

  12. Royal says

    that is reality about academics at this level just like at many other levels. the advice given here is something worth a shot.

  13. Richard says

    I have been ignoring all of these warning signs and valuing my pride too much. This has led me to blame my stress on almost anything like my less than perfect relationship with my supervisors, my lack of knowledge, my busy social life and even the weather!! After a supervisor meeting where my work had been torn apart and my confidence and drive was at an all time low I stumbled upon this website and it has given me the reassurance that despite the fact the other research students around me seem to be gliding throughout this process I am not the only one. Since the beginning of my research I have believed that I am not good enough and knowing that other people too feel that they will be “found out” has taken a huge weigh off of my shoulders.

    I hope these tips really will aid me in turning my research around and that I, too, will have a success story.
    Thank you.

  14. Daria says

    Thank you James for this article. I have all the warning signs, and time is very limited now, I think no matter what, I really need to slow down and simplify things down — because I did all the wrong things: be more organised, work harder, read more, when in my heart Im really clueless.

    thanks again for this.

  15. says

    I think it helps immensely to acknowledge the possibility of quitting and having a exit strategy or “plan B”. Even before my PhD, it always gave me a feeling of certainty that there would be another way even if something went wrong. Instead of working with the back to the wall, you can freely choose your way because you know you have another way you can go if necessary. That way your work is not something you absolutely must do, it’s something you choose to do.

    • Konstantin says

      That is excellent advise. For me, your words mean that the PhD is not who we are, it is something we do. Realizing this makes a big difference, but it is not easy to embrace for me at least. The question is, if I’m not a PhD, then what am I?

  16. says

    Wow! James.. your post comes right on time. At the point of losing direction, losing hope and don’t know where to restart, I found this entry makes me believe there must be something that I can do to move on. Constant fear of failure that I experienced from the beginning had disappeared.

    Thanks!

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