Dealing with PhD research stress

September 2005: While queuing to sign the paperwork to register for the third year of my PhD, I was talking to a student from astronomy who mentioned seeing one of his fellow students struggling to get his thesis finished before the final deadline. It wasn’t the usual case of being a bit stressed and tired in the run up to submission, desperate to do the final editing, or a last-minute crisis like trying to get it printed and bound. The poor guy had been awake for over 36 hours trying to write new material. It just wasn’t finished. The words that stuck in my head were, “his face has gone grey”.

I didn’t want to be that guy, but it scared me that I could easily imagine myself in the same situation. I’d been there before. I could feel his pain; the racing heartbeat and the gut-wrenching self-recrimination, knowing that he was perfectly capable of doing it earlier.

I had always been a serial procrastinator. During my undergraduate degree, I constantly left work until the final possible moment (or later). There was a set pattern; after coursework was set, I never worried about it until the deadline was looming. Even by the time it became urgent, I’d still find myself doing other things; anything other than work. Still, I managed to get through on late nights and buckets of coffee.

When I reached the final year of my PhD, I had little in the way of results, no idea what I wanted to do with my life, and was wasting huge amounts of each day stuck on the internet. It felt like I was working – I was expending energy anyway – but without any forward momentum.

It seemed I had no control over the outcome of the research. I’d put hours in; sometimes it’d work out, more often I’d get nothing, and sometimes I’d end up undoing work I’d already done. My default would be to go and waste half an hour on the internet when something went wrong, or when I just couldn’t find the motivation to do anything productive, so then I’d end up feeling guilty about not doing enough work.

In the summer of my final year, I was on the verge of a breakdown. I didn’t have enough results, time was running out, my personal life was a mess, and I absolutely believed that I was going to fail. I had no idea what I was going to do with my life, and the whole thing seemed pointless. I had trouble sleeping, which in turn meant I couldn’t function during the day, and the whole cycle just continually reinforced itself.

I’d become extremely irritable, even shouting at a first-year student for doing nothing more than asking how it was going.

PhD’s are supposed to be difficult; at a basic level that’s the whole point of them. But when it affects your mental and physical well-being, something has to change.  In July 2006, two months before my funding was due to run out, I hit rock bottom. The mental defences I’d built up against my situation, which largely involved carrying on as normal, were blown apart.

I was depressed and desperate, but was forced to actually face up to reality rather than simply trudging on waiting for something to change. I realised that if I was stressed, miserable and getting nowhere, then I was doing something wrong.

Where do you go when things aren’t going to plan?

So what did I do? Work longer hours to try to make up for lost ground? No. I relaxed. I started looking after the simple things, like my mental health, by taking a walk around the campus when things weren’t going right, rather than defaulting to checking email. I could think the problem over and go back to it when I was ready.

That one habit alone saved my PhD. Without spending any more time in the lab, and far less time at a computer, my productivity rocketed. I started getting results, started to regain confidence, and started to think that I might actually pass my PhD.

Where you go, physically and psychologically, when things aren’t going exactly to plan can have a massive effect on how quickly you can get back on track. My old default habits of reverting to the internet to fill up time and avoid the problem whenever I lost momentum were destructive, but not in an obvious way. It took a bit of trauma to force me to actually asses them.

Often, physically stepping back from the source of stress can help gain a new perspective, but I think the key is not to let information in as a distraction, and let the brain engage with the problem in a relaxed way. In any kind of research, things will go wrong at some point and we can’t always control everything, but we can always choose how to respond. The point though is that it needs to be a conscious choice, not just reverting to habit.

16 thoughts on “Dealing with PhD research stress”

  1. I am so stressed for my last year Ph.D. Life, cause I got some problem and I want to find the way to solve it.

  2. Hi,
    Nice to read your blog! I am also in last year of PhD. Things not moving the way I want… stress incresing… nice to refresh the techniques for calming the stress mind… Under stress even simple things don’t strike

    Regards

  3. well thanx for such a nice advice and sharing your experience…honestly this is something which i am feeling right now…i think i find everything more interesting than to work upon my research…this phd thing has made me an idiot, sitting 24 hrs, in one room, tired…..

  4. Same degree same feels same procrastinator. Im undergrad and a hardcore procrastinator (like right now, i have to submit tomorrow a dissertation proposal but im here procrastinating). I have no idea where my thesis is going and have not yet a good result soim hating my thesis right now!!! hope i make it through!

  5. Thank you very much for the article! I too am in my final year (hopefully, it will not change!) and going through the stress and lack of productivity because of that. I think I should more of your articles 🙂

  6. Thanks for the article.

    I am in my final year at the moment and I am struggling to concentrate after seeing my office-mates, whom we registered for the course on the same day, handling their final PhD thesis, doing viva voce and I am not even near where they are.

    This lack of concentration also has been due to having numerous issues within the past one year: lost my parent and came back to school without having full recovering from it, lost another family member (in a span of one year), and also had an injury which forced me out of the office for about 3 months, to say the least.

    Any advise from you and other readers I would appreciate.

    • Hi Lizzy,
      I’m in a similar situation to you: in my final year, palpably behind the people who started at the same time as me (by all reasonable measures – I have fewer results, no journal publications and am still a long way from finishing), but similarly my first year in particular was completely dogged by personal issues including the breakup of a very long-term relationship, multiple family bereavements and being the victim of a violent crime which left me miserable and anxious for months (as though I wasn’t enough already!).

      The point you have to remember here is that you’ve been fantastically unlucky. You’ve taken on a task which is a mental and emotional challenge for the most balanced of people, at a time when your personal life has also been full of mental and emotional challenges that would knock anyone for six. So I think it’s an incredible testament to your strength and commitment that you’re still on a PhD, that you’ve made it all the way to final year and that you’re still looking for ways through this to get finished. I think the silliest thing you can do is compare yourself to other people at this point – you’re simply not facing the same challenges that they are so it’s almost a certainty that you won’t get through it at the same rate. I know that these sorts of personal issues make you question yourself, your motivations, your future, your plans and your values, and that’s a hard thing to go through when PhD makes you question yourself so much also! So I think you will have to get clear that your ‘journey’ (hate that word – so X-Factor!!!!) has been very different to that of your contemporaries and that you are doing this for yourself alone and you’ve been under huge pressures so it’s best not to create more for yourself by comparison with other people – this is just about you and what you do now.

      I also hope, on a practical level, that you’ve discussed this with your supervisor and sought some kind of bereavement counselling or structured support? I made the massive mistake of trying to struggle through for ages, hoping that if I hid how difficult I was finding the changes in my life, then it would just resolve itself and no one needed to know. In fact, my supervisor has ended up being one of my biggest sources of support and the counselling I’ve had have really given me space to think clearly about what I want and how my values and hopes might have changed in response to everything I’ve been through – and this stuff is crazily important to motivation. In the midst of loss you can easily forget why you even set out doing what you did in the first place and that can take time and effort to resolve and leave you feeling lost and distracted in the meantime. None of this is conducive to PhD but it can be fixed.

      I think the other thing, after what you have been through, is to make sure you look after yourself. Make sure you’re getting plenty of sleep, some exercise and plenty of time around friends/family/doing things that make you happy. It will have a positive impact on your PhD, your state of mind and your concentration in the long run and will probably get you further than pushing and pushing when you’ve already got so much else to deal with. Bereavement takes a long time to get through and you need to be gentle with yourself and give yourself time to heal rather than trying to be the person you were before.

      Hope this helps!
      Good luck x

      • Thank you so much Helen for all the points and reflections. At first I was trying to deal with it at my own terms (hiding and thinking no one will ever notice and everything will go back to normal in no time). After my post, back in September, I made a phone call to college’s counselling sessions, I have been talking to a counselor for about a month now, and I can at least focus and do something with my thesis. Regarding talking to the supervisor, I can honestly say, he is the one who contributed by nearly 90 percent to my questionings as he kept on comparing me with other students without taking into consideration all the issues I have been going through for the past one year.

        Thank you again Helen..

        Kind Regards,

        I

  7. “In the summer of my final year, I was on the verge of a breakdown. I didn’t have enough results, time was running out, my personal life was a mess, and I absolutely believed that I was going to fail. I had no idea what I was going to do with my life, and the whole thing seemed pointless. I had trouble sleeping, which in turn meant I couldn’t function during the day, and the whole cycle just continually reinforced itself.”

    This is exactly what I am going through right now… I have to finnish my phD in may…I’m so afraid that I don’t have enough results I am kind of paralyzed… I cannot go into the lab and work calmly….My personal life is also falling apart. Our 7 years long relationship with my fiancé is ending and I am feeling so alone and helpless…

    I have to start finishing this phD, reconstruct my personal life and find a post-doc at the same time… Oh boy I think those next 6 months to come wont be easy at all…

    At least thanks for this website…

  8. Oh… Thats so me!!! I have always done things last minute and have never really been much stressed but with the PhD.. I am on the verge of a breakdown.. I just shouted at my Mum for nothing. 🙁 I feel terrible.. but I do realize that I can do this if only I dont force myself to continually struggle with things that I am not getting any success with and just moving away from it and doing something relaxing..
    the trouble is.. with every passing day I find it more difficult to relax doing anything… and every hour spent doing other things feels like an eternity of wasted time!! I just need to figure out a way to relax myself…

  9. Thank you for this!
    I think a big part of the help comes from knowing that somebody else experiences the same as you…it puts everything into perspective, suddenly you’re not the only miserable that just can’t do it, and yes, you gain confidence and think you can get rid of bad habits.

  10. I am in my last year now, and have similar concerns about results etc. I spend so much time on the internet, and it’s been really hampering my productivity. It never occurred to me though that it’s a stress management technique for when I get a bit stuck. I might try the walking around campus thing instead.

  11. Thanks for that really!! it helps a lot as i am in the same situation as every single phd student in their final year… to me what ur saying is just a proof of what i thought is right and what i think i should be doing rather making my supervisor happy buy just giving him chapters to read while i am doing my analysis… i always knew i can do the writing in short time if i think the way ur thinking when u did it!

    i focused lately on big plans that i couldn’t do any of them that left me with the feeling of i might not do it…

    Thank u James,

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