PhD stress: don’t ignore the warning signs!

Pretty much everyone who goes through a PhD will experience some kind of stress, but this isn’t always a bad thing. Some PhD stress can help focus the mind, and the discomfort of going beyond your current limits is often necessary to learn.

But stress can also be destructive. Instead of helping you focus it can have the opposite effect. And instead of helping you learn it can make it difficult to do even the simplest of things.

In academia, there is a culture of just accepting that stress is part of the job. Everyone goes through this, so just keep going. It’s normal. Get on with it. Sometimes, though, stress is a warning sign that something is going seriously wrong.

PhD stress: signs you should not ignore

  • Constantly feeling you can’t work hard enough
  • Feeling overwhelmed by the workload
  • Feeling 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” (impostor syndrome)
  • Physical or mental exhaustion

Just working harder, or trying to be more organised is not going to make a difference if you feel 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?
  • How do you react when things go wrong? Do you stay with the problem or switch to working on something else?

Slowing down and reducing your area of focus is easy in principle, and in terms of the practical component of PhD stress this is often enough. But it’s not always so simple…

Signs of depression

  • Change in sleep patterns (waking up much earlier or later than usual)
  • Emotional numbness
  • Loss of appetite
  • Feelings of guilt or grief or worthlessness
  • Feeling like everything you try to do is exhausting

This is not a comprehensive list (and I am not a qualified psychologist), but just some common signs to look out for. I strongly recommend watching Robert Sapoloski’s lecture on depression linked at the end of this article for a more detailed description.

If you’re experiencing any of these, the best thing for you to do is seek help. Here are a few possible options;

  • Talk to your doctor
  • Find out if your university has a counselling service (and book in a session)

Many therapists offer sessions via Skype (so if, for example, you’re an international student and want to talk to someone in your native language, you can find someone online), but talking to someone face to face should be your first option if available.

There is a directory of online therapists here

My own experience

I’ve written before about my experiences with depression and PhD stress, and while I usually focus on addressing the practical component, I also spoke to my doctor and had a number of sessions with a therapist through the university counselling service (something I should have done much earlier).

I often found when talking to friends that they tended to say things like “it’s OK, everybody goes through this”, but this never really helped. It was only when I acknowledged that things really weren’t OK (and spoke to people who were qualified to help) that I was able to do something about it.

Robert Sapolski’s Stanford lecture on depression (this link includes the YouTube video and a text summary)

69 thoughts on “PhD stress: don’t ignore the warning signs!”

  1. This blog post is very, very relatable and I’m glad I came across it during these desperate times of my PhD. I’m currently half way through my PhD but boy do I feel I’m absolutely useless, do not fit the ‘job’ with my skills, and feel unproductive (even though all I do is work; no life what so ever. If I do go out/date/etc, I feel guilty that I’m eating my time from my PhD, so end up not enjoying it either way). Most of this is because of perfectionism, or as I just found out – imposter syndrome. I’m way too much of a perfectionist that would rather not do something than do it “quickly”. On the other hand, when I’m working on something that someone else would do quickly, I spend a lot of time on it because I look into all possible options, research them, implement them, test them, and optimize them. Which as it turns out, is not the productive way of doing it in academia when you’re pushed to publish.

    • I am just starting out as a Bsc to Phd. This post speaks my mind . I just completed my first semester. I already feel i am incompetent for PhD. I have had decent score in bachelor and worked for like 8 months before starting out on PhD. Being International student in US , it is really difficult to just quit. I feel like i dont know anything and am being more and more stupid everyday.
      What should i do?

      • Hey Teya, I’m on the same boat – international student in her first year of PhD. Recently, probably because of the imposter syndrome, I’ve developed a panic attack-like symptom that I’ve never experienced before. I would go bonkers in a midterm, regardless of the fact that it is just a midterm. My advice is two fold. Seek out help, whether it’s your school’s counseling system or an older student, a faculty member, or a fellow first-years. Be honest when you’re seeking these help, because it’s pointless otherwise. I needed to look for help in my unviersity’s counseling system because I needed that distant away from my problems. Another one is, at the end of the day, the only way to overcome “feeling stupid” is convincing yourself that you are not. Realize that “feeling stupid” is actually tricking you into thinking that you’re far worse than you are. Imposter syndrome is an illusion, even though the effect is real. Unless you view yourself differently, no number of scholarships or grants or award is going to make you feel “good enough”. If you are less stupid than you were yesterday, congrats, you are not an imposter.

  2. I’ve been preparing my PhD for 4 years now, a deadline is set by the university for December 2016, and guess what I haven’t collected my data yet! you wonder why of course and you might be telling yourself I must be the dumpest creature on earth, well my dear supervisor obviousely does, and the good news is that I don’t believe I am. To be honest my only source of frustration is actually my supervisor, he carries on refusing all the data collection methods I am suggesting, obliges me to change, modify, and delay my data collection through 4 long years!!!! getting really bored with his feedback and comments, the truth is that he’s legging well behind all the reserach methods currently suggested in the literature, and the hardest thing is that he doesn’t tell me exactly what he wants me to do!!! what’s intresting to know is that most of his students in PhD have the same impression to the extent that often we start thinking he simply doesn’t want us to be PhDs.
    What can I do to convince him? how should I deal with this very difficult supervisor, especially that’s it’s too late now for changing the supervisor. HELP.

  3. geez! there can’t be people who feel as bad as me or worse. because what life is doing to me right now is exactly was cooks do to potatoes. do you know what fried potatoes go thru in life? from being uprot and cut from its mother, washed, peeled, graded and then FRIED at a crazy hot temperature and…that’s not the end. after that they will be eaten, chewed and will probably end in human waste.that is what PhD is doing to me…it is frying me …and ALIVE. I would be writing for years if I had to go into details one thing is : the rage and anger I see pulling down my somehow mentally disturbed co-advisor during my meeting when I am saying I didn’t get any lab results, make me feel like I just need a husband , go be a stay-at home mom at 23 (this is for sure karma beating me in the a** because I used to make fun of stay-at-home moms) and bake. But I can’t get even a bf now.This co-advisor of mine thinks am the dumbest creature to ever roam the earth. He is always comparing and telling me how other students in my lab got results and forget that we are working on entirely different projects. Now my main advisor…this is a quite, smart thoughtful man. when the co-advisor is attacking me, you can see grief in his eyes but what else can he do? but he also grieves when I can’t get data of course but that makes me feel like I need to put in hard work if not for me, just for him. The students in my lab are quite a joke. they are there to stalk you and compare. they rejoice when you are not getting nothing because that will make them seem more brilliant in front of the advisor.
    I am tired, I am drained. I am an International student in the USA so quitting is rather not a choice unless I get a husband and go be a stay at home mom as mentioned above.I don’t want to go back home with no degree while I came to get a degree.
    I am exhausted. this is my second year and I haven’t got any decent results yet. no paper of course. help me. Am so desperate not only for me, but for my sweet main advisor. I do have a weekly meeting with him along with the co-advisor but at this point I don’t care about the co-advisor and his fury anymore. he can go take a hike honestly

  4. I have 5 days to submit. I have already blown through almost year extension and this is the final deadline. The thesis is *rubbish*. It might be built from a journal paper and 3 arxiv preprints but they feel like a set of worthless contributions. I am racked by feelings of inadequacy and while the university has been supportive I don’t *feel* like I deserve a PhD for this work. Unfortunately in my field it is far too easy to see the PhDs of students from the labs of the field “rock stars” and all I can think is bloody hell how on Earth are we supposed to be in any sense equivalent. How am I relevant when the “real” researchers in this field are producing results like that. Unfortunately the PhD and by extension “producing results” has over the past 4 years become the only metric of self-worth I have left – and that is quickly going down the drain.

      • Thanks for the support. It is mostly done with just some polish here and there that will make it more presentable as a document – nothing can save the science contained within!

        While I know passing the damn thing isn’t the be all and end all of things, it is hard to really internalise that sentiment. Especially when my whole ethos was to “be a scientist” for as long as I can remember – a position that was easy to maintain because until the PhD with the BSc, MEng and MSc I have under my belt seeming to come pretty easy. I guess that when push came to shove these last few years were not a time where I could demonstrate my ability to discover new knowledge in the field I chose. In many ways things could have been different, but I am thankful that whatever happens it will be “over” in a few days. Strangely I am pretty unconcerned about the viva, as while I will try to defend the lackluster results as best I can, my mood is one of “take it or leave it” – an attitude I wish I could have fostered this entire time for the reasons that you so lucidly explained in the above article.

        Again, thanks. When things are less hectic I will give your book a read and see what I should have known from the off!

      • I think a more suitable title for that piece would be ‘a phd is not anything’.

        Seriously, if you are a new phd having strong doubts about your decision or considering doing a phd, I strongly urge you to reconsider. Your life may be way better off for it.

        Given the rates of anxiety, depression and mental illness combined with the extremely bleak job prospects for phd grads (assuming the goal is to achieve tenure/professorship) its really just not a smart or realistic path to choose, at least until there is a major shift in the academic landscape. If the ultimate goal is not tenure/professor, then don’t bother with the phd, it will render you overqualified and you would be much better off starting off your career and life and gaining experience in the workplace. Unless the prospect of being in your late 30’s (maybe older) with no job, no assets, and astronomical debt sounds good to you….

        This is not opinion, this is fact. I know this isnt the case for ALL phds. And im not here to ‘hate’ on phd’s, I truly think that this is something prospective students do not hear enough leading to ill-informed decisions. Just read the accounts on this page, they are all miserable, why choose that life? There are other, smarter options out there: reconsider.

    • Thanks for your post which I actually read often nowadays. I think I am fully stressed with my PhD and I am currently unable to make it better. I started around four years back and was planning to finish the beginning of next year. Now it seems I need one more year!! At the beginning everything was fine when it comes to the output. Suddenly, everything went bad! Results are no longer good for the extension of my work. Even stuff I was easily doing are currently taking long time and getting worse. I myself have much lower confidence than when I was an undergraduate student. I try to do anything to alleviate my situation but nothing happened. Even people around me started to be frustrated from my PhD which again stress me more. I began to feel like my life worth nothing really. I am doing nothing but thinking about my PhD and when will I finish. I am much loaded with my professor who used to think I am a good student and now I cannot deliver him any good news about research. Things are getting bad but even I dont have another option to do.. I cannot see myself in a company .. MY life became really bad even in my dreams. Many times I dream about having exams (for high school subjects) and I have studied nothing. I cannot figure out for the moment what should I do.

  5. Hi everybody,
    I started my fifth year of PhD and my funding was supposed to be for four years and then I received a grant for my fifth year. I must finish writing the thesis at the end of the summer. I feel very inadequate, I feel like I didn’t deserve the grant for my fifth year that I was simply lucky. I cannot focus and write the thesis because I think if my DA and DC read the whole thing, they will think that it’s not a PhD level writing, it will not be good enough. My DA did not raise a major concern about my work but I’m not sure whether he will be like this once I submit the whole thesis. I can imagine him saying “I thought you’ll manage it, I was wrong.” Time pressure is like a burden on my shoulders, as the deadline approaches I feel stressed-out and cannot get things done, I end up in a vicious cycle. Every time I am talking to someone about my research it’s like I see in their eyes “really, you do a PhD, you are not smart enough and your research does not make sense.” One of the problems I’ve is I cannot handle the (intellectual) criticism about my work because I was top of my class before I started my PhD and I thought of myself a very smart person capable of everything. I was an extrovert and a social person until like a month ago, but now all my self-confidence is gone and I feel like I am a failure. When I look back I feel like I didn’t accomplish anything in the last four years, the thesis is still not ready and I will be a disappointment for my university and they will say “we should have never let him start his PhD here.” I really need some help to regain my self-confidence because I am stuck at this point. “Let it go” sounds a good tactic, but I think I am too tight to relax, I cannot let my anxiety go away.
    Thank you in advance for your advice.

  6. Hi,
    I am a third year PhD student (my PhD is supposed to be five years). Recently I got a warning about not having progress in my studies. So my PhD contract will be shrunken until the University observes any progress in my study. I have published only one article so far and I am deadly stressed. I am totally new in this field and I got absolutely no help from my supervisors. They just give very vague ideas here and there but not helpful at all. I have all those warning signs and even more. When I started my PhD, I had the feeling that I am worthless, I know absolutely nothing in this field and I will not succeed and I will be kicked out which it is happening now. I started to check e-mails, speaking with all relatives on phone, doing whatever except working. I feel I am not worth it. I feel so down and worthless right now. I read your article and I try to be positive but it is extremely difficult. I will be so let down if they kick me out of the program. I really need help.

    • I totally understand how you feel. I am second year (doing fairly well at the moment), but my first year in the program was awful. I was dealing with a lot of the feelings of stress mentioned in this article, and that all greatly impacted my productivity and my ability to retain information that I learned. I believed I was the most awful graduate student on the planet and feared being kicked out. My underlying impostor syndrome swelled into something unmanageable. I ended up on academic probation. Looking back, it’s hard to see how I managed to rise up from rock bottom, but I did. I ended a relationship with a negative advisor, took some time to sleep off the devastation, and tapped into resources that my school had to ensure retainment of students. Connecting with other students who were having a tough experience helped me a lot, and so did getting involved with mentoring/outreach activities. Giving back through mentorship, teaching, and service really helped me find meaning in my PhD experience again, refresh me, and give me more self-worth. It seems like you’re in a tough place right now, dealing with a lot of really toxic thoughts and feelings. If you have access to a counselor at your school, they could really help you identify which of them are irrational and process the roots of them in a more healthy way. It took me a while to work through all of the negative thoughts that built up in my mind over time, but realizing that they do not represent truth was an important first step. (I guess I do know how I managed to bounce back after all!)

      In closing:

      “Rock bottom became the solid foundation upon which I rebuilt my life.” -JK Rowling

      Best of luck to you!

  7. The stress part -yes, yes, yes and yes… Actually I started laughing inside when I read the bit about running off to check email when faced with a big scary task or problem. Guess how I ended up on your site? πŸ˜€ Running away from a big planning task. In the end, PhD Is Psychological Warfare.

    Actually, it’s very consoling to read all the frazzled comments on this page and the symptoms of PhD stress list helped me feel ok about feeling stressed. Thanks for this πŸ™‚

  8. Hi there. I can relate much to what you just written here. I’ve been on the same dilemma for 2.5 years now. As hard as I tried to work and understand what I’m doing, I ended up rehearsing in my mind about quitting (like rehearsing in front of the mirror as if I am talking to my parents and my supervisor). Haha. I like doing research but I began to hate it, I was discouraged and had this regret of getting into a PhD program. I got into this self-sabotaging phase wherein I was already asking myself if I was doing it for myself or for other people or if my research was not enough. And yeah… Waking up in the morning seems so hard and tiring to do. I lost my confidence on my research topic too and I even made reservations for a student counseling service in my university.

    But there’s more to life than doing or having a PhD, they say. So I guess I will just have to let things go and do what I can do with the time that is given to me. I chose this life so I will have to make most of it. If nothing works after 3 years, it’s not the end of me.. or the world (that doesn’t care either). As a friend of mine said: Just do your best, Do just your best, Not over your best, Sometimes you need to rest.

  9. Hi. James thanks for the article. I myself am struggling in my doctorate studies… I ended up joining a lab whose work I was not very passionate about but I had little choice then because else I had to quit the program after completion of coursework.. uncertain about getting a position again I stayed back… I tried adjusting in the lab and trying to start liking my work but 2 years down the lane I am yet not satisfied with my life… I am interested in another subject and I applied to other places but applications got turned down due to lack of positions… I am facing all the above signs of stress and feel absolutely demotivated and distressed.. I have been thinking of quitting but I am unable to do so because i feel really uncertain about my future and the lack of support from family and friends… I have a good academic record but now I get the feeling that I am not even upto the mark to contribute anything to science… but I cannot think my life without getting to do science… I really want to do Phd in area of my interest… my health and mental peace have both deteriorated… I tried giving myself time to make things work… but nothing is seeming to… I have never felt so low in my life… i want to follow my passion but till now I am not seeing any ray of hope…

  10. I hope you could imagine how glad I am to read this article! It was exactly what I feel the past couple of months. I Moved to a new country to start the phd right after my graduation. I didn’t really have time to think if this is the right choice for me. Only an intuition and a good feeling that I m doing the right thing. In the beginning it was all ok: Ive been working in a regular routine basis 9-6, being happy, maintaining social life, exercise and suddenly some unexpected deadlines came out of nowhere. Eventually I considered as the right option to work more hours and stay till late in the evening at the office. As a result I started meeting serious sleep problems, being irritated by everything, eventually not being able to focus and consistently failing to follow my weekly plan. I felt like time was never enough, that I don’t work as hard and efficient as I could, and I will be found out and kicked out because I don’t deserve this position and I waste their money and time.

    Really, I owe you a huge thank you man! I will try to follow your advise and get some extra consultation at the same time.

  11. Hi All,

    I am considering a PhD and stress is something I am extremely worried about.
    I am recovering from an anxiety disorder so blaming myself and seeing myself as a failure is something I am familiar with. I question whether starting a PhD is the best thing for my health even though i do want to do research and am excited to start.
    Would anyone be able to suggest what the best thing would be in this situation? How do I prevent becoming stressed and enjoy the phd?

    • Hi Sam,
      My advice, though certainly not sage advice, is to be in it for the right reasons. Do some soul searching. Do you truly need one to do what you want to do? Are you doing it to prove to anyone, yourself included, that you can? (Btw- that’s not a good reason at all) Then if you decide to move forward, plan to adress stress. It will come up. Don’t forget to take breaks, have a real life outside of it too. Shore up a support system that will be there no matter what. Ask for help often. Stay connected. Above all, make a schedule for the whole thing that makes sense and is on your terms. Set your own goals and deadlines, and allow wiggle room for life, because I guarantee you will find that life throws curve balls. Life doesn’t care that you have a paper to write. Then, enjoy the ride. I’m also sure you will discover more about yourself than you ever knew, and to me, the process is a bit like a rebirth. You go in as you are, but you will be different in some very interesting ways on the way out. It’s a challenge, no doubt, but can be worth the investment.

  12. Even though this post is “dated” in our fast paced e-world, it hits it dead on for me. I went from a bachelor’s to a Ph.D., and am struggling with finishing. 13 years total of my life, which is in truth, about half my life. Midway through, I had a breakdown, went through a divorce, and have been successfully working in my field for 2 years under the guise of internship. Being a single mom of 2, working in a field where I am responsible for the mental health and well being of children, and feeling like a failure because I left off at chapter 3. Right before I defended, I got a serious case of “i will never be good enough.” Even though I have no evidence at all to show I’m not, it paralyzes me daily. I have everything and everyone riding on my success, and it’s crushing. Even my advisor is confused and says why aren’t you done? You didn’t have but a little editing to go. I wish I could find that place of balance where I realize it doesn’t have to change the world, it only has to get done. Thinking that way brings up all kinds of unresolved grief, and even the notion of the perfectionist in me still asking “sure, it might pass, but how much better could it have been?” I have recently begun talking with a counselor. And her biggest message to me that I am working to swallow? Of course you’re stuck. You don’t feel worthy of finishing, so if you did, that would challenge you beyond where you are. If you are worthy, then what? Hopefully I’ll post again, with those very hard earned 3 letters, after my name. They can become the most difficult personal journey.

  13. I started a PhD in 2011 which turned out to be a complete disaster. My father was diagnosed with terminal cancer a few days before it started and died 6 months later. The PhD itself was poorly planned, nothing was set-up but the worst thing was my two supervisors.The lab PI is very hands off and the post doc ended up being a complete bully, the previous phd student had dropped out after 6 months because of him as I later found out.
    needless to say about 1 year in I had a complete breakdown and ended up with my PI and myself sitting with the Dean of postgraduate studies. We resolved to change the project and separate myself from the post doc (he has now been moved out the lab). I produced a lot of data which was great, I felt really great. However, I am now at the point where I am analysing the data and writing (I have 5 months to hand in). I find myself working with a great programmer who can implement any analysis I want but I don’t know If what I am doing the right thing, should I use this analysis or not, the results of some analysis have yielded some interesting results which could very interestinf

    • Hi Paul. I am very sorry for your situation. Even though i reply 2 years later, i shall tell you my story about my PhD in mathematics, which started in 2015. I am now in the third year of PhD at a university in Eastern Europe and things are not working as it should. In my 2 completed years of PhD i had very low income through a kind of PhD scholarship. I needed some extra money, so in the second year i was employed at a Research Institute in my country. Also, i had to teach aprox. 14 hours/ week. Adding the fact that at that institute and at my faculty almost every one was corrupt and exploited PhD students (they were seen as slaves of teachers) , this was not a nice situation. Just imagine that i worked in those 2 years aprox. 70 hours/week and worked on my PhD without the help of my useless supervisor. Also, my father died when i was in the second year of the Phd.
      Sincerely, i just wait to finish this damn PhD and go outside of Academia to some corporation. If i could go back in time, i would not go to a PhD in the first place.
      P.S. 1 : I am sorry if my English spelling is not that good.
      P.S. 2 : Keep smiling and try to finish your PhD πŸ™‚

      With considerations, Chris !

  14. Hi James, I spent time working in a research capacity at the School of Physics at Edinburgh uni. The feeling of being β€œfound out” is extremely common – I’ve battled with it throughout my entire life in academia and in the commercial world.

    You’re absolutely right that letting go is the answer. I’ve found that mindfulness meditation is a wonderful method for practicing that.

    As it happens, I’ve written a long article about impostor syndrome and mindfulness meditation that I hope will be useful to your audience. It’s located here – I hope I’m not overstepping the mark by leaving a link here:

    Many thanks,

  15. I’m in my 5th semester and had just felt as if I had been stabbed in my heart when I presented my tentative abstract and feel like what I had done so far is insignificant. I’m collecting myself at the moment. Thanks for this inspiring writing.

  16. Hello James,

    I hope you are doing well. I a PhD Scholar and I needed your valuable help. Please can I have your email address for emailing you my concerns.

    Waiting for your kind reply.

    Thank you πŸ™‚
    Kind Regards.

  17. I just started my PhD few months back in an interrelated field on a very interesting research project. I came into a PhD program straight away after my Bachelor and Master in completely different country and somehow different field. I just love research and doing PhD was my dream. Since the very first month I started realizing, I just know nothing even the basics. I try my best but I feel, I am the worst PhD student in my lab. With every new morning, I feel like it will be the last day of my PhD as my supervisor will ask me to quit because he would never wish to give a huge funding to a person who don’t know what to do and how things work. I feel frustrated 24/7. I am there where I always wanted to be. I am trying to do my best but I think being top in your classes was just useless, I am not good at anything nor in industry (because I don’t like it) nor in research (because I know nothing). May be, I am the person who was not supposed to be on earth because I am not good at nothing

    • not supposed to be on Earth? That’s ridiculous! Of course you are supposed to be here! If ever in doubt, just do something kind for a stranger and see how they react. You have the potential to positively affect the world around you, and that’s enough of a reason to be here.

      As for the PhD, slow down. If you aren’t skilled yet you can learn, but it will take patience on your part. Pick one thing and take your time, and do not fear making mistakes.

      • Thanks for such a nice response. Before starting the PhD, being an intelligent student I thought I know everything but now I feel completely different. I feel, I should go for another bachelor first.
        I really liked the advice of being slow down in the post as well but I came in between the project and I am trying to deal with multiple subprojects at a time. I am trying to give my best in all of them (though most of them are completely different from my previous studies). Now I afraid that if I slowed down and focused on everything step by step I will lose my position (which I am sure is not the case as the supervisor and other colleagues always motivate me and tell me that I am performing much better but I have fear inside which I cannot overcome).

        • Of course you can. It might be difficult, but it’s not impossible. Just try one day at a time, focus on one part of one project, and whatever problem you face, stick with it until you figure it out.

        • You sound REALLY stressed. Don’t try to suffer through this alone! Changing subjects and trying to adapt to life in a new country and (I’m assuming) doing all of this in a foreign language? That’s not all extremely difficult! And it’s very impressive that you are doing that in addition to dealing with the stress of a PhD program, which would be stressful even if it were in the field in which you did your BA and MA and in your home country and first language. Find people who you can trust to help you through this. Take advantage of the resources your university offers (free counseling? Free fitness classes? Free theater/game tickets? Free chair messages? Many universities have a variety of resources designed to help grad students deal with stress so ask around and look up your grad college’s events and resources online.) Be sure to take time for yourself by exercising, meditating, sleeping, eating nutritious food, and walking outdoors as soon as the weather allows (and if you suffer from seasonal depression due to lack of sun, get some vitamin D supplements!). Grad school is a marathon not a sprint, so find ways to create balance and harmony in your life and let those things replace the fear.

          • Edit: I meant “that’s all extremely difficult!” NOT: “that’s not all extremely difficult”

          • Thanks a lot dear for such nice suggestions. I usually never go out, never enjoy life, thinking that I need to be good at my job first. I will try my best to adopt every good thing you said. Thanks once again

          • The post is totally relatable. I am in a foreign country for the first time doing PhD started right after Bachelor. Its hard enough to adapt to all the new things happening around. I am at the end of my first 4 month semester and have started feeling like this since 2 months.
            I have good grades and am a good student in Bachelor.I am trying to learn everything i can to make myself better at the research i should doing. But i feel useless and cant even do the simplest of things and feel i should be starting with my Bachelor all over again. I am not sure if i should just quit right away and face the humiliation of not being able to handle minor stress.

          • Hi Teya,
            It is beautiful, coming here after several years and replying you at this stage. I have already entered in my 4th year of PhD now (though I feel, I have just started it last year as the time passes so fast).
            The first one and a half year were really hard for me. I struggled 24/7 to make myself competitive and was successful in publishing one good paper in the end of first year. Since then, I am really successful (in fact one of the successful students in my lab). My adviser already recommended me to finish soon (much earlier than when I was expected to finish). I work hardly even 40 hours a week. I go out on weekends, enjoy with friends on Sundays, and regularly go to gym (this came out to be one the best things to deal with PhD stress). I am not frustrated anymore.
            I believe, it was all because of my hard work in first one and a half year. As I made myself so competitive that now getting work done looks so easy. I recommend you to join gym, take long vacations (at least every half a year) and don’t touch your research work during it. Read a lot about your field and try to implement the basics. Every weekend spend out with friends, traveling, and eating good food. Take care of your health. Talk to your family or people who are sincere to you and motivate you, every second day at least to get more confidence. I was at your stage years back, but that all worth it. Hard work at your stage really pays off. So be happy and focused. I wish to get same writing from you as I am doing now years after of my comment. Good luck.

  18. OMG! I am so stressed! Working full time, 4 kids, a loving husband and a PhD that is driving me crazy! I have all the warning signs and more, I don’t want to quit but I don’t know how to keep going! Finding a balance is so hard, the hours are too few, the day’s run so fast! I found a book “how to write your dissertation 15 mins a day” and it’s kept me going but I need some psychological help! Thanks for this…. Phew!

    • Oh, you even don’t know how well I understand you! It is really very difficult to combine PhD and family… You can not allow yourself staying in the lab till late at the night, if your kids don’t sleep well at the night, you can not concentrate. All colleagues talk to you only about kids. You constantly have a feeling that you don’t perform well. You don’t want to fail because you don’t want your kids, husband, supervisor see you failing… My baby blues turned into phd-long lasting blues and I still could find a way to escape…

  19. This is an excellent article, its helped me to rethink about my thesis and how should I develop it. Fears of failure is dominating my thoughts I am working hard but still thinking am I the right person to study PhD!. Seeking for the best put much pressure on myself that I couldn’t function and start analyzing every email I received from my supervisor!

    Thanks alot for giving me hope that I am not the only one who is suffering during his PhD journey!

  20. This is an important discussion. It has been my experience (personal and observed) that the phd is challenging in ways that I have not encountered in lower graduate studies or the workforce. It is helpful to understand why, and how to manage.

    One source of stress I have not seen mentioned here relates to the effects of doing qual research with populations that have been through trauma (refugees, prisoners, war-affected, extreme poor, abused, etc). I recently met with other researchers who were experiencing “vicarious trauma” from fieldwork research, in an effort to help each other learn how to manage its effects. My take away was that this form of trauma is very real and quite prevalent in the social sciences.

  21. I entered an academic competition last year, and put so much pressure on myself needing to be “the best” that I couldn’t function. The best thing I did was very similar to you James – I decided to quit. And then thought well, if I’m going to quit, I might as well do the work anyway. Taking the pressure of the end goal away removed the barrier I had put up and I was able to focus without judgment. It’s my go-to method now if I feel anxiety creeping in.

    On another note, anxiety is no small matter. I’ve also sought help through reading many blogs and seeing a psychologist. I really think that perfectionistic tendencies in the academic world can be balanced out with good strategies. To think I could achieve highly without the constant anxiety was a foreign perspective for me. I thought I achieved because I cared so much, but the caring really does interfere with your abilities. Work in progress, but it’s all part of the journey…

    • Oh Leah- this rings a bell to me. To put into context…. my PhD was a 3 year-funded position. Started in October 2010. I just submitted my soft copy today…..May 2015. I have been writing for the past 12 months, procrastinating for 3 months prior to that…. finishing experiments for 2 months prior to that, and was on “temporary withdrawal” for 4 months, for stress/anxiety/burnout prior to that, i.e. the and of my 3 years.

      I realise after this, I had a MASSIVE fear of writing. A massive disbeleif in my abilities. A massive perfectionist in me. A massive self-critic. Basically – I was my biggest barrier. I found myself coming to the conclusion, also through discussion with family/friends/supervisor/collegues- “if i just cared less” and had an “it will do” attitude- I would get on so much better, in life. I could see the logic in this conclusion and still can. However, applying it is another thing. I don’t even know how I am still here to write this. People wonder how the hell I didn’t quit- again, I am not sure. Anyone else I know would have quite or just been able to get through it quicker rather than suffer. ” caring” casues me more bother than its worth. What is really sad is- I feel useless and if anything, being so “bad” at wite up is convinving me I am crap at science, a crap scientist and I cant do this as a career. I missed countless family events, social events with friends, my friend’s wedding(!), family time, potential earning time, life time, living. As you say- its a working progress. I hope you can achieve a better balance. People (family) tell me this as well. I am CONFUSED. Any advice would be appreciated. x

  22. I’ve also been ignoring all of the warning signs of stress. I also felt like since I’m a hyper-sensitive person, I was just blowing things out of proportion. I didn’t even realize how unhappy I was until it was too late.
    I was recently set a deadline to have 2 papers written (one being my first, first-author paper and the other being a review paper that a group of us are working on) by August 1st. Well, it’s August 1st today and neither paper is complete. The stress has been piling on me and I decided that I was just gonna work through it until the deadline was met. Poor life decision. This last week, I’ve been having back-to-back panic attacks to the point that it’s completely halted my progress. It was further escalated by constant suicidal thoughts. And I knew it was nothing I would follow through with, but it’s been very stressful to deal with. I ran out of coping mechanisms and it took a friend talking to me to seek professional help. I’m still struggling with trying to give myself a break and basically be compassionate toward my own needs. It’s always been easier for me to be sympathetic toward other people, but I could never cut myself some slack.
    Reading through your blog has been helping me in letting me take care of myself. At the end of the day, I’m way more important than any PhD program. So, thank you. You’ve given me the courage to write that email to my PI to let him know I’m dealing with a medical emergency and that I need to take the day off.

    • Hi Sarah,

      I sincerely hope that you have found a way to manage your stress, it sounds that you do need some professional support, I am not a psychiatrist but I am researching on stress and burn-out prevention in clinical psychology. The method I am applying is mindfulness with strong focus on self-development. Now I am at the final writing up stage, and from my own experience and 108 participants (68% are PhD or postdocs) first hand experience, I can really confirm that it does work significantly to reduce perceived stress level at the same time to increase the level of awareness and self-compassion in particular difficult situations! Like James and many other PhDs around the world, I also had a period of low, little-to-zero progress and high intention to quit, and I even checked out what the college drop outs would do afterwords (there is a fun story to tell if we ever meet). If it was not because of the solid mindful daily practice (very similar like what James described how he dealt with stress), I would be sure quit back in 2012. Now during my writing up stage I become even more conscious on how valuable experience is doing a PhD then presenting it to the world. I feel like the whole PhD period is like a long pregnancy and writing up stage is like giving birth process, the pain is inevitable yet meaningful with a rewarding outcome. After giving birth to our first daughter in March 2013 through natural home birthing, I am now also very confident to give birth to my PhD mindfully. I wish all the PhDs around the world have enough courage, understanding, patience and determinations to meet and overcome the inevitable difficulties and even failures along the way. Trust the life gives us the right and needed challenge at the right time for our development and growth, far beyond the PhD. All the best,


  23. 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.

  24. 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 πŸ˜€

    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 πŸ™‚ yes we can!! πŸ˜€

  25. 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?

  26. 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 !!!

  27. 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.

  28. 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..

  29. 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.

  30. 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.

    • 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

  31. 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

    • 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

      • 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?

        • 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!!!!

  32. 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.

  33. 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.

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

  35. 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.

  36. 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.

  37. 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.

    • 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?

  38. 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.


Comments are closed.