phd 1260
3 Jun 2024

How do you handle the stress of a PHD

4 mins to read
Discover how to manage the stress of pursuing a PhD, a challenging yet rewarding opportunity to contribute to your passion. Get tips for a stress-free doctoral journey.

Studying a PhD means you get the chance to study a topic you are intensely passionate about. You can also contribute to research that could make a significant positive impact on society or lead to innovations that solve complex problems. 

However, the nature of studying a doctoral degree involves mostly self-directed learning, working on open-ended projects, and lots of experimenting, which may mean encountering failures along the way.

Research has shown that compared with other working professionals, PhD students were more likely to meet the criteria for poor mental health outcomes, and that postdoctoral study is associated with poor wellbeing and a high prevalence of burnout.

In 2017, Nature’s biennial PhD survey revealed almost one-third (29%) of 5,700 respondents worldwide listed their mental health as an area of concern. 

In addition to the intense study and workload, there are regular looming deadlines, pressure to achieve a certain number of publications and citations, and there can be worries about future outcomes and whether study efforts will pay off, not to mention having to balance home life and potential financial worries. 

It is important to become aware of how to manage PhD-related stress as it can negatively impact your immune system and, if left untreated, can lead to illness or burnout. Both are outcomes that can then bring a halt to your studies.

Finding a supportive mentor/supervisor  

The Nature Biennial PhD survey found that good mentorship was a major factor driving student satisfaction levels.  Further to this, a study has found that quality supervision has been found to have a buffering effect on stress which social support cannot match.

It has been reported that some students may not receive guidance and support from their supervisors. It might be worth speaking to others about their experience with a supervisor before engaging them. While working with your supervisor, the University of Cincinnati advises you to be honest and speak to your supervisor about any concerns. If all else fails, you may need to look into changing to a different supervisor if possible.

Systems, planning and time management 

Set goals that challenge you but are realistic to maintain motivation. You could consult with peers or your supervisor for tips on how long tasks may take and how you might be able to tackle these. Based on the submission date of your thesis, you will likely plot some milestones together with your supervisor. You could then break each milestone down into steps to complete, with an estimated timeframe for each step.

This can help you keep on track and provide a guideline so that you don’t end up spending too much time on one task while falling behind on the whole project. Prioritise working on the most urgent tasks first and leave some extra time for reviewing.

Include time for breaks, exercise and good nutrition into your day to ensure you stay healthy, strong and focused to continue your studies.

You could try different apps or tools that are available for managing your work and time. However, even something as simple as a paper checklist or notes in your diary can be effective, whatever you find works best for you.

Establish a healthy sleep routine

It’s important to prioritise sleep as it can nourish your brain. Research from the National Institutes of Health shows that quality sleep can help strengthen and consolidate new memories with earlier ones and may even help you come up with new ideas during sleep. Their findings also show that sleeping well before learning helps prepare the brain for the initial formation of memories, while sleep after learning can help cement that new information.

Being well rested has also been shown to increase resilience, helping you more effectively deal with stress, researchers have found.

To help achieve quality sleep, work on setting up a relaxing sleep ritual and environment.

Reach out to social support  

Keeping to yourself while working away on your thesis can lead to feelings of isolation without realising it. You may not receive the social support you could be getting to aid your success. Engaging with peers may provide a source of motivation and moral support, and having others to talk to about challenges may alleviate and manage the load and emotional stress. Getting involved with conferences or other academic events may help you to connect with other students for such support. 

If you cannot find someone you feel comfortable with or trust to talk to, it might be worth seeking professional counselling from your institution or externally. 

Embrace a positive, kinder mindset  

Some students may have a tendency towards perfectionism or imposter syndrome, which is a feeling of inadequacy or that you are a fraud. It’s important to reframe these mindsets as they can lead you to overwork to achieve perfection, procrastination, underachieving or academic dishonesty. These negative thoughts can also weigh you down, leading you to feel tired and unmotivated to study. 

Practice mindfulness to notice when you encounter unhelpful thoughts so you can turn them around into more neutral thoughts. Separate facts from your thoughts and acknowledge your strength and expertise, perhaps by offering your assistance to a peer. Accept imperfection, that it’s about achieving the bigger picture goal of what’s important and perhaps creating a checklist of these points, and once achieved, then it’s done, rather than spending copious amounts of time to achieve perfection. Think that you are always learning rather than focusing on your failures. Also, remember to celebrate your successes and positive points. 

Yoga and meditation are helpful in practising and experiencing mindfulness.




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