In 2016 best ranking job, which takes into consideration also stress, careercast.com rated both biologist and university professor at place 38 out of 200. Not bad. Stress score was 16 for the biologists and 8 for the professors. That’s really low compared to the highest score (73) assigned to firefighters and surprisingly close to the lowest score (6) calculated for compliance officers. I agree – it may sound like nonsense to us. In this article I will try to dig a little bit deeper into the issue of stress experienced by PhD students and the possible solutions.
So, what about us? What about PhD students? We are not among the 200 jobs listed by careercast.com, so I start with asking Google: “Why are PhD students…” and google immediately comes up with the suggestion: “… so arrogant”. No, no. That’s not what I meant! “…so stressed”. I am just going to ignore the “arrogant” comment. What would Google know about it anyway… But maybe I can still find out about the “stressed” part. Yes, actually there is a lot out there. Like a study performed by The Guardian, that surveyed more than 2500 academics. Prepare yourself for the difficult part of the article now!
According to The Guardian, two thirds of academics have mental problems and blame their work for it. This does not only regard PhD students, but also professors, head of the departments and others. Let’s focus on PhD students though. Most of our mental problems are anxiety (87%), followed by depression (78%), panic attacks (45%), eating disorder (20%), self-harm (16%), obsessive compulsive disorder (13%), alcoholism (11%), and others. The most common reasons for the reported problems are: isolation (64%), lack of support (48%), and heavy workload (41%). Most of the PhD students with mental problems were advised medication (79%) or counselling therapy (68%). Students seeking professional help constituted around 36% of total PhD students. You can find the entire survey here.
The stats are depressing – that’s true. But they also underline very well that the problem sits there big and smug.
There are also some blogs, written by PhD students or graduates listing the problems black on white. I’ll list them here so we have a better picture of the enemy:
- Feeling that we never work hard enough
- Feeling out of control (easy things are suddenly difficult, experiments don’t work, too much to do at once)
- Finding it hard to focus (both on short- and long-term goals)
- Feeling like what we do is useless
- Fearing the failure (what if someone finds out I am not smart enough)
- Exhaustion (both mental and physical)
- Pessimistic thinking about the future
If so many PhD students struggle with these issues, aren’t the issues just normal then? They are. But that doesn’t mean there is no solution! The first step is to be aware of the problem. This will help to localize its butt, and kick it right in the middle. Naturally, for every single person the problems have different sizes, colors, tastes etc. So realizing what the specific problem is should help finding a specific solution (the kick). Actually, writing down our fears already makes us feel better.
From various websites, this is what PhD students find helpful:
- Trying not to measure our worth by the successfulness of our work
- Stabilizing realistic goals: prioritizing, and thinking about one step at a time instead of many steps at once. This way we have one small problem to deal with instead of one huge problem composed of many little monsters
- Being more organized: for example planning our schedule better. This way we can feel more in control and deal with one task at a time (e.g. now I only have to pipet for one hour. That’s easy!)
- Taking care of ourselves physically and mentally*: visiting a doctor when needed, finding out what makes us happy outside of work and do it regularly! It may be a hobby, it may be sport, or a massage, or a trip, or reading a book, or meeting with friends… or all of the above and more
- Focusing on the positive: trying to find good in specific situations (experiment didn’t work? Aha! But I know why – I learned an important thing so I am wiser now), in other people (don’t like this girl, but she has a good shoe taste) and in ourselves (If you put 1 Euro aside for each good characteristic of yours and every little success, you will soon be able to treat yourself to some good, expensive restaurant)
- Trying not to blame ourselves for all the failures (yeah, that’s right, sometimes it is just nobody’s fault)
- Celebrating successes – even the very small ones (I did well so I buy myself a chocolate or listen to my favorite song to honor the occasion)
- Meditation/prayer – to calm down and gain perspective**
- Being perseverant
- Allowing ourselves to be imperfect
To sum up: stress follows every PhD student like a dark shadow, but there are also many ways that can make the shadows fade.
* Actually, University of Bonn provides psychiatric free help for the students
** Many famous people, like Oprah Winfrey and Steve Jobs admitted to meditate in some form. And I bet the pope prays a lot too. Steve Jobs once said to his biographer Walter Isaacson: ’If you just sit and observe, you will see how restless your mind is. If you try to calm it, it only makes it worse, but over time it does calm, and when it does, there’s room to hear more subtle things — that’s when your intuition starts to blossom and you start to see things more clearly and be in the present more. Your mind just slows down, and you see a tremendous expanse in the moment. You see so much more than you could see before.’
Additional reading: “Under Pressure” by nature