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Dealing With PhD Stress The Right Way: Advice From 3 PhD Graduates


When I think back to the PhD, I think about the physical and emotional stress that I had to go through, especially the final months leading up to the defense. PhD stress is not something that should be ignored.

Do you know who gets the PhD? The person who perseveres. And dealing with the stress is one key factor that you must overcome in order to successfully graduate. You may experience one (or a combination) of the following during your PhD and at different stages of your graduate career (and are signs to look for and 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 in a PhD program, and that you will be “found out”
  • Physical or mental exhaustion

Whatever you have experienced up until this point whether you are in your first, second, third, fourth of fifth years and beyond-You know what’s crazy? These feelings are normal. If they weren’t, it wouldn’t be much of a PhD. Or at least you’re not taking it “serious” enough (at least from what I was told).

What you have to keep in mind is that once you defend, these feelings that you are experiencing now will fade into the background. They become a thing of the past. Yes, it is hard to get through but remember it is only temporary.

If you do an informational interview with a PhD 10 or 20 years out, they will carry nostalgic memories and certain stories with them like how they used to be in lab till 2 in the morning. But the fact of the matter is, they have moved on (they have a job, a family, and aren’t eating out of a soup can everyday). They don’t want to remember the feelings of doubt, stress, and pressure (although when you spend 5+ years of your life in grad school there are just some things you will never forget). But, that’s why when you tell them the stress you are going through in your PhD program, you will still get a reaction out of them because you are taking them back to their old grad school days and they have shared those same struggles/feelings at one point in time.

So, in order to capture these “feelings” in their right moment, I asked two of my UW-Madison friends who just recently received their PhDs to write some tips on how they kept their stress levels low and successfully defended their PhD.

If you haven’t already, check out my previous article on 10 Ways to Successfully Defend Your PhD. Due to overwhelming requests and emails asking for my defense video and for additional tips on how to keep stress levels low, I decided to write an additional article focusing just on the stress issue. And I have posted the link to my defense video below.

Some emails I have gotten recently are (they will remain anonymous):

I am approaching the end of my PhD cycle and becoming increasingly nervous and anxious about the public discussion of my thesis! It has been a very lonely and long walk! Would it be possible to watch the video of your PhD defense?

Just read your “10 Ways To Successfully Defend Your PhD,” which I found both enjoyable and stimulating. You mention a video of your own defense. I’d love to see it, if you’re still happy to share it. If you’ve seen other good defenses on youtube or elsewhere and have any additional links, those too would be much appreciated.

I read your blog in the title of “10 Ways to successfully defend your PhD”. I think it is very useful for me; however, I want to request an example video of a defense talk that you suggest in your blog. I have a plan to defend my thesis on next Thursday. I feel very nervous, and I think my presentation is too long (80 slides). Do you agree with me ?

**My PhD defense video can be viewed here:
http://bit.ly/1sAIT7O

For a quick recap, the top 10 highlights were as follows:

  1. Do not underestimate how long it takes to prepare your slides/talk and make sure you give multiple practice talks (and in terms of how many slides or how long your talk should be-you should have this figured out by giving your practice talks and getting feedback from others)
  2. Listen to other thesis defense talks
  3. Have your friends, labmates, and others drill you with questions
  4. Re-read over your entire thesis and write out your own list of questions
  5. Don’t let distractions get to you
  6. Get plenty of sleep, keep your diet in check, and take care of yourself
  7. Keep your cool and relax**
  8. Don’t focus on the after-party until you have actually reached the after-party
  9. Have a good structure
  10. Visualize yourself giving your defense each day and think about how good it will feel when it’s over

What I want to focus and expand on here in this article is #7: Keep your cool and relax. Your nerves are going to be running high and it may be hard to sleep at night. But the goal of this article is to help put your mind at ease. There may be some overlap here (with #1-10 above), but since PhD “stress” is deeply-rooted-it is important to look at the overall big picture and have multiple solutions/approaches.

Advice From PhD Graduate #1

Dr. Jamie Hadac had these words to say before we cut to the chase:

First, let me start off by saying congratulations! You have made it this far, now it’s time for the final push. Hopefully your thesis is in good working order and now you just need to prepare for the big day. I recently defended and I have some tips. In general, do whatever it takes to keep your confidence high and your stress low. I have divided these tips into two sections (8 Tips total), Professional and Personal.

Professional

  1. Practice, practice, practice! Your talk will probably be a big source of stress. Try and practice in any way you can. I gave two talks to public audiences, (set up by a partnership through my university), two job talks, posters, and practice talks to lab mates. Of course you won’t always be giving the same talk as your defense talk, but you can gain a lot of insight for your Big Presentation. Things like timing, clarity, and other people’s critiques can be carried over from other talks. It will be a major confidence booster. The last thing you want to do at your defense is read word for word off your slides.
  2. Communicate with your thesis committee. Your defense should not be the first time you’ve talked to them since your last committee meeting. If you have committee members in close proximity, take some time to chat about your progress. They can provide a different perspective that you might not receive from your PI alone. Also, you can address their questions or concerns in a much more low-key environment. Be sure to ask how they want your thesis delivered: some prefer paper, others electronic.
  3. Think ‘Big Picture’. You now have to take your research in one little area and weave it into a greater body of knowledge. You will also be transitioning in to a new career or position. If anyone asks “so what?” you should have a solid and accessible answer. Your committee will see that you have thought about future directions for the lab, for your career, and for society. Show off the independence, perspective, and creativity you have cultivated.
  4. Be organized with dates and times. Chances are your graduate school has specific timelines for things like paperwork. Make sure you have done everything that needs to get done and clue your PI into these deadlines. Plug them into your phone if necessary. You don’t want to be messed up by an administrative technicality or forgetting to get a form.

Personal

  1. Make your healthcare a priority. I have some medical conditions that were exacerbated by stress. You are making major life changes, and it’s totally normal that they affect you on a physical level! I met with my primary care physician and we developed a strategy to make sure my health did not fall to the wayside during this time. Even if your health is fine, your insurance may cover things like massages or dental cleanings that will boost your confidence and reduce your stress.
  2. Clear your mind by moving your body. Your brain is probably doing a million things at once. Try and find an activity that lets you focus on one thing, like running, paddleboarding, or yoga. You may say you don’t have the time, but make the time. It will have profound affects on you physically and mentally.
  3. Banish negativity. You spend so much time thinking critically about experiments, data, and other people’s papers. Don’t let that carry over into being critical about yourself! Now is not the time to doubt or beat yourself up. Any time you have critical, confidence-ruining thoughts about yourself, write it down. Then write next to it why you are wrong or exaggerating. Then, if necessary, create solutions. If your mind says, “I’m terrible at public speaking, I can’t do it” remember you have spoken in public before, you aren’t terrible, and you have improved greatly in the last few years. Then, make some steps to get in some practice.
  4. You’ve done a lot of work, keep your energy high and stress low by getting a good night of sleep. Perhaps try going to bed 10 minutes earlier every night. By the end of the week you can get an extra hour in. Your brain needs it!

Advice From PhD Graduate #2

Dr. Nate Wlodarchak had these tips to share, focusing more on the earlier/during thesis writing stages:

The last two months before the defense were a challenge but they went fairly smooth despite many small road bumps. First, a little background: my PI is a new PI, so not very experienced in the process of matriculating students. That being the case, I didn’t have my PI to rely on to know what to do so I had to figure a lot of things out for myself. Having to talk to a lot of different people to figure this out was crucial, and communication was absolutely vital.

Sitting down to write the first time was a really daunting task. I looked at other people’s theses and thought how am I ever going to get to 200 pages? I started by looking at my outline (from the 6 month meeting) and went from there. First, I had to find a place to write. Every time I went into lab I was asked so many questions and everyone needed so much help, I couldn’t get any work done. I also had to make a lot of figures, and making them on a laptop was just annoying, so the library wasn’t the best option for me either. I ended up doing most of my writing at home. It wasn’t as ideal but it worked pretty well.

The biggest problem was getting stressed whenever I wasn’t productive. I had to let that go and realize that some days are going to be more productive than others. I had mornings where I did a little bit, then goofed off all afternoon, but then was super-productive in the evening…even missing dinner. Forcing myself to stick to some arbitrary 9-5 schedule was stressful because if I wasn’t productive, my “relax time” wasn’t really relaxing. I had to sort of let the writing dictate the schedule. Obviously there were deadlines to meet, so sometimes I couldn’t afford that luxury, but when possible, it was a great stress reducer.

Of course during two months of writing, life happens too. I had weddings and family functions to attend as well as some other extracurricular activities. I found that these things reduced the stress level quite a bit, but needed to be planned for well so I didn’t have the writing monster always looming behind me. I also kept the important “life things” scheduled but made sure not to accept any extra responsibilities that would just add stress. Most importantly, if I didn’t keep some time for friends and socializing, I wouldn’t have been able to keep the stress down.

Sometimes stress is just out of your control though. Like when your PI gets you all of your corrections back three days after it was due to the committee and they blame you for it (despite the aforementioned PI having ample time to work on it). I was lucky enough to have a good support structure for those times, and don’t know what I would have done without them.

When all else failed, I took lots of walks, lots of bike rides, and sometimes just sat on the porch with a beer and watched the world pass by, remembering that in the big scheme of things life is just too short to waste time worrying.


Advice From PhD Graduate #3

Now I am going to add to the advice listed above. Based on the emails/requests that I have received on how to deal with the stress during a PhD (especially during those final weeks), my short answer (as cliche as it sounds) is that you must take each day at a time, but by all means- DO WHATEVER WORKS FOR YOU. That is why you have 3 different people who have successfully defended their PhDs (included myself) providing you with advice and what worked for them. From this, I hope you can find your ‘personalized solution’. Find out what that is and stick to it. I hope the advice so far has been useful. I will just add 3 additional tips:

1) Keep the caffeine intake low. You remember all that coffee and red bull you’ve been pounding to get those chapters of your thesis hammered out late at night? Yea that. Once you have turned in your thesis to your committee and it comes down to those final weeks, if you are still taking in large amounts of caffeine- your nerves are still going to be running high. Don’t create an unnecessary and undue anxiety/stress because of bad habits. I was guilty of this.

2) If you are just a stressed out person by nature no matter what you do, and you are doing a combo of many of the things listed above (i.e. practicing your talk, getting sleep, getting exercise, eating right, keeping caffeine low, taking breaks, etc.), try a combo of magnesium and valerian root to calm your mood and help with night anxiety/insomnia.

3) Boost your confidence! You’ve heard this before: Doing practice talks and getting feedback is the easiest way to feel like you are in control. The people who are the most nervous/anxious may also be the ones who haven’t spent enough time practicing/preparing.

Trust me, I know the feeling… But let me give you a track and field analogy. Let’s say the state track meet is a month away and you will be running the 400 meter dash. Each day that goes by only heightens the anxiety because you know it is a day closer. Are you going to just sit around and ‘wait’ for that day to come? Or are you going to run that same race over and over to make sure when that day comes you are going to get the best possible time (to the best of your ability)?  The more and more you run that same race, it doesn’t seem as bad. Then that day finally comes. Your heart is racing and nerves are high. But guess what? It won’t matter because you know that once you cross that finish line, you’ll have finished strong and you did everything that you could to get the time (and hopefully award) that you worked so hard for and deserve. A PhD is the same way, except you are sprinting that last 400 meter dash of the 26 mile marathon.


I thought I would also add to this ‘theme’ of stress since there seems to be a link between stress and demotivation (becoming paralyzed, overwhelmed, fearful, feel like you’re going to have a nervous breakdown, too much to handle, etc.). Not only does stress weigh you down, but it can affect how you perform those final weeks leading up to your defense-the weeks that really count. Just to put it in perspective, here are the top 10 things that may be causing your demotivation:

  1. You’re demotivated by fear*
  2. You’re demotivated by setting the wrong goals
  3. You’re demotivated by lack of clarity about what you want
  4. You’re demotivated by a values-conflict
  5. You’re demotivated by lack of autonomy
  6. You’re demotivated by lack of a challenge  (or being “over-challenged”)
  7. You’re demotivated by grief
  8. You’re demotivated by loneliness*
  9. You’re demotivated by burn-out*
  10. You’re demotivated by what to do next (or you are distracted.. planning the PhD ‘after party’.. daydreaming)

The full context of these ’10 demotivators’ and how to keep the motivation is outside the scope of this article. But you can read some tips for how to get motivated again here. Additionally, some previous articles, such as 10 Ways to Be A Successful PhD Student and How To Win/Graduate Faster touch on motivation and how to graduate in a timely manner.

What I want to hit on is #1, #8, and #9, since they are the most relevant to PhD students. That isn’t to say that the other 7 points aren’t relevant or have some affect on you, but for the purposes of this article I have picked the tops ones.

Now you may be someone who is very motivated, but is just really stressed out. Or you may be someone who is lacking motivation and is stressed out. Or you may be someone who is highly motivated and has low stress (best-case scenario):

A) If you are very motivated and really stressed out, then you need to find ways to deal with your stress until you defend (see above).

B) If you are someone who is lacking motivation and is stressed out, you will benefit from the additional #1, #8, #9 tips.

C) If you are someone who is highly motivated and has low stress all the way up until your defense, then you’re lucky.

#1) If you are demotivated by fear find out what it is that is haunting you. Write it down. Go through each fear individually. Ask yourself where this thought or fear comes from. Fear can slow you down. It can make you feel lethargic.

If the fear you have is something like “I’m going give a poor thesis defense talk” why are you thinking this? Overcoming a certain fear isn’t exactly easy if it is something that has stuck with you for a long time. Do you know what my fear was? That I wouldn’t be able to answer the questions the audience or my thesis committee members were going to ask me. My fear was that I would embarrass myself and I would bomb a question.

Here is the bottom line: You know more about your project than anyone. This is 5-7 years of your life so you are the expert. If you have a fear then come up with a plan, break it into chunks, and come up with ways to boost your confidence.

Since I was fearful of tough curveball questions that I would be asked, I read many papers and asked myself example ‘oddball’ questions. Then I had my friends/labmates do the same thing. Since you cannot possibly prepare for all the endless questions that you can be asked, you can really only prepare yourself for ‘handling’ questions maybe you ‘sort of know’ but don’t really know. And that is the beauty of the PhD defense- your committee will push you to say, “I don’t know” because in reality you have learned to recognize the barrier of science- as you cannot possibly know everything. And you will hit that ceiling.  But at least with your years of training you will have learned to recognize this and admit what you don’t know-and maybe even make an educated guess/suggest an approach for how you might address the question in the future (if you were faced with it).

When it comes to #8/#9 and dealing with PhD loneliness and burn-out..

If you are lonely/struggling with lack of social life, please read this article about Dealing with the Lack of Social Life in Graduate School, or Maintaining Relationships During Graduate School. Don’t be afraid to take breaks and get out there and be social to keep your sanity! As Dr. Wlodarchak stated, during those two months of writing, life happens too. And you should let it happen. You will feel like someone locked you in a cave and you haven’t seen daylight for weeks. Once your thesis is handed in, that is a huge milestone but remember-it’s not over. But do whatever it takes to unwind, and keep the stress low-even if that means you go out for a night with your friends. Don’t feel guilty for doing this. Many PhD students shut out their social life/friends during those final weeks and months.

Remember at the beginning of this article I said, “What you have to keep in mind is that once you defend, these feelings that you are experiencing now will fade into the background. They become a thing of the past. Yes, it is hard to get through but remember it is only temporary?Therefore feeling burned out or lonely is also temporary. At least once you graduate, you’ll have more free time (hopefully) to make changes in your life and recoop certain ‘losses’ or put your time towards things you always wish you had (but couldn’t).. I can tell you for those who skip the post-doc and go directly into industry working a fulfilling job, this is the case (this will be a future post on the Post-PhD Life).

I myself experienced signs of burnout. But you have to learn to recognize it and fight it. And I pushed through. In fact, I was working a 20+ hour a week internship in industry while writing a thesis, doing paper revisions and experiments, and maintaining tissue culture. And that was for 7 months with 80+ hour weeks.  To this day, these are still the Top 10 Things that got me through and what helped me keep my motivation.

Overall- if you follow these tips to keep motivation levels high and your stress levels low, you will see yourself successfully defend your PhD and move-on to the next chapter of your life. And yes the grass is greener on the other side.


 Further Reading:

An Anxious Mind

Tell the Negative Committee to Shut Up

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