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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 nothin 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? In many ways, 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 and programmed to believe as a graduate student).

The point is that many PhDs may experience similar pain points and stress, but many will handle it in different ways-as the reason to start, endure, and finish a PhD is entirely individualistic. But this certainly does not mean you should ignore the warning signs if the stress becomes overwhelming, as graduate school depression and anxiety is very serious. You’re not alone, so don’t be afraid to seek help from a counselor, family, or friends.

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 some of these tips to keep motivation levels high and your stress levels low, you will increase your chances of successfully defending your PhD and moving on to the next chapter of your life. And yes, the grass is greener on the other side. You will just have to find your own personalized solution to get you there.


 Further Reading:


An Anxious Mind

Tell the Negative Committee to Shut Up

Awesome Grad Student Advice for New and Current PhD Students

Advice From Someone Who Has Learned The Ropes


This guest post contains unique PhD student advice and is tailored to someone who is just starting out graduate school. For example, what are some real life advice and experience that will truly help a 1st or 2nd year (or later) PhD student?

So, here are the categories in a nut-shell: Advisor-related, Age, Studying, Extracurricular Activities, Career, Finances, and Other Advice (Grad School Depression, Wanting to Become A Professor, etc.) Enjoy 🙂

Advisor related:

-If you are lucky enough to get both research interest fit and personality fit perfect, congratulations! But sometimes, personality fit is more important than research interest fit as long as the research isn’t too different. A great advisor is interested in your career development, likes you as a person, advocates for you, and wants to hear your ideas. Even if his or her research is quite different from yours, they may give you the autonomy to work on your own projects and just supervise you. A bad personality fit will drive you nuts, even if you love his or her research. Consider that when evaluating your advisor fit. (This will vary by field: research fit may be less important in the humanities, more important in the natural and physical sciences. Social sciences are somewhere in-between.)

Don’t be afraid to be straight up blunt with your advisor when it comes to asking about your progress. Ask if you are where you should be both academic program wise and getting-a-job-after-this-mess-wise.

Be proactive. Advisors love when you draw up an agenda for your one-on-one meetings, come with talking points and progress to share, have concrete questions to ask, and have overall shown that you have been thoughtful and taken control of your own program. Of course, this won’t immediately come easily to you, but in time you will work up to it. Every semester I type up my semester goals, and at the beginning of the year I type up annual goals. I show them to my advisor and we talk about whether they are too ambitious, or whether I need to revise them, and how I can meet them.

Don’t expect your advisor to actually know what courses you have to take to graduate. They will know about comprehensive exams and the dissertation, but a lot of professors don’t really keep up with the course requirements, especially if their program is in flux. Get you a student handbook, and find out what you need to take. Map it out in a grid, and check off things when you finish them. Show this to your advisor every semester. You may have to explain how such and such class fills a requirement.

-Nobody loves you as much as you, except your mother. Keep this in mind as you take in advice from all sources, including your advisor. Your advisor is there to guide you, but that doesn’t mean you have to do everything he or she says.

Age:

Don’t feel like you have nothing to offer just because you are younger. I was 22 when I started graduate school. You got accepted to the program for a reason, and chances are you are just as equipped as any older students are to successfully complete the program, just in a different way.

-Your older classmates may be just as terrified as you. Talk to them. You have a lot in common. You are, after all, in the same place.

-You will feel like an imposter, like you don’t belong, or like you are constantly behind. Or all three. It’s normal. It will pass. (Well, sort of.) People of all ages go through this.

Studying:

You will have to read more than you ever did before, in less time than you ever have before, and you will be expected to retain more than you ever have before. The way that you studied in undergrad may need some tweaking. Be prepared for this.

-Corollary: you may find that your methods change with age or interests or time. I preferred to study alone in college, but in grad school, I prefer to study in groups. It keeps me on task and the socialization keeps me motivated. You may find that you shift from being a more auditory learner to a visual learner or whatever.

You will feel behind at first. This is normal.

-At some point you will realize that your professors don’t actually expect you to read everything they assign you. This, of course, will vary by program, but there will be at least one class where the reading is actually impossible to do in one week. The point is to read enough that you know the major themes and can talk intelligently about them, and then pick some of the readings to really dig into and think more deeply about.

For most programs, don’t worry so much about grades. If you stay on top of your work and do what you’re supposed to, you will probably get an A. How much grades matter varies from program to program. In some programs, a B is a signal that you are not up to par, and more than a few B’s will warrant a discussion with your advisor or the DGS. My program isn’t like that – A, B, it’s all meaningless. My advisor doesn’t even know what my grades are. But at almost all programs, a C means you need to retake the course, and two Cs means you have to convince the DGS not to kick you out.

Extracurricular activity:

What’s that? No, seriously:

A lot of your time will be unstructured. You will have coursework, but most grad classes meet once a week for two hours and you may have three classes. You may have meetings with your advisor every so often and some seminars or things to catch (like we have grand rounds and colloquia that are required), but a lot of time will be unstructured. However, since you have so much more work than you had in undergrad, you actually will have less free time than you had in undergrad. This may initially cause you great anxiety. It did for me. Some people love unstructured time, though. (I don’t.)

-Because of this, you’ll have to be planful about your non-grad school related stuff.

TAKE TIME OFF. DO IT. It’s important for your mental health. However you do it doesn’t matter. Some people work it like a 9-5 job. Some people take a day off per week (me) and maybe a few hours spread across the week. Some people work half days 7 days a week. However you do it, there needs to be a time when you say “f this, I’m going to the movies.”

-Find your happy place, something that keeps you the you you were when you came in. I love working out. It gives me energy and I feel good. I stay healthy. I also love reading fiction, so sometimes I just curl up with a good book, work be damned. You have to give yourself permission to not think about work, at least for a couple of hours a week. You may also discover new hobbies! (I never worked out before I came to graduate school.)

Your work will creep into all aspects of your life, if you let it. This is why I hate unstructured time. You will feel guilty for not doing something, because in graduate school, there is ALWAYS something you can do. ALWAYS. But since there will always be more work, there’s no harm in putting it aside for tomorrow, as long as you don’t have a deadline.

You may need to reach outside of your cohort for a social life. None of my close friends are in my doctoral cohort. I’ve met master’s students in my program, master’s students in other programs, and I know a few non-graduate students I hang out with, too. Go to graduate student mixers. (If your university doesn’t have any, organize some, if you like planning parties.) Join a student group that doesn’t take up too much time. I had a doctoral acquaintance who kinda laughed at me because I joined some student groups other than the doctoral student one, and I was usually the only doctoral student in those groups, but I met some close friends (and future job contacts) and had a good time.

DO NOT FEEL GUILTY FOR WANTING A LIFE OUTSIDE OF GRADUATE SCHOOL. This is paramount. This is important. You are a well-rounded, complex, multifaceted human being. NEVER feel bad for this. Everybody wants some kind of life outside of work. Yes, you may loooove your field, but that doesn’t mean you want to do it all day long. Some other doctoral students, and perhaps professors, may make you feel bad about this. Don’t let them. Just smile and nod. Then disappear when you naceed to.

Career:

Grad school is job preparation. Remember that from Day One. Always be looking for ways to enhance your skills. Read job ads and find out what’s hot in your field, what’s necessary, what’s in demand. For example, in my field statistics and methods are a hot commodity, and they’re not a passing fad. I happen to really like statistics and methods, so I have pursued that as a concentration of mine.

Don’t be afraid to take on volunteer work and part-time gigs that will give you skills that will be useful both inside academia and out, as long as it’s not against your contract. Your advisor may be against it, but he doesn’t have to know as long as it doesn’t interfere with your work.

-If you want to work outside of academia – if you are even *considering* the possibility – please please definitely do the above. Even if you aren’t considering it, consider the possibility that you won’t get a tenure-track job out the box and that you may need to support yourself doing something else for a while. You will have to prove to employers that you have developed usable, useful skills and this is one of the easiest ways to do it. But don’t overdo it – get the degree done.

For more academic related ones – always look for opportunities to present and publish. Presentations look good on your CV. Publications look better. When you write seminar papers, wonder if you can publish them with some revision. Write your seminar papers on what you maybe think you may want to do your dissertation on. Even if you look at them three years later and think “these suck,” you can at least glean some useful references and pieces from them. Discuss publication with your advisor early and often, and if you have the time and desire, seek out publication options with other professors and researchers. But if you commit to a project, COMMIT. You don’t want to leave a bad impression.

-If you can afford it, occasionally go to conferences even if you aren’t presenting. You can NETWORK, and you can hear some interesting talks, and you may think about new directions for your own research. You can also meet people who may tell you about jobs, money, opportunities, etc.

-Always try to get someone else to pay for conference travel before you come out of pocket. Including your advisor. Do not be shy about asking if he or she can pay. If he can’t, he’ll just say no. Usually the department has a travel fund for students, but often it’s only if you are presenting.

If you are interested in academia, you should get some teaching experience. There are two traditional ways to do this: TAing a course, and teaching as a sole instructor. If you can help it, I wouldn’t recommend doing a sole instructor position until you are finished with coursework. Teaching takes a LOT of time to do right. You should definitely TA at least one course, and probably a few different ones. But don’t overdo it, if you can help it, because again, it takes a LOT of time. More than you expect at the outset. If you are in the humanities, I think sole instructor positions are very important for nabbing jobs so when you are in the exam/ABD phase, you may want to try at least one. If your own university has none, look at adjuncting for nearby colleges, including community colleges.

(I would wager that the majority of natural science/physical science students, and most social science students, have never soley taught a class before they get an assistant professor job. At least, it’s not that common in my field, which straddles the social and natural sciences.)

Always look for money

Money is awesome. If you can find yourself you can do what you want, within reason. Your university will be thrilled, your advisor will be happy, and you can put it on your CV. It’s win-win-win! Don’t put yourself out of the running before anyone else has a chance to. Apply even if you think you won’t get it or the odds are against you (they always are), as long as you are eligible. Apply often. Apply even if it’s only $500. (That’s conference travel!) Money begets money. The more awards you get, the more awards you will get. They will get bigger over time. If you are in the sciences and social sciences, you should get practice writing at least one grant. You don’t have to write the whole thing, but at least get in on the process so that you can see how it’s done. Grant-writing is very valuable both in and outside of graduate school.

Revise your CV every so often. Then look and decide what you want to add to it. Then go get that thing, so you can add it.

The career office at big universities is often not just for undergrads. I was surprised to learn that my career center offers help on CV organization and the academic job search, as well as alternative/non-academic career searches for doctoral students. In fact, there are two people whose sole purpose it is to help PhD students find nonacademic careers, and they both have PhDs. This will vary by university – some universities will have very little for grad students. Find out before you write the office off.

It’s never too early to go to seminars/workshops like “the academic job search inside and out”, “creating the perfect CV,” “getting the job,” etc. NEVER. Often the leader will share tips that are more aimed towards early graduate students, or tidbits that are kind of too late for more advanced students to take care of. This will also help you keep a pulse on what’s hot in your field. It’ll help you know what lines you need to add to your CV. And they’re interesting.

Other:

Decide ahead of time what you are NOT willing to sacrifice on the altar of academia. Then stick to it.
I’m serious. If you decide that you do NOT want to sacrifice your relationship, don’t. If it’s your geographical mobility, don’t. I mean, be realistic, and realize that there will always be trade-offs. But you have to think about what’s important to you for your quality of life, and realize that there is always more to you than graduate school.

If you don’t want to be a professor, do not feel guilty about this. At all. Zero. However, you will have to do things differently than most doctoral students. Your advisor will probably never have worked outside of the academy (although this may vary depending on the field) so he may or may not be able to help you. But you have a special mission to seek out the kinds of experiences that will help you find a non-academic job. Test the waters with your advisor before you tell him this. My advisor was quite amenable to it, but that’s because I told him that my goal was to still do research and policy work in my field just not at a university, AND because it’s quite common in my field for doctoral students to do non-academic work. If you’re in a field where it’s not common (or where your professors refuse to believe it’s common, or it’s not supposed to be common)…well, you may be a little more on your own.

-Every so often, you will need to reflect on the reasons you came to graduate school. Sometimes, just sit and think quietly. Why are you doing this to yourself? Do you love your field? Do you need this degree to do what you want to do? Usually the answer is yes and yes, and usually you’ll keep on trucking. But sometimes when the chips are out you will need to reevaluate why you put yourself through this in the first place.

-To my great dismay, depression is quite common in doctoral students. Graduate work can be isolating and stressful. Luckily your health insurance usually includes counseling sessions. TAKE THEM if you need them. Do not be ashamed. You may be surprised with who else is getting them. (I found out that almost everyone in my cohort, was getting mental health counseling at a certain point.) Exercise can help, as can taking that mental health day once a week and just chilling. Don’t be surprised if you get the blues…

-…but be self-aware and able to recognize when the depression is clouding your ability to function. Doctoral programs have a 50% attrition rate, and this is rarely because that 50% is less intelligent than, less motivated than, less driven than, or less ambitious than the other 50% that stays. Often they realize that they are ridiculously unhappy in the field, or that they don’t need the degree anymore, or that they’d rather focus on other things in life, or their interests have changed. All of this is okay!

-You will, at some point, be like “eff this, I’m leaving.” I think almost every doctoral student has thought about dropping out and just kicking this all to the curb. You need to listen to yourself, and find out whether it is idle thought (nothing to worry about, very normal) or whether you are truly unhappy to the point that you need to leave. Counseling can help you figure this out.

-Don’t be afraid to take a semester or a year off if you need to. That’s what leaves of absence are for.

Lastly, and positively…

…graduate school is great! Seriously, when else will you ever have the time to study what you want for hours on end, talk to just as interested others about it, and live in an intellectual community of scholars and intellectuals? And occasionally wake up at 11 am and go to the bank at 2 pm? Sometimes you will want to pull out all of your hair but most of the time, you will feel fulfilled and wonderfully encouraged and edified. So enjoy this time!

Why Relationships Matter In Grad School: 5 Ways To Maintain

Story Context

First of all, I would like to thank Ryan for the opportunity to contribute to his site. As a former student, I know how important it is for graduate students to have a community for emotional support and to stay on top of valuable resources (as this article will touch on). After I finished my PhD I realized that in order to get my degree I had to overcome many of the same barriers as other graduate students.

Going further, this brought up a key question: Why wasn’t there a book that summarized all the tricks and tips of navigating graduate school? In order to answer this question, I interviewed over 100 students from 30 different disciplines (over the course of two years) to learn what their secrets to success were in graduate school. I covered areas such as financial support, elements of a thesis, time management, communication with your PI and coworkers, writing skills, and career planning.

From this, I published many of their ideas on my newsletters, which are accessible on my website (http://www.phdnet.org/), as well as my book (“The Smart Way to Your Ph.D.: 200 Secrets from 100 Graduates”). I continue to receive questions from students around the world, and I address them through my blogs.

With that said (stemming from graduate student issues), Ryan has recently approached me about a very important topic: How can significant others (or spouses) support each other if one or both of them are graduate students? I can certainly relate, since my fiancé and I were graduate students at the same time, and we got married during my last year in graduate school. (For simplicity, I will use spouse and significant other interchangeably.)

Graduate Students Need Support Since They Are A Vulnerable Population

If your worth as an individual depends on your achievements, then you’re extremely vulnerable in graduate school because you’re bound to not succeed some of the time.  —Myriam Mongrain

The other common personality correlate Mongrain identified for depression was a lack of social support. Graduate students can get so caught up in their work, especially when they’re driven by perfectionist tendencies, that they forget to be social, she says. They stop seeing friends and talking with families. Loneliness and isolation build and contribute to depression. Depressed people aren’t very fun to be around, so the cycle of isolation continues.

How prevalent is depression among graduate students? Much more prevalent than in the general population, says Daniel Eisenberg, an associate professor of health management and policy at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

In a 2008 survey by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 6.4% of the general population in the United States reported having depressive symptoms within a 12-month span. (The percentage for younger adults is slightly higher.) By contrast, about 15% of the 4553 graduate students who responded to Eisenberg’s 2011 survey reported experiencing depressive symptoms—as defined by the fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders—in the previous 2 weeks.

Source: http://sciencecareers.sciencemag.org/career_magazine/previous_issues/articles/2012_10_05/caredit.a1200111

Could emotional support offered by a significant other during graduate school help lower depression rates?

The answer is YES.

Your Pillar of Strength: Significant Other Support Other in Graduate School

While the pressures in graduate school can put the best relationships to a test, they also present an opportunity to deepen your support and commitment to each other. Your relationship might be strained financially and emotionally as you pour every ounce of energy into a thesis that will only materialize in a few months or years.

However, it is no secret that one of the most important factors influencing personal happiness is the quality of your long-term relationship. So the question is, how can you and your spouse support each other to give your work the attention it needs? The strategies I share here are from couples I knew personally where one or both of them were graduate students or post-docs. So here they are…

5 Ways To Make It Count:

1) Commit to your relationship

A strong relation can endure financial hardship, long-distance, and any other personal or professional challenges brought on by life. If you want to create a mutually supportive environment in your home, you first need to strengthen your commitment to your spouse. Be proactive and give him/her the kind of support that you desire, by doing as much as you can to make his/her life easier. No matter how busy you are, there is always time to do something nice for your spouse. Your spouse will surely appreciate it, and probably return the favor doubly.

2) Spend quality time together to create a mutually-supportive environment

Knowing how busy graduate students are, I am sure that this suggestion is raising some eyebrows. “How can I spend time with my spouse/significant other every day when the majority of my time is spent working?” you might ask. Remember that you are not in this boat alone. You are part of a team. If you function as part of a team you can come up with better strategies than if you tried to row alone. No time or money for elaborate dates?

A simple 15-20 minutes of connection every day (over tea in the evening, or an ice-cream during the day) will probably strengthen your relationship orders of magnitude more than an expensive get-away once a year. Use your 15-20 minutes together to solve challenges together as a couple, and soon you will come up with more creative answers than if either of you had ruminated alone.

Besides the daily 15-20 minute check-in, students have found that a weekly date can do wonders for re-energizing their minds. Once again, I would like to emphasize that elaborate dates (although fun occasionally) might not be the best investment of your time and money. Simple activities such as watching a movie together every Saturday (perhaps at home if you cannot afford movie tickets or find a babysitter), going on a hike or working out together can do wonders for opening up lines of communication so you can provide each other the support you need.

Keep in mind that the date is about being together. Having the certainty that there is always a person you can count on is the most powerful support one can have, especially during a challenging time such as graduate school.

3) Get creative with your finances

Graduate student relationships are frequently under financial strain, due to low stipends and student debt. Ryan’s excellent book is full of ideas to help you generate additional sources of income.

I would also like to share a story about how one spouse turned her hobby into a small business. My friend Stephanie was a working mom and wife of a postdoctoral associate, and they were just barely scraping by. She was artistic and while her husband traveled, she enjoyed doing crafts with her children.  She especially liked decorating scarves and jewelry boxes. Around Christmas time she showed her crafts to her friends and they were eager to buy them as holiday presents. Soon she was generating income all-year round, and even built a website to sell her art.

For other ideas on managing your money and investing in your future, I recommend the following articles:

http://www.mint.com/blog/planning/graduate-school-expenses-102011/

http://www.mispp.edu/downloads/finaid/money_management.pdf

4) Reach out to a support network.

While your spouse is (hopefully) your best friend, it is not realistic to expect him/her to provide you all the answers and support. If you connect with graduate student organizations in your department or hobby group, you can find out how others have solved problems similar to yours.  Some schools have groups for spouses, which can be especially helpful for internationals, who do not have a permit to work or study in the United States. Besides getting answers to practical issues such as obtaining visas and student discounts, you will probably significantly improve the quality of your life and your relationship by growing your circle of supportive friends.

5) Be proactive about planning your future together

The two-body problem can be one of the most significant factors influencing your job search. Take comfort in knowing that thousands of students have found solutions to this problem without sacrificing their professional aspirations. It does take creativity, determination and commitment, however, because the job market is so competitive. Specific job searching strategies are beyond the scope of this blog, but I can recommend books and articles on this topic. In fact, I have devoted an entire chapter to career planning in my own book (see below for more info), because I believe that it is never too early to begin networking and exploring job opportunities, especially if you and your spouse will be looking for employment simultaneously.


More About the Author

Dora Farkas, Ph.D., completed both her Bachelor’s degree in Chemical Engineering and her Ph.D. in Toxicology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. After she earned her Ph.D. she worked as a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics at Tufts University in Boston. As a graduate student, and later as a postdoctoral fellow, Dr. Farkas realized that there was a real need for a guide book to help doctoral students finish their degrees more efficiently. She began her quest for this guidebook by casually conversing with graduate students, and noticed that students in different fields faced similar challenges while completing their dissertations.


Reference Books and Online Articles:

The Academic Job Search Handbook by Julia Miller Vick and Jennifer S. Furlong

Surviving Your Academic Job Hunt: Advice for Humanities PhDs by Kathryn Hume

Best wishes,

Dora Farkas, PhD
Founder PhDNet
Author:“The Smart Way to Your PhD:200 Secrets from 100 Graduates”
dora@phdnet.orghttp://www.phdnet.org/


Further Reading:

  1. Issues with Significant Others During Grad School
  2. Grad Student Advice Series: Lack of Social Life, The Effects, and What To Do About It

The Top 10 Downsides of Graduate School


1) You miss out on valuable real-world experience working your way up in an established career. Not only experience but also opportunity.

2) You miss out on earning a real income.

3) You spend the best part of your life, your 20’s (in most cases), in school. It’s also a huge time investment and takes a lot of patience.

4) You may delay marriage/relationships until you graduate.

5) Poor living conditions make it difficult to have an enjoyable and entertainment-filled lifestyle.

6) Your social life and social interactions may suffer since graduate programs (PhD) are spent mainly in isolation.

7) You will watch your friends move up in their career, get married, buy a house, and move on with their life. This will make you feel jealous. Your life will be put on hold.

8) Graduate students are prone to depression and anxiety. This can have long-lasting effects even upon graduation. The 50% that do not drop-out and stick it out till the end are not immune.

9) If you are the 50% that drops-out, you may live with regret (typically during the later stages of graduate school). Others find out early enough, get a real job, and live very fulfilling lives.

10) Education Inflation:
Just because you have a higher degree doesn’t guarantee you the better job (or even get you the job).  The catch-22 nowadays is that most jobs are suffering from “education inflation.” This means they require an advanced degree just for entry-level positions. In fact according the BLS, the number of jobs typically requiring a doctorate or professional/advanced degree is expected to grow by 20% between 2010 and 2020. The number requiring a Master’s degree for the same time period is expected to grow by 22%. In addition, in the U.S., institutions responding to the CGS/GRE Survey of Graduate Enrollment and Degrees reported awarding over 488,000 master’s degrees in 2008, compared with about 56,000 doctorates. So here’s the catch: You also need the job experience to go along with it. So it really isn’t an entry level position anymore and you are competing against those in the workforce who have the same advanced degree plus the real-world job experience. And in some cases, a PhD may overqualify you and make you more of a “liability.” This of course depends on the type of position you are pursuing.

But don’t fret. Find what you are passionate about and pursue it. If you don’t think grad school is right for you.. Don’t do it. Life is too short. Move on with your life.

My advice: Get any edge that you can. If you can get an internship during the summer (while in school) do it. Get your ‘foot in the door’ any possible way. Chances are that past experience or internship will come in handy later on down the road. It gives you real-life experience and will give you an edge over others who spent their whole life/time in academia. It will beef up your resume and make you look more well-rounded. Sound easier said than done? If you don’t have any internship leads.. Start networking. Use your network to land a position. Even if it is minimum wage, it is an invaluable experience.

Or.. Get a job right out of undergrad. Work for a few years. Get a feel for the job market and real-life work experience. Chances are you will move up the ladder, get promoted, and you may not even need to go get a Master’s or PhD. And if you’re really an asset.. They will pay for your education while you are working. That’s when an MBA makes perfect sense. Many people go in graduate school because they can’t find a job out of undergrad and it makes them seem more attractive to employers. Or to dodge the economic recession. I hate to say, this is the wrong reason to go into grad school. You have to go in knowing what to expect and only because you truly want to and are passionate about pursuing a specific field (like science). Otherwise you are in for a big surprise. So try to avoid the graduate school ‘saturation.’

 

Further Reading

Reasons Not to Get A PhD

6 Ways To Survive Grad School and Achieve Work-Life Balance

Most people don’t want to admit the struggles they went through in grad school or even relive those memories. Working weekends and late nights are just one example. What I want to share with you are things that people take for granted. The things that get you through the Daily Grind of Grad School (all the way to the end) and working in a lab. Thinking about dropping out of grad school? Keep reading.

So how do you get through the daily grind for say 5-7 years? Most people laugh when I tell them this.

1) Your iPod.

Music can do wonders for your graduate school experience. I am able to listen to music while writing. More importantly, I listen to music while doing my experiments. Although this isn’t 24/7, I can testify that music has helped get me through graduate school because of its positive effect on your mental state.

You need to take everything in grad school that is at your disadvantage and make it your advantage. What I mean by this is that in most cases, you are a lone ranger in lab. You don’t really work in a team as you would in industry. Your project is your own and no one really cares about your work except you and your PI. If you experiment doesn’t work, you haven’t let down an entire team that is relying on you.

So with that said, you can ‘get away with listening to your iPod” since you aren’t spending a lot of your day in business meetings (if you went into business), or interacting with patients (if you went into the medical field). Plus you aren’t really talking to people in your lab the entire day (this can vary).

You are at a ‘disadvantage’ since working in a team is better IMO than working on something in solitude. So you can turn around, make the most of your situation and turn it into a positive. The ‘lone ranger’ scenario is also a disadvantage I think for someone who is a social person (like myself) and enjoys working with others.

But, if you love music like I do, pop in your headphones and you will see just how quickly your day goes by. Rough day or bad data? Crank up the heavy stuff. I let it go almost the entire day depending on my mood. I still keep the volume low enough so I can hear if someone needs to talk to me. And you know what? It calms my mood, motivates me, and takes my mind off the repetition and mundane routine. Not a big music listener? That might change.

2) Do not let your physical and mental health slip.

I noticed a lot of this has to do with not eating right or working out. I cannot tell you how many grad students skip lunch or dinner, or don’t eat breakfast (I am guilty of this). It is not wise. What happens is it throws your whole metabolism out of whack. It can also change your sleep patterns. You need to stay in a constant routine and STICK to it.

Stemming from this, you need to hit the gym. You need to go running, swimming, weightlifting, biking. It sounds so obvious. If it was so obvious then why don’t people find time to do it? Why do all the people who work in a lab seem so out of shape? You know deep down they care. They have to care. Or they live in denial. They claim they are so busy with their work lives that there is no time to exercise. If you aren’t exercising the excuse then becomes, “Well then I don’t need to eat right either.” That is where the poor attitude sets it. You become lethargic and may not even realize it.

You cannot tell me that poor diet and lack of exercise doesn’t affect your work. It does. It affects your mood, how you think, and how much energy you have throughout the day. I find time to hit the gym 2-3 times a week no matter what. This is almost as important as the actual thesis work you are doing. If you neglect yourself.. Your self-esteem will suffer. It can have permanent consequences if you spread this out over 5-7 years. Exercise is also a great way to release and lower stress levels. And guess what? Lack of exercise/poor diet is one of the reasons why the depression rate is so high in grad school. Which brings me to my next point.

3) Make an effort to hit up your friends and be social.

That means plan ahead. That also means during the week you should ask your friends to go to lunch or at least meet up. Does this sound lame? Well it’s not. I can’t tell you how many grad students eat lunch in lab EVERY day by themselves. You need to get outside and get some fresh air. Seriously put the can of soup down, get out there and God forbid spend 5 bucks on a lunch.

You need socialization to keep your sanity. So your daily grind includes lunch with your fellow grad students or friends. When the weekend hits it’s a whole different story.

The first couple years of grad school people tend to hang out more, that is also obvious. Why? Even though they are taking classes and are busy, it isn’t as bad as writing your thesis or busting your butt trying to finish up your last set of experiments. Plus everything is new, you’re getting settled in and you haven’t shaken off your undergrad years. When you get older (26+), people tend to go out less, have significant others, be annoyed by undergrads who stay the same age (you are the only one who gets older in this case), be more focused on their work, and just be less social overall. It fades out.

So what I’m saying is you need to find something you love and hold onto it. For me it was hitting up rock concerts. I have a group of friends who like rock music. I joined a softball team. I joined a rock band. I kept the ball rolling. I made an effort every weekend to call my friends and make plans. Find someone who has a pool, gas grills, likes to slam a few beers and you’re golden. Whatever it is, you know you have an interest with someone in your grad program.. Or you have an interest/activity.

You want to be in a Dance club? Do it. Cuz once you get out of grad school everything will change. The real world will set in. You need to enjoy these years of your life the best you can. You need to have as much fun as you can during some of the hardest years of your life. Keep the balance and everything will be OK. If you let the balance tip to ALL grad school, then you are in trouble. And that is why some people’s mental and physical health suffers so much. You need to vent frustration and relieve stress.

You also need good friends and family to get you through it. Let’s face it. Research is frustrating. 90% of it doesn’t work. My first few years I had to learn to accept this as normal. And realize that I am not a failure. Sometimes experiments fail for no and unforeseen reason. But to get through these frustrations took time on my part to keep the balance in check and have friends to help me along the way.

4) Find that ‘fun’ activity and hold onto it no matter what.

Some grad students have told me, “You know what got me through grad school? Lots and lots of beer.” I wouldn’t recommend this lol, but a lot of people just unleash on the weekends (especially first or second year grad students). I guess everyone has their own way of dealing with the stress.

My recommendation over beer is find that one activity that you absolutely love, similar to #3. Play guitar.. And if you have the money, take a vacation. You cannot be thinking about research 24/7 or you will go crazy. That is what professors want you to believe. To be completely submerged in your research.

Well guess what? A lot of great scientific discoveries were made when they weren’t doing what they were supposed to be doing. The point here being that a lot of great ideas or innovations can come at random times or even by accident, instead of being forced. So that means by you doing that one thing that you love so much.. Is a good thing.

If you let it slip away it can lead to grad school blues or depression. I have a friend that loves to fish. I know someone who joined a book club. Another friend of mind travels a lot. Another goes boating/waterskiing in the summer and snowboarding in the winter (more along the lines of what I like). Anyways, don’t use alcohol as a ‘cop-out’ way of dealing with the stress of grad school. You’ll wake up sober the next day and you’re back to reality. So if you have something real and concrete to back it up and fall back on, so you won’t have to worry about tomorrow.

5) Don’t constantly obsess about your future.

Did you catch that? Don’t constantly obsess or worry about your future. Many times however, grad students delay the inevitable until it is too late. So what can you do? Start networking. NOW. It is never TOO early to start! This can tie in #3 above.

I see a lot of grad students who have NO clue what they want to do when they get out of grad school. Ok so why not plan ahead? Figure it out now! Why wait till you graduate, do a post-doc then decide?  That is a complete waste of time. Get on LinkedIn, find people in your field and start doing informational interviews.

Why do informational interviews? You learn about how others made their transition. You learn from their mistakes. You learn about the job market. You learn about what positions might fit you and what you might be interested in/good at. You learn about how you can have your ‘leg up’ over other applicants. You build a relationship with that person. They aren’t just a network contact. They are someone you can have lunch or coffee with for an hour and they’ll fill you in on whatever you want to know.

I think if grad students weren’t so lazy and did this prior to graduating, we would have a lot less post-docs and/or unemployed PhDs. A post-doc is only a continuation of grad school. Almost seems like the only thing you gain is slightly higher pay over your already very low graduate school stipend (if you are in the sciences), but it is a ‘cop out’ for those who still haven’t figured out what they want to do.

If you want to become a Professor than great-by all means do a post-doc and see if you can beat the odds. But I can tell you there are a handful of Post-docs that I know that say, “I’ll figure it out later.” Wrong attitude. Why are you doing the Post-doc without having a reason? You love research. Great. That doesn’t mean you spend the next 5 years of your life as a Post-doc. You’re only burning up more time and delaying the start of your life. So my advice is:

1) Don’t worry about your future (unless you haven’t spent any time finding about what to do with your PhD)

2) Start networking now so you don’t have to have a need to worry

3) Land a summer internship if you can leverage it via networking and come out with real world experience

Further Reading:

A Graduate Student Guide to Developing Your Professional Profile—Part 3: For Professional Careers in Industry, Nonprofits, and Other Fields

6) Don’t live with regret (to finish or not to finish).

A lot of grad students bicker and complain about the poor job market, being stuck as a post-doc, or low pay. You have two options: Accept your fate or make a change. If you don’t like where you are now then get out with a Master’s degree and do something else. There is NOTHING wrong with coming to a point of self-realization and quitting something because it doesn’t make sense to continue further. That is very self-empowering actually.

What doesn’t make sense is if you continued on knowing it really isn’t something you want to do, or you don’t really need the degree to get to where you want to be. The farther you string the PhD along the harder it is to quit. If you get to your 4th or even 5th year you are probably going to finish it. Why?

The more time you invest, the more you will justify the need to finish the PhD. If you don’t you will live with regret. So decide now if you are at this point. If you are a dissertator and in your later years (like me) and are doing all the things above #1-5 you should be fine. You will finish. Believe in yourself. You made it this far to the point where they [your professors] expect you to quit or when others would quit. But you pushed through. You didn’t do it for anyone else. You did it for yourself. So that someday you can look back and be proud. And know that all that suffering/hardship was not in vain.

If only you could see where you will end up 5-10 years from now… Only time and your work ethic will tell.  The PhD says something in itself. Some people will justify the need to finish a PhD with what’s called ‘Sunk Cost Fallacy’ (if you invest X amount of years this justifies the need to invest Y more years to finish), but deep down it comes down to what you truly want.

Not what other people try to explain or convince you of. You are the only person who knows what is truly right for you.. Sound cliche? Well think about it and put the family and peer pressure to the side. What do you ultimately want to do? Where do you truly see yourself 5 years from now? Do you need the PhD to get you there? If the answer is ‘Yes’ then focus on the now. The only thing that I will say… 5 or more years in a PhD program is a long time.

My best advice is to take each day one step at a time. You’ve heard this before. If you think about all the data and bad or future experiments that you are faced with on a normal basis, you can become overwhelmed. Break it down into little chunks, treat each day as its own. Watch yourself get that PhD. This is what worked for me over the past 4 years and helped keep my stress levels down. “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” ~Mathew 6:34

Find what works for you, stick with it, and never look back.


Further Reading:

tameyourphd

uncommonphdguide

Should you quit your PhD?

Living in social isolation in grad school and what to do about it