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How to manage Phd stress, anxiety and disillusionment

Rakhi AcharyyaGraduate school usually starts with many promises. PhD hopefuls walk into their future alma mater, blissfully optimistic about their future contribution, wanting to leave their mark in academia.

Either that or they feel like this is the only path that could possibly delay the pains of job hunting.

Whatever be the reason, one ends up in grad school, one looks forward to an experience of academic growth, with the professors. The professors, they think and hope, will walk them through the expansive mire of intellectual space.

All that quickly fades away, much like the career of a-once-popular Baba Sehgal. It starts with qualifiers, comprehensive exams, proposal defense- many names but all with the same intent, an initiation of sorts, to getting used to being intimidated.

With the load of courses and teaching assistantships, one gets little time, if any, to start research. Well, at least that’s how it works in most of the US, unless you get some kind of a fellowship and don’t have to worry about earning a living through teaching. When I say earning, though not being paid in peanuts, it is just enough to buy a sack of peanuts and rent a measly apartment to store it in.

Now, having completed the obligatory dance-around-the-fire, one is ready to start on their doctorateship. After careful consideration of – which field to go to, whether Prof. X has funding to last ones’ thesis, and whether he would pass the congeniality test, in the last month’s issue of the Cosmopolitan – one chooses their advisor, Prof. Right.

Call me cynical, but six and a half times out of ten, advisors turn out to be that guy your Mom warned you about. It is not that advisors want to be mean. It just so happens that after years and years of dealing with students, bean counting funding agencies, over-critical paper reviewers, school administrators and financially disappointed family members, the only people they feel almighty over, are their PhD students.

Since, churning anecdotes is my favorite thing, here’re some.

In an unnamed school, an unnamed advisor had forbidden, his unnamed student, to return to his home-country to visit his critically ill father-in-law, Mr. Patel. There is no need to take leave to meet distant relatives. Try telling your wife that her parents are nothing but distant relatives who don’t concern you!

In another unnamed school, another unnamed advisor made his student work 7 days a week, without a break, for 15 hrs everyday. The student was from one of those troubled countries who couldn’t just visit home, on a whim. He sent for his mom, to meet him after 5 years. In the two weeks she was visiting, his advisor let him stay home for just one weekend!

I know, I am known to see the worst in people, and there are advisors who treat their students with respect and consideration. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that the system relies a lot on the relationship between students and their advisors. And such a system is too delicate to not cause any stress.

PhD research is a demon in itself. It is not always easy for students to transition from the receiving end, of education, to being the ones who are finding new things about a subject matter. One can spend 5-6 years on a project and end up with no result, or be told that someone has already published a paper on the same problem she/he has been pursuing. It is not uncommon to find PhD students, in their final years, to reach a state of impasse. Often students show symptoms of, what is called, an impostor syndrome. Feeling like they are frauds, pretending to be intellectuals, in academia. With constant intimidation from advisors and bleak job prospects, this feeling is quite understandably reinforced. Questioning, ones’ decision to pursue a PhD, becomes a common theme among students.

With this much overwhelming cynicism, disappointment, intimidation and overall disillusionment, how can a PhD student keep up with demands of the program?

According to a study, at University of California at Berkeley, nearly 47% of surveyed PhD students showed signs of depression, highest numbers being in the humanities and arts departments. Nearly 10% of them had even contemplated suicide during their program.

The root of these depressive feelings are related to their PhD in more ways than one. Feelings of disillusionment, are also woven into the feelings that lead to depression. Uncertainty in future job prospects, financial instability, isolation, lack of clear academic progress, not feeling valued, strained relationship with advisor, health and sleep deprivation, all add fuel to the fire.

How then, can a student seek help? One can begin to answer by suggesting a few things.

How to manage Phd Stress, Anxiety and Disillusionment


1. Have a social life

It is absolutely essential to have friends/agreeable family as a support system. You can always find this one gal/guy who is always in the lab, in the library, reading papers, studying. While still being an excellent means to complete ones’ PhD a year before others, it can make such a student unable to define her/his existence beyond the program. In its worst form, it can even lead to depression.

2. Cultivate Hobbies and Interests

I got hooked on carpentry and old TV shows, during my PhD. In fact I know enough American criminal law, from Law & Order, to arraign and prosecute any psychopathic murderer…as long as they confess. Hobbies are an excellent medium to channel ones’ frustrations away. Hobbies are a well-suggested means of countering stress and depression. It takes care of the constant obsessive pattern of research, that students subject themselves to.

3. Stay Healthy

PhD students are notorious in treating their health as secondary. Sleeping 3-4 hours, keeping odd hours, surviving on cheap and low quality food, and stressing way too much. All this comes at the cost of a healthy body. Stress, being a self-feeding phenomenon, makes it easy to prey on constitutionally weak students.

4. Improve relationship with advisor

During my PhD at Michigan State University, I was blessed with an excellent advisor who, however, was not beyond the occasional loss of temper. After one such occasion, I had gone back to his office, later, to tell him that I couldn’t continue working for him if I was going to be scared of his temper all the time.

And amazingly, he apologized. I, who had never spoken my mind to another Professor, before in India, wasn’t expecting to be apologized to.

But I learnt a lesson from that episode. Professors are just humans, not aliens with superpowers. An honest confrontation could possibly be their kryptonite.

With an open relationship, with ones’ advisor, a student can begin to address the feelings of inadequacy in her/his work. With that, will come, confidence and the much needed self reliance.

5. Have a Plan B

What if academia is not your thing? You can get a PhD and still decide to go do something else. The web is full of career change stories. Having some plan to fall back on, can be the reassurance needed to carry on and not be stressed about the what-ifs.

6. Don’t be afraid to seek help

Follow some simple steps to manage stress, as has been summarized in the articles, 5-a day stress management techniques or 15 stress management tips. Talk to friends/family and seek counseling, at the University health facilities or avail of a free online counseling startup facility.

In the end, PhD is an ambitious and challenging program. The optimum qualities, for success, are determined by many factors, many of which are beyond hard-work and intellect.

PhD students have more to gain by learning how to keep themselves from getting carried away with stress and doubt. One can then hope to still keep up with the optimism, one started with, and leave that much-desired mark, and not a stain, in academia.

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Rakhi Acharyya
About Rakhi Acharyya
Rakhi is a freelance writer, a Physics PhD from Michigan State University, an ex-teacher and a former employee of Corporate America. Follow her on Twitter.

3 thoughts on “How to manage Phd stress, anxiety and disillusionment”

  1. Very useful article! Interestingly, these constitute a healthy practice at any stage of life.
    We have a tendency of taking ourselves seriously, perhaps, a little too seriously. And that too in our familiar and comfortable constructs, whatever those may be. For me, the entire phD-experience kept shattering this, repeatedly. With some combination of the above, it was possible to improvise and adapt, to the point that stress could induce creativity, almost a Pavlovian one.

    At any rate, for me, phD and managing through it would remain as a trailer to how life in the real world is.

  2. @rakhi, How can you have the patience for post doc. Am confused between phd and ms because i think i may not have the endurance for phd though i like that option

  3. The answer is so subjective, Ronit. All I can tell you is that whatever program decision you make, you should be looking into its benefits after you get the degree. What field are you in? It always helps to see the career path that your seniors have followed. What job options are there post MS and/or post PhD? By what age would you be possibly graduating from your PhD (‘coz trust me, that matters)? And many more considerations that would be pertinent to your field, personality, institution, your adviser and so and so. I guess what you can do is identify your field of interest, talk to potential advisers, see if you think it is feasible in terms of time and money and then perhaps you will have more information to make the decision.
    Did that sound helpful?


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