the PhD student and the stress management unicorn

Guest post by Furaha Florence Asani, PhD Candidate, Department of Infection and Immunity, TUOS


In first year it’s the settling in to a new environment, then the transfer report and viva that upgrade you to the full PhD. In second year it’s the wondering if you have as much data as your peers, and if that data is relevant. In third/fourth year it’s the thesis, rushing to finish everything off, job hunting, and prepping your mind for the transition to a ‘real job’. All of this interspersed with everything else going on in your personal life. Which PhD student can say they don’t know what stress/anxiety is? And then again, which PhD student can honestly say they have taken time to master the art of stress management?

We are part of ‘generation notification’, so we have already been placed in a rat race, whether we like it or not. We are constantly bombarded, many times even subliminally, with the need to be successful and gain recognition. Aside from that, the reality for those of us who have chosen this path is that we want our work to be worthwhile and relevant in the grand scheme of things. Somewhere in between normal every day research anxieties, and wider worldly pressures, the PhD student finds themself plagued by imposter syndrome, and promises-to-self that we will deal with our stress one day.

I’ve realised something that may bring some comfort: we’re ALL in the same boat! Almost every other PhD student you talk to feels the same way. In fact I am no longer convinced that in any universe, stress and the PhD experience are separable. This doesn’t necessarily mean that we must let it cripple us, but rather, that we accept that it is just part of the natural process of what we have signed up for and take active steps to manage it. Moreover, every other working sector will come with its fair share of trials.

Speaking to many different PhD students over the past 15 months, here is a mash-up list I have created of things that help them de-stress:

  • Balance is good, try as much as possible to balance your social life/hobbies with your research.
  • Use your spare time to explore other avenues of thinking and being that will help you gain some calm.
  • Sign up for a dance or cookery class with the ‘give it a go’ programmes run by Students Unions, or cook and bake at home, or knit something
  • Attend a skills course, from sharpening your critical thinking skills to courses on gaining assertiveness (they really are quite informative and helpful)
  • Find a trusted circle you can vent to. Take turns to vent in the pub (remember to drink responsibly J).
  • Volunteer to be a mentor and be helpful to others. Helping others helps us feel good.

Importantly, maintain a good rapport with your supervisors by ‘managing up’. If for one reason or the other this is unattainable alone, speak with your tutors (or other advisors) about how you can turn this around.

Another important thing is never to isolate yourself to the extent you don’t realize you’re sinking till you feel you’re about to lose it. You may not even realise when you’re doing it.

Do realise that the PhD is a process that you chose, that will not last forever, but it does deserve a good effort from you. There are so many things we could do that will inadvertently bring more positivity to our own lives.

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