• GradHacker

    A Blog from GradHacker and MATRIX: The Center for Humane Arts, Letters and Social Sciences Online


Identifying and Conquering Undefined Stress

On figuring out where the "stress monster" in your life comes from.

January 18, 2015

Jason McSheene is a Princeton University Molecular Biology PhD student and creator of the PhD in Progress Podcast (Twitter @PhDPodcast).         


If you ask any graduate student about his or her key stressors associated with their program of study, you may receive some familiar answers: Long hours in the lab, endless piles of research papers to read, uncooperative undergraduates, and overbearing colleagues, for instance. Of course, the assortment of identified stressors is unique to each person and, hopefully, limited to only a couple of these examples. However, vague feelings of slight dread or darkness can lurk behind the obvious. The general aura of “ick” remains unidentified, tugging at us from a distance. From personal experience and conversations I have had with other graduate students, undefined stress seems to stem from a few central sources:

1. No clear boundaries of your graduate school responsibilities. This should be simple in theory, but in practice is often anything but. Graduate students often have a deep respect or even love for what they study, which makes creating divisions between “research life” and “the rest of life” difficult. We want to excel and are driven by internal and external motors for progress. We are also eager to please our bosses and fellow researchers. Performing higher-level work in any profession or field necessitates defining what boundaries and progress actually look like. Will you know you are achieving success when you publish the paper you have been working on? Will you perform the new experiment and analyze the results by the end of the week? Without defining the territory you are working within, there is no end to it.

Unstructured time is the toughest obstacle for many people to overcome during their graduate school tenure. Budgeting time towards making strides on your goals can really clear your mind of the vague stress monster. When your goals and schedule are defined, then your mind is clear on why and how your time will be spent. When your mind is unclear, you will often be unsure if what you are doing at any given moment is the best action possible.

2. Frequent, unwarranted, or invalid comparisons to others. Many of us pursuing a PhD have friends who have become physicians, dentists, attorneys, or business managers while we remain in the late years of PhD candidacy. This can lead to the stress of feeling left behind professionally, experientially, and financially. The concerns themselves are valid and can play a vital role in shaping your goals. Unfortunately, the dissatisfaction of constant comparison will catch up to you. No, you might not be able to afford that brand new car or fancy European trip your friends post about on Facebook. On the other hand, you have many opportunities before you that they may not. Take advantage of campus lectures, libraries, and clubs to better understand the resources available to you that you would not have in the “real world.” As an academic researcher, you may also have access to numerous journals, conferences of interest, and direct conversation with experts in numerous fields.

Instead of allowing jealousy to rule your emotions, leverage the idea that you have the power of choice. You have chosen to obtain your PhD. Each day you go to work, you have a choice to continue your studies or to waste the whole day. Additionally, it is your choice to leave a PhD program if you feel that it is best. When you embrace self-accountability instead of a victim mentality, it solidifies a sense of purpose and motivation.

3. Living the Lone Wolf life. I continue to struggle with going it alone. Even writing a post like this is difficult, knowing that an editor will review it and the online community may have harsh criticisms. Because of this, I (and others, I’m sure) attempt to work alone and wait too long to ask for help. There is a certain romanticism and idealism of performing all of your own results independently and then, once perfected, showing them off to world. Bad news … progress is rarely made in a vacuum. On the contrary, working in an isolated room with no input or socialization can cause one of the most profound sources of stress—loneliness.

To combat the Lone Wolf life, budget some time and energy into building significant relationships with those in your life. Everyone needs at least a couple of people with whom they can share their thoughts, dreams, and worries. We all need some brutal honesty and deeply meaningful inspiration. Even in you do not have strong relationships, consider welcoming comments and questions about the tasks that matter. Adapting to both positive and negative critiques may very well encourage your best work to shine. Graduate students are highly cerebral and analytical but nobody truly succeeds on their own.

4. Perception that grad school will never end and you’re stuck in stasis. You have been in the same room with the same people for three or four years and you have seen the spirit of your senior graduate student colleague wax and wane as he prepares to defend his thesis. This mentality is especially common with those who have spent their entire lives as formal students. Indeed, it is the culmination of the stress of points 1-3 in this post!

The truth: graduate school is only temporary and, provided you hit your goals and targets, you will graduate and start a professional occupation. There are ways to remind yourself that your graduate studies have an end date. First, keep open communication with those who have finished PhD programs. They should be able to lend a familiar and knowledgeable ear to your concerns and inquiries. You may also find that starting an early career exploration provides structure to the type of goals you should be setting in addition to establishing expectations for your near future. Finally, just because you have been working on the same project, in the same room, with the same people for years does not mean that you are the same person you were when you started. You have matured and gained new perspectives throughout the years that would likely surprise your former self. I recommend keeping a journal to track those changes. Reflection can be motivational.

How have you caused yourself stress throughout graduate school? What did you do to remedy the situation(s)? Let us know in the comments.

[Image via Flickr user Bernard Goldbach and used under Creative Commons licensing]


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