We all experience stressful times during our PhD which can be fuelled by failing experiments, guilt for taking time off, jealousy of successful colleagues or by being overwhelmed when we don’t set proper boundaries with our boss or colleagues. Here are some strategies to prepare for stressful times and also relieve acute stress.
1Focus on you
Find activities you like that bring your energy level back up and do them routinely and seriously. For example, sports, meditation or any personal project you might have. Try to be efficient during working hours to make time for your hobbies! Taking a regular breaks and walking on campus everyday can have a positive impact on both your body and mind.
2Take some time out
Taking va- or staycation can improve your efficiency. You are legally entitled to spend your vacation days. If you can’t take a couple of weeks off at once, take a series of long weekends. And make sure you stay off work emails. It is easy for us to think that our projects won’t advance when we go on vacation, which can affect our career in the long run. However, consistent good quality science is not easy to achieve if we are in a bad mental headspace, tired, distressed, anxious, sick or even depressed. Take care of yourself first, then your project can fly.
3Keep in touch with friends and family
Strong family and friend relationships are essential to make us feel included and cared for. They can offer us different perspectives on our internal worries and anxieties. Explore and find your own lines of communication, sometimes online is enough. However, sometimes face to face is required. Invest time and energy on relationships that make you feel loved and valued. If being around someone damages your mental health, it may be best to take a break. Make friends on campus by visiting social events.
4Create manageable chunks
If everything is overwhelming, try to break down your research into manageable tasks, and set achievable goals. Don’t hesitate to ask for help off your supervisor or a postdoc. Try ot have weekly, monthly and yearly plans and keep an overview. Don’t worry if you can’t keep up: you can adapt it if you had unrealistic goals or if things didn’t work. We become better and better at setting goals during the PhD, as we master techniques and get to know ourselves and our boundaries.
5Talk about it
Remember: talking about your feelings isn’t a weakness, being vulnerable is extremely brave ! It is part of taking charge of your well-being. It might be awkward at first, but it is worth exploring, check out these tips for a starting point.
If you have a supervisor that you trust, discuss your mental health concerns with them. By letting them know that focussing on mental health and personal development is important for your future (and present) you are defining your boundaries. You can also reach out to a mentor. This can be a collaborator who has no conflicting interests with you and has time to help. Try to find the best fit. Postdocs around you survived their PhDs and developed coping strategies. You could reach out to them as well. Reach out to your fellow PhD colleagues – share experiences and coping strategies, listen and support each other.
Read more on this topic
7 reasons why we get stressed during our PhD explores the reasons why PhD students find themselves stressed, and the importance of acknowledging mental health issues.
Let’s talk about mental health focuses on the warning signs, the definitions and how to understand your mental health status.
Feeling overwhelmed by academia? You are not alone summarises advice from several researchers on how to maintain good mental health in the hyper-competitive environment of science.
About the author
Marta Oliveira is a PhD researcher in MDC Berlin, Germany, studying the role of microtubule dynamics in angiogenesis. She is passionate about transforming academia into a safe, inclusive and dynamic workspace.
Marta, an EACR member, has written a series of articles for us around the topic of mental health. This series is an adaptation of a project she, Laura Breimann and Lorena Lopez Zepeda developed as MDC PhD representatives. The original project website can be found here.
Marta’s email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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