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7 Ways PhD Students And Academics Can Deal With Stress, Anxiety And Depression

Academic Stress On Students | Cheeky Scientist | Anxiety in Grad School

Written by Cathy Sorbara, Ph.D.

In the final stages of my PhD I lived in Germany.

I was attempting to plan my wedding while completing the last experiments for a manuscript that needed to be submitted yesterday. And, of course…

I was writing my thesis (in my “spare” time). 

Like most graduate students in their last year, I was working 10-12 hours a day.

Free time with my partner was normally over dinner after which I could barely stay awake to watch one television show. Then…

I’d wake up the next morning to do the exact same thing.  

Despite this, I think my academic experience was one of the better ones—my supervisors were not evil tyrants.

They had high expectations of their students but were themselves under a lot of pressure to succeed, being young investigators.

By the end of my studies, I seemed to be an accomplished student, having published well and graduating summa cum laude.

But something wasn’t quite right.

I was suffering.

I felt guilty about everything. I felt like I was not performing high enough, not achieving better results, not working long enough.

My self-worth was at an all-time low and that thirst for knowledge that motivated me to do my PhD was drying up.

Here’s something I haven’t told many people…

For two years during my PhD, I sought psychotherapy and was taking medication for depression. 

I was not alone in this experience either.

A PhD Is Hard And That’s Okay

Numerous studies including one published by the Guardian, reported that two-thirds of academics suffer mental health problems which they believe are attributed to their work situation.

A report by the Mental Health Foundation showed that “1 in 4 people will experience some kind of mental health problem in the course of a year.”

In the months leading up to end of my PhD career, I began to feel overwhelmed with fear and anxiety.

Most students I knew in my position were searching for potential post-doc positions and were filled with excitement now that the light at the end of the tunnel was becoming brighter.

I was not one of these students.

I wasn’t motivated to start a new research project in a new lab but in the same respect, I felt that had to be my next step as I had no idea what else I was qualified to do.

The fear was paralyzing. 

I did not apply for any positions and my PhD ended and I was unemployed.

I relocated to the UK and quickly realized that, for one, I am not the type of person that enjoyed all the spare time associated with being unemployed.

I was climbing the walls and driving my husband crazy.

I also knew that if I was going to wait for the world to give me a handout, I was going to be waiting an awfully long time.

I had a PhD. No one felt sorry for me. Everyone expected me to be successful.

All of this made me more depressed. Even a little bitter. Then…

I realized that my biggest obstacle was myself.  

The only things preventing me from succeeding were my own limiting beliefs and not any other external factor.

From Depressed And Confused To Mentally Clear

One morning, things became clear.

During my PhD, I wished for the moment when I could have more time to do the things I wanted to do.

After I defended my thesis, that moment arrived.  I didn’t know how to handle this at first, which is why I stay depressed.

Now, I realized, it was up to me to make the most of both my degree and my overall life.

It was my responsibility to do something with my PhD.

So, I started to blog, volunteered, and dove headfirst into an industry job search.

One aspect of the Cheeky Scientist Transition Plan involves creating a wish list of actions—what I wanted to do on a daily basis, no matter how trivial or grandiose.

Thinking about the lifestyle I wanted and not just the job title I wanted was an eye-opener for me. 

After a lot of reflection, I remembered that when I was in the lab, I enjoyed editing and writing manuscripts and proofreading for colleagues whose native language was not English.

This anecdotal experience became part of my wish list and drew me to search for a position in science communications and editorial publishing.

Fast forward a few weeks later and I received a job offer for a publishing editor position at a scientific publishing house.

Is this my dream career?  I am not sure.

But I am sure that this is part of my journey and it would not have been possible without being willing to step outside of my comfort zone and try something new.

Letting go of working at the bench was hard. All change is hard. But it’s also very rewarding.

My transition has already been one of the more rewarding experiences of my life.

If I could turn back the clock and lend advice to myself a year ago, I would say, “Don’t be intimidated by the unknown and don’t surrender to the myth that it’s career-suicide to veer off the typical scientist path.”

The only thing that’s career suicide for a scientist is refusing to adapt to this changing environment we’re in.

How To Cope With Stress In School | Cheeky Scientist | PhD Depression and Anxiety

7 Ways To Stay Positive And Move Your Career Forward

1. If you get depressed or anxious during your postdoc or in graduate school, don’t be ashamed or embarrassed by your feelings.

Depression and anxiety are NOT weaknesses.

Very often, they are medical conditions which can be diagnosed and treated. Do not turn these struggles into your hidden identity.

Talk about what you’re going through with supportive people, like those you find in the Cheeky Scientist Association.

2. Foster supportive relationships by going to in-person networking events.

At the very least, spend time with one or two other people. Have lunch with a friend, write an email to your sister, and schedule a weekly Skype date with your parents.

Make time to have dinner with your significant other each night.

3. Challenge negative thinking and your own limiting beliefs.

Performing experiments can be very self-depreciating.

You can have once successful experiment for every fifty you do (if you’re lucky!).

Your results are constantly under scrutiny from other scientists, your manuscripts are rejected from journals, and there is always an additional question to be asked for every answer you find.

Don’t be too hard on yourself. 

Do not measure your value based upon the results you achieve in the lab or the number of papers you publish or how well you are progressing compared to your colleagues.

4. Take care of yourself.

Life in academia often requires long hours in the lab, sleep deprivation and little to no time for eating well and doing exercise.

Do one thing for yourself each day.

This can be doing thirty minutes of yoga in the morning, going for a walk over your lunch break, cooking a proper dinner, or joining a team sport.

5. Celebrate successes, no matter how small.

Keep a gratitude journal and write down one thing you are thankful for each day. It sounds corny but it works.

Studies show that keeping a gratitude journal makes you more creative by opening up the blood flow in your brain. It also helps you sleep better.

Keep finding small wins to show off to yourself and other people.

For example, you can hang up the picture of the western blot you finally succeeded in performing after ten attempts. Or, you can go out to dinner with your lab mates when you have had a breakthrough during the day. It adds up and it really helps.

6. Try new things. Take the unbeaten path. Just because everyone else is going to do a postdoc, doesn’t mean you have to as well.

You can create your own path. 

Don’t worry about what other people may think about your decisions.

7. There is a big, bright world after your PhD—seize it.

Do you really think there’s nothing after your PhD except for more bench work? Think again.

There is an endless amount of careers that the technical and soft skills we have learned while studying have prepared us for.

Be excited and start planning.

PhD work is not easy. Working at the bench is very hard. It requires a high level of intelligence backed by even more tenacity. If you don’t keep your mindset in check, these things can spin out of control. Remember to take care of yourself and your mind by opening up about your problems, challenging limiting beliefs, celebrating your wins, and going your own way. Do this and you’ll be in a much better place mentally and emotionally to deal with stress, anxiety, and depression. Your career will be in a much better place too.

To learn more about transitioning into industry, including instant access to our exclusive training videos, case studies, industry insider documents, transition plan, and private online network, get on the wait list for the Cheeky Scientist Association. 

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Cathy Sorbara, Ph.D.

Cathy Sorbara, Ph.D.

Cathy has a PhD in Medical Life Science and Technology and is COO of the Cheeky Scientist Association. Cathy is passionate about science communication including translating science to lay audiences and helping PhDs transition into industry positions. She is Chair of Cambridge AWiSE, a regional network for women in science, engineering and technology. She has also been selected to take part in Homeward Bound 2018, an all-female voyage to Antarctica aimed to heighten the influence of women in leadership positions and bring awareness to climate change.
Cathy Sorbara, Ph.D.
  • Morgan Bye

    It has been great getting to know you over the last few months in the group Cathy, yours is such a moving story and I think you address a much felt but little discussed topic. Academic science can sometimes feel like self inflicted torture when that experiment just won’t work.

    Everybody deals with it in different ways. Some turn to partners, others to alcohol and some just throw their lives at a problem. The important thing to remember is that we are not alone. We all go through this. We should be here to support each other. It does get better, and your story is proof.

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Thank you, Morgan. I was hesitant to share my story but hearing comments such as this makes me realize I made the right decision. It does get better and time goes on. My PhD seems like such a long time ago now and it has barely been one year on!

  • Nikki

    It is very difficult to pursue PhD till end and balanced your health, life and relationship in between. This phase is most challenging phase in your life and takes all your passion, dedication, faith and patience. I am aware of this because my sister is currently in the last year of a PhD, I will surely share this article with her.

    • Dr. Isaiah Hankel

      Well said Nikki. You’re right, getting a PhD is no small task. It takes everything you have which is why it’s so important to take care of yourself.

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Spot on, Nikki. It challenges you in ways you never imagined when you entered it. Best of luck to your sister — I hope she sees the light at the end of the tunnel soon!

  • Brenda N

    If you want to become successful you have to step outside to your comfort zone and need to change yourself according to the time and trend. You have to develop new skills that make you perfect for your position. This is really an inspiring story and helped me and lots of other people like me.

    • Dr. Isaiah Hankel

      Thanks Brenda, I appreciate your comments here. I was really inspired by Cathy’s story too.

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Thank you, Brenda! Stepping outside of one’s comfort zone is the biggest challenge but also provides the biggest reward and satisfaction. I am happy you took something from the article.

  • Darcy

    Many people broke down during graduation or PhD because of stress and depression. I know the feeling and pain in that. I follow your blog regularly and it motivates me to continue my graduation. Whenever I feel low or depressed I come to your blog and read some quotes at starting of your articles. it really helps me to motivate myself.

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Wow — thank you for sharing this Darcy. I am thrilled that it can bring you motivation and I wish you all the best in continuing to work towards your graduation. You can do it 🙂

  • Beth K

    Celebrating small achievements are playing the major role in our life. If you have this habit, it will make you happy and keep motivated you all the time. It also creates a great impact on your colleagues or teammates and inspire them to work passionately.

    • Cathy Sorbara

      That is wonderful to hear, Beth! It certainly makes a huge difference for creating a positive atmosphere at work. People will be drawn to you and you will become a leader to them.

  • Corey

    Many postdocs felt depressed because of bench work. There are many other fields and expertise that need some experienced person and such requirements can only be fulfilled with a postdoc with sound technical knowledge and soft skills.

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Again completely agree! Post-docs have such an incredible skill set — technical skills, managerial skills, problem solving, mentoring, communication, etc etc etc. There are endless possibilities of ways in which they can apply what they have learned in academia. They only need to apply themselves and the jobs will come.

  • Harry

    Maintaining contact with helpful people and meet new people is very important if you are pursuing postdoc or graduation, it will help you to develop new community and networks of people with same interest. Eventually this will help you to create new things, establish a startup or getting a job.

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Completely agree — it was very important for me to have friends outside of academia. Not only did it provide some much needed relief from the never-ending “lab gossip” but when I made my transition out of academia, I had new insights into possible career avenues and people to network with.

  • BInny

    Do not feel depressed or negative if your manuscripts rejected or experiments failed consistently. The result is not everything, the experience and knowledge you get from that failure is important and convert them to use as your motivation. It will help you to grow faster.

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Yes! That is the best attitude to have. It’s the journey that is the most rewarding. Thank you for bringing attention to that point.

  • Jessica

    I saw many postdocs lose their confidence after repeated failure and not getting a good job. I learn one thing from this article that they need to be clear about what they want to achieve. Confusion creates a depressed state in the mind and leads to the more worse condition.

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Great point, Jessica. If you have clear goals then you will find it easier to turn failures into life lessons and be confident that you will reach your end point. The constant fear of “what am I doing this all for” can make bumps in the road seem catastrophic.

  • Matt

    I just love these lines, “Don’t be too hard on yourself.” and “Do one thing for yourself each day.” Despite of having stress and depression, you should not be too much hard on yourself. Take care of yourself and family, enjoy weekends. It will really help you to eliminate stress.

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Yes! For quite some time I was under the impression that everything should have been completed yesterday — constantly struggling to stay ahead of the game and feeling like I was never working hard enough. It’s an awful spiral if you don’t take a moment for yourself and relax.

  • Rita Nash

    Hi there, I am a 3rd year PhD student of computer science. I like your blog, I read almost all related articles and now I feel confident then before. The last 7th point give me a hope that after PhD, there can be more thing rather than bench work. I just joined the waitlist for the Cheeky Scientist association. Thank you.

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Hi Rita — thank you for positive feedback. There is definitely a lot of possibilities out there for PhD students outside the bench — publishing is just one of them! I hope to see you as part of the Cheeky Scientist group soon — they are a wonderful group of people and will help you immensely. Feel free to reach out at any time 🙂

  • Sanjeevani Arora

    wow awesome article!! I am glad you were able to find the thing you love to do, I am still working on it!!

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Thank you, Sanjeevani! I wish you all the best in your pursuit as well!

  • aroraharsukh

    Very interesting going through the article. People who are involved realistically & truthfully doing PhD are unique people , why, their desire , search, thirst may quench as they achieved their doctorate ——> Imagine they open gates for others, through which large numbers of people enters & develop intensity to explore into new interesting fields, new dimensions, add value to the subjects.End less process gets initiated. Imagine the value is created by doing PhD.

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Yes! Such a great perspective. Some times we are so focussed on getting out that we forget what we are putting in — PhDs create so much value to scientific knowledge and progress and we cannot forget the importance of our work.

  • Nikta Fay, Ph.D.

    I really like your advice #5: celebrate successes, no matter how small. I think too many times we’re fixated on how to improve things and what’s wrong with what we’re doing. Celebrating our strengths and successes can be very powerful. Thanks for the post.

  • Michael Will

    Perhaps consider leading some citizen science work. The need is great and the grassroots love of science is inspiring.
    “the scientific spirit is of more value than its products”
    – Thomas Huxley

  • Chloe Moss

    What a great article. I really needed to read this! I’m half way through my PhD and really struggling as experiments aren’t working and it’s very hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel. As someone who feels that a postdoc is not for them it’s refreshing to hear that this is definitely NOT a failure but an active and personal decision.

    Thanks for the great read.


  • shiwali goyal

    I am in my last year of Ph.D. and my guide used to scold me everytime, that you don’t knw this and that after 5 years of your Ph.D. So i felf heartbroken, as im a very hardworking student, sincere to my work and used to obey her everytime if she ordered me to do any other person’s work. I can say I am very helpful to my labmates. But as my time is coming nearer I can feel the stress and I cant bear her scolding everytime…….so to deal with that i used to do cycling, listen to loud music. But i can say this Ph.D. demands a hell lot of patience in you and you need to sacrifice your self respect. I really appreciate your story and its really inspiring.

  • azza

    can I contact you?

  • Divya Sriram

    I am a PhD student in the second year and I have not done much to further my PhD.But I have developed a very negative attitude about my work, i.e, everyday dragging myself to the lab has become a huge problem and once I am there I don’t feel like working and I am angry all the time!! I know I need to change my attitude and somehow finish my PhD, but I am scared that if I start working like a donkey , as biological research mostly is about, I will be a donkey throughout my life and that thought about my future depresses me a lot. I am not the one to shy from responsibilities or hardwork, but I hate doing “donkey work” without any thinking or passio involved, as I am expected to do in my lab.I m sure many others are in my situation but I don’t know how to change my attitude or get rid of my anger…Any suggestions??

  • spouter

    I am not a PhD student, but one of my best friends is in her third year. She is very self-motivated and extremely capable. Recently, though, she’s been confiding in me that she’s been feeling burnt out about work. She can unwind on weekends, but usually by Wednesday she’s down in the dumps, hard to engage in conversation and anything related to her work sets her on edge. I am really proud of her accomplishments and her vast remaining potential, but I’m afraid that the funk she’s in will not abate and that she might not finish her program. I’m looking for ways to help her feel better!

    This article was helpful, especially in learning about how many PhD students are affected by mental health issues, and in revealing the effect that peer scrutiny can have. But is there anything I can do for her? I can be there for her, help her have experiences outside the lab, but since I am definitely not a PhD student, I can’t really understand the place she’s in. What else can I do to help? Are there other resources I can bring to her to help her cope?

  • Lorena Manzanares

    Thank you for this post. I am in my final PhD months and I am getting every single symptom imaginable related to anxiety, frustration, etc. It is quite comforting to read about other people going through a similar situation and how they came out of it successfully.