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

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.

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.

Join Cheeky Scientist Association
Get Free Job Search Content Weekly
Catherine Sorbara, Ph.D.
Catherine 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.

Similar Articles

A PhD In Leadership: 9 Academic Skills That Turn You Into A Boss

A PhD In Leadership: 9 Academic Skills That Turn You Into A Boss

By: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

How many PhDs miss their calling as leaders because of academic failure?  I remember my own academic education well. Like other PhDs, no one taught me how to develop my leadership skills. Leadership is a core part of real life, of industry. But it’s not a focal point for academia, which is why so many students get their PhDs only to face a harsh reality… Instead of success and recognition, PhDs feel used. They’ve been used by a university system that chewed them up and spit them out. There is no clear path to success or fulfillment, only unanswered questions.…

7 Ways To Keep Your Job Search Alive In A Recession

7 Ways To Keep Your Job Search Alive In A Recession

By: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

I’ve lost a job. I was offered a contract, and they pulled it back. Everybody is ignoring me on LinkedIn now.  I was communicating with somebody about an upcoming interview, and now they’re not replying to my emails. My postdoc is not going to be renewed.  This is the kind of message I’ve been getting from countless PhDs all over the world. The recession has made things challenging for everyone. A lot of PhDs thought academia was going to take care of them, but they’ve found out the hard way that it isn’t true. For weeks now, I’ve been warning…

How These 3 Leadership Skills Can Protect Your Career During A Recession

How These 3 Leadership Skills Can Protect Your Career During A Recession

By: Sarah Smith, PhD

The current crisis reminds me of something that happened to me years ago. I had an interview with a big company, and it was scheduled to take place on an upper floor of a tall building. I took the elevator, which turned out to be the wrong choice. Normally, I’d have chosen the stairs, but I was feeling nervous and didn’t want to make my heart rate increase – it was already beating fast. The elevator got about halfway up to my floor and abruptly stopped. The doors didn’t open. There were several other people in there with me, and…

5 Ways To Limit PhD Anxiety And Protect Your Career

5 Ways To Limit PhD Anxiety And Protect Your Career

By: Elliott Brecht, PhD

You should have seen my academic CV. It was a total disaster. By academia’s standards, it was fine. But I had a real monster of a CV, over 5 pages long and full of academic jargon. And there was no cover letter either. Can you guess what industry employers did after taking a glimpse at my CV? They probably threw it away – that’s assuming it even reached employers. More likely, it was filtered out of candidacy by application tracking software. You might think that, given the current situation, you should be focusing your time on other things, not career…

Secure PhD Jobs With The 15-Point Coronavirus Career Plan

Secure PhD Jobs With The 15-Point Coronavirus Career Plan

By: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

Isaiah Hankel has your guide to navigating the world of PhD jobs during the coronavirus crisis and using this temporary downtime to your advantage. The financial markets have crashed worldwide.  I can tell you from experience what’s going to happen next. I was a PhD student in 2008 during the financial crisis, and history tells us the hiring market is next to crash. After 2008, I felt like there were no jobs, and I had no industry network to connect with. My PI couldn’t help me – he didn’t know anybody either.  He was in the academic bubble with me. …

5 Visa Processes International PhDs Master To Lock Down A Job

5 Visa Processes International PhDs Master To Lock Down A Job

By: Arunodoy Sur, PhD

Visa Processes for PhDs can be complicated – luckily, contributing author Arunundoy Sur, PhD, can break it down for you. I started applying for jobs early. I was preparing to graduate, and I felt lucky to receive some positive responses right away. In a very short period of time, I had interviews lined up with 4 different companies. I went through multiple rounds of interviews and even reached the stage of salary negotiation in 3 of these cases. It all seemed to be going well. Being proactive was paying off, and now I had a new job lined up before…

Coronavirus Panic Proves The World Needs PhDs In These 9 Industry Roles

Coronavirus Panic Proves The World Needs PhDs In These 9 Industry Roles

By: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

Isaiah Hankel, PhD, discusses the global reaction to the coronavirus and how it demonstrates that industry needs PhDs more than ever. The need for scientists is rising, and it’s rising fast. With the recent outbreak of the “coronavirus,” media have reported all kinds of information, not all of it true and accurate. News and other media outlets thrive on timely reportage, and unfortunately, panicked viewers will pay more attention than relaxed ones. The effects of this panic are already observable. Who is in the best possible position to work against this alarmist racket?  Scientists holed up in academia? No. In…

3 Strategies For Motivation And Accountability During A Job Search

3 Strategies For Motivation And Accountability During A Job Search

By: Sarah Smith, PhD

As with most long-term projects, consistent accountability requires motivation. Research done at the University of Rochester identified two types of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation is the kind of curiosity that drives you to pursue knowledge all the way to mastery. PhDs almost always have a lot of this motivation. Loving your field of study and wanting to advance it is what made you push your way through a doctoral program. Intrinsic motivation derives from natural satisfaction – when the task is its own reward. The problem is that intrinsic motivation rarely drives a job search. What PhDs need…

PhDs Are Entrepreneurs - 3 Ways To Start A Business And Quit Denying Your Leadership Skills

PhDs Are Entrepreneurs - 3 Ways To Start A Business And Quit Denying Your Leadership Skills

By: Joydeep Pal, PhD

Are you a PhD with your heart set on becoming a CEO? Pause for a moment and recognize how rare you are. The majority of PhDs will never cross the gap between working for other people and working for themselves. Entrepreneurship in general is rare, but becoming an entrepreneur after completing a PhD is exceptional. Study EU examined the largest companies on each continent, and they reported that among these companies’ CEOs, a mere 10% can boast a doctoral degree. But the question is this: Why don’t more PhDs go this route? After all, as a PhD, you have a…

Top Industry Career eBooks

Complete LinkedIn Guide For PhDs

Complete LinkedIn Guide For PhDs

Isaiah Hankel

The LinkedIn tips & strategies within have helped PhDs from every background get hired into top industry careers.

20 Most Popular Industry Career Tracks For PhDs

20 Most Popular Industry Career Tracks For PhDs

Isaiah Hankel, PhD & Arunodoy Sur, PhD

Learn about the top 20 industry careers for PhDs (regardless of your academic background). In this eBook, you will gain insight into the most popular, highest-paying jobs for PhDs – all of which will allow you to do meaningful work AND get paid well for it.

Industry Resume Guide for PhDs

Industry Resume Guide for PhDs

Isaiah Hankel, PhD

Learn how to craft the perfect industry resume to attract employers. In this eBook for PhDs, you will get access to proven resume templates, learn how to structure your bullet points, and discover which keywords industry employers want to see most on PhD resumes.