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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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