Written by Cathy Sorbara, Ph.D.
The last year of graduate school was the hardest for me.
I had papers to complete, a thesis to write, and an unending list of experiments to run.
I felt overwhelmed.
I felt like each experiment should have been completed yesterday and like there were never enough hours in the day to catch up.
Inevitably, I cut back on sleep.
I said no to networking events and other social engagements.
Still, there was so much to do.
Was I ever going to get out of here?
The questions from my friends and family had become more frequent and more annoying than ever.
“When are you graduating?”
“How long have you been doing this for again?”
I just wanted to escape.
I wanted to pack my bags and move to the south of Italy and open a café where I could spend my days perfecting mochas rather than Western Blots.
Suck it up. Deal with it. Stop being weak.
Academia is stressful for everyone, not just you. This is what I would tell myself.
But my anxiety grew and grew.
The more I pretended to be strong for fear of being called weak, the more anxious I became.
Eventually I sunk into a deep depression.
I did my best to hide it but everything in my life started to sink with me.
Why Academic Stress Is Increasing
A recent UC Berkley report on graduate student mental health showed that 45% of graduate students have had emotional or stress-related problems in the past year.
The report also showed that 50% of self-reported suicide attempts in graduate school are made by STEM graduate students.
Can you believe that?
50% of self-reported suicide attempts are made by STEM PhD candidates.
Why is getting a PhD so stressful today?
The reason is simple—academia is a dead-end.
STEM graduate students are very intelligent, hard-working, and ambitious individuals.
These individuals have given everything to academia and are only now realizing that academia has nothing to offer them in return.
Academia is no longer able to provide PhDs with jobs, funding, or even support.
According to a report by the Atlantic, 60% of PhDs and 80% of Life Science PhDs will NOT have a paying job at graduation.
Another report by the Royal Society showed that less than 1% of PhDs will actually go on to be tenured professors.
The book, Working With Problem Faculty, reports that working with difficult and often abusive faculty members is the number one concern in academia.
If this isn’t depressing, I don’t know what is.
PhDs are expected to give everything to a system that gives them nothing in return.
If this isn’t depressing, I don’t know what is.
9 Ways To Manage Academic Stress
Things may be depressing in academia, but you don’t have to be depressed.
First and foremost, if you already have symptoms of depression, get diagnosed and treated right away.
If you’re not clinically depressed but feel yourself becoming more and more stressed, don’t wait to make a change.
Make a change now.
There are many things you can do to avoid academic stress.
You can make a decision to leave this broken system and transition into a profit or non-profit industry position.
This decision alone can make you feel better.
You can also work to develop a kind of immune system against the doom and gloom in academia.
The only way to develop this immune system is to set up some new positive habits for yourself.
Here are 9 habits that will help you manage and overcome the causes and effects of academic stress…
1. Incorporate more anticipation into your life.
Always have something to look forward to.
Studies in the book, The Happiness Advantage, show that simply setting a date for an enjoyable event raises endorphin levels in your brain by 27%.
The best part is this enjoyable event does not have to be big.
It can be a date to watch a movie, have coffee with a friend, or go for a walk somewhere new.
The book also showed that your happiness will increase every time you’re reminded of this event.
No matter what you have going on in the lab, make sure you book something enjoyable into your schedule twice a week, preferably Wednesday and Saturday.
This will give you a sense of anticipation throughout the week and help you stave off academic stress.
2. Do regular exercise.
Advice on getting more exercise always sounds like a broken record.
But that’s because it’s very sound advice.
A Harvard study showed that a regular exercise routine has been shown to decrease symptoms of mild to moderate depression.
If you have trouble finding the motivation on your own, find an exercise buddy who will help you step away from the computer and lab bench to do something active outside.
If you hate the idea of going for a run, try yoga.
A report by the Telegraph showed that yoga helps ward off depression and eases anxiety.
The more your body moves, the better you will feel so make sure you get up out of your chair as much as possible.
3. Surround yourself with supportive people.
Graduate school can feel like a Mecca of pessimistic people.
The conversations with colleagues over lunch or at coffee break are filled with complaints and gossip.
This negativity stays with you when you leave for home at the end of the day.
Over time, all of your thoughts become so negative that you even get annoyed when someone attempts to positively rationalize your situation.
The only way to prevent this is to remove yourself from negative people in graduate school.
Instead, surround yourself with positive people.
Yes, there are positive PhDs out there. You just need to know where to look.
The best decision I made for myself was to join the Cheeky Scientist Association.
The Association is a group of positive and supportive PhDs who helped me not only transition into industry but they also helped me stay positive during the process.
Getting a PhD is very hard.
The only way to stay positive is to embrace relationships that inspire and motivate you to be a better person while helping others be better too.
4. Stop comparing yourself with others.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of measuring your success with the success of others.
Every PhD remembers the sting they felt when they learned that someone in their program graduated in three years.
Meanwhile, you’re on your sixth year.
Every PhD remembers the confusion and guilt they felt when their lab mate managed to get published in a high impact factor journal in the first couple of years of graduate school.
Meanwhile, you’re still sorting out which cell line to use in your initial experiments.
The problem is that comparing yourself to others is subjective.
You don’t have the same background as someone else.
You don’t have the same PI, the same resources, the same project, or the same personal situation.
It’s foolish to only value your accomplishments based on how your accomplishments stack up to others.
Instead of comparing yourself to others, compare yourself to your past self.
How much more do you know now than a year ago?
How much more do you know than five years ago?
Learn to celebrate your growth.
Learn to celebrate your successes and the successes of your colleagues, no matter how small.
This will lead to more success and a more positive and productive mindset.
5. Learn to be assertive and stand up for yourself.
In graduate school, no one will tell you that you’re working too hard.
No one will ever tell you it’s ok to complete a dataset on Monday rather than working through the weekend.
It is up to you to set strong boundaries and communicate those boundaries to your advisor.
Otherwise, everyone around you will start pushing you around.
If you don’t set up your own boundaries, other people will.
They will wring you completely dry until everything you have inside of you is used up.
Do not allow yourself to be overpowered and intimidated.
You deserve a weekend off.
You deserve to go to daytime networking events.
You deserve to take an hour out of every day to prepare your industry resume and job search strategy.
In fact, your career depends on these things.
6. Understand your working environment and your advisor’s expectations.
Don’t assume that your advisor works the way you do.
Don’t assume that they think about you as much as you think about them.
Don’t even assume they like you personally.
The hard truth is your advisor is the boss and you are the employee.
The more you understand how your boss thinks and acts, the less stressed you will be in graduate school.
Most importantly, find out as much about your advisor from former students and postdocs as you can.
Advisors have too much power in academia today and often go overboard in pressuring PhDs and PhD candidates to work overtime.
Be sure you know what you’re getting yourself into.
At the same time, don’t have unreasonable expectations.
It might take your advisor six months to read through the first draft of your paper or thesis.
Do your research on your advisor and your work environment and set your expectations accordingly.
7. Avoid isolation.
Academia is not an ivory tower, it’s an isolation chamber.
Many experiments in graduate school involve long hours in dimly lit rooms where you can pass most of the day without any sunlight, let alone social interaction.
This isolation is a breeding ground for negative, self-limiting beliefs.
If you’re not careful, these beliefs will fester and overcome you.
It’s easy to feel helpless when you’re alone.
At the same time, feeling helpless makes you want to be alone.
It’s a vicious cycle that leads to more and more stress and eventually depression.
No matter how much you feel like isolating yourself, don’t.
It’s the worst thing you can do.
Instead of closing off your lines of communication, open them up.
Talk to everyone about what you’re going through.
Write about it. Share it.
You’ll be surprised by how many other people are going through the same thing.
8. Put first things first.
You’ll never get every experiment done before graduating.
There will always be more work to do in the lab.
You must understand this.
It’s very important in the final years of graduate school to prioritize your schedule.
It’s important to ensure you complete experiments and meet critical deadlines.
But it’s equally important to realize that you’ll never be finished.
As you get close to graduation, or close to transitioning into industry from a postdoc, you must start putting lab work and publications second.
From now on, your job search must come first.
Taking the next step in your career must be your number one priority.
You’ll never get an industry job, or advance your career in general, if you keep working like you’re a peon in the lab.
9. Find an industry mentor.
An industry mentor is completely different than your academic advisor.
This kind of mentor can provide you with the wisdom you need to advance your career and leave academic stress behind forever.
The truth is many people in academia know nothing about industry.
Many lifelong academics have no industry connections whatsoever.
Yet, many of these people will act like they know exactly what you should do to advance your career.
Someone who has never worked in industry cannot give you intelligent career advice in today’s world.
A good industry mentor can help you create better expectations and help you manage any conflicts that come up for you in graduate school.
These mentors can also help you see things you may not be seeing on your own.
You don’t know what you don’t know.
By finding a good mentor, you can become aware of new things that will help you stay positive and get out of academia faster.
As difficult as it is to believe right now, the overwhelming feelings of academic stress and depression you are experiencing will pass. You will complete your PhD and move on to bigger and better things in industry or elsewhere. One way or another, you are nearing the end of graduate school. You have become THE expert in your field. No one understands your specific project better than you. You are intelligent, savvy, and nearly at your end point. A new beginning is right around the corner so surround yourself with the right people and finish strong.
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.