Keeping Your Stress in Check as a Doctoral Student: Strategies and Resources

Is the pressure of your PhD or professional doctoral program getting to be too much? You’re not alone. Pull back the curtain on why doctoral programs can be so stressful, learn practical strategies to unwind, and get expert advice on how to keep your stress at a healthy level.

Written By

Quinn Dannies

Meet the Expert

Rachel Hallnan

Last updated

Oct 26, 2023

Coursework, research, and loans – oh my! Do the obligations of your doctoral studies have you feeling like you’ve been swept up in a tornado? You’re certainly not the only one. In fact, over 35% of PhD students report experiencing mental health challenges because of the demands of their program. At this point, you’ve certainly had plenty of experience excelling in higher ed. But earning your PhD is a whole new world. The pressure of creating new research, navigating academia, and having a personal life is a lot. So it makes sense that many PhD students struggle with stress and other mental health issues. 

Even if you’re facing challenges, we know you’ve got the brains, heart, and courage to succeed in your program. And we’re here to help. We’ve studied what the experts have to say and talked to current doctoral students to develop the ultimate guide to managing stress during your PhD. Follow us as we pull back the curtain on how to manage stress, balance your life, and access resources to help you thrive in your doctoral program. 

Why Can PhD and Doctoral Programs Be Stressful?

Life is stressful. School is stressful. But PhD programs present their own set of challenges that take things to a whole other level. For many doctoral students, the stress management strategies that have worked for them in the past don’t mesh with the demands of their new program. Recognizing and naming the types of stress you are dealing with is an important first step to managing it. Here we’ll talk about some of the unique pressures PhD students experience and share some potential coping strategies. 

1. Pressure to Contribute Original Research

In your undergrad and master’s program, you relied on the work of other academics to develop your ideas. But you’re in the Emerald City now, so you get to contribute brand new knowledge to the canon. However, the pressure to contribute can be overwhelming, and developing research can be a headache. On top of that, many programs emphasize publishing and presenting at conferences regularly throughout your program. 

How you can overcome it:

When you’re struggling with research stress, it can be helpful to get out of your own head. Consider these options to help you reset and refocus:

  • Talk to your peers: PhD students in your department or a related field might offer some interesting takes on the work you’re doing. Share your progress and ask for feedback, ideas, or questions. If nothing else, you all can commiserate about the struggle. 
  • Connect with other experts: All the sources you’re building your research on are written by real people. Consider reaching out to researchers and experts at other institutions to swap ideas or collaborate on a project. 
  • Take a break: We know it’s not realistic to go on a two-week vacation from your lab, but what about something a bit shorter? Give yourself a day, or ideally a few days, away from your work. Don’t write about it, don’t read about it, just do some things you enjoy and let your mind wander. You might be surprised at what you’ll see when you return to your research with fresh eyes. 

2. Changing Research Directions

PhDs take a long time, and the research landscape can change dramatically over the course of your studies. You may also have to cope with having an advisor leave or funding challenges. Or your findings and interests might lead you in a new direction. Between the practical challenges of research and the monumental importance of your dissertation, you may find yourself forced in a new direction or unsure if you are headed down the right road. 

How you can overcome it:

No one likes a change of plans, but you’ll have to do your best to take things in stride. Here are a few ways to ground yourself when you’re navigating shifting goals:

  • Seek advice: Reach out to your advisor, other mentors, or acquaintances in the field to chat about your next moves. They can offer some insightful feedback and help you feel more confident about your new direction. 
  • Apply what you’ve already done: Sure, you’re onto a different topic. But that doesn’t mean your previous work was a waste of time. Take stock of what you’ve accomplished so far and think about how your skills and knowledge can enrich your new research. 
  • Take a deep breath: You probably don’t want to hear it, but meditation, journaling, or exercise can all help you clear your mind and ease anxiety. Treat yourself to a little extra self-care while you orient yourself to this new project. 

3. Maintaining School, Work, and Life Balance

Often when you mention work-life balance to a PhD student, they’ll just laugh in your face. You might be feeling crushed by the demands of research, writing, coursework, and everything else that comes along with school. And with all that weight on your shoulders, it might feel impossible to maintain your work and day-to-day responsibilities. And as for hobbies and socializing? Those are usually the first to go. If you’re feeling like your plate is too full, you’re probably right. Research published in PLOS Computational Biology notes that unsustainable work-life balances are a growing problem for PhD students. 

How you can overcome it:

First of all, remind yourself that feeling overwhelmed is normal. Struggling to manage all of your responsibilities is often the result of high, sometimes unrealistic, expectations from your school. But, for better or worse, it’s still your job to make things work. Here are a few ways that students balance competing priorities:

  • Set clear boundaries for yourself: Decide your priorities for the day, week, or semester and how much time you have to dedicate to each, then stick to it. Sure, that’s easier said than done. But any effort you take to carve out time for your non-academic needs will help you manage the load.
  • Practice saying no: If you’re like most students, you have no shortage of people asking you to donate your time and energy to proposals, committees, and side projects. Be selective about what you commit to. Unless an extra responsibility aligns with your research, long-term goals, or genuinely interests you, don’t do it. It’ll be hard at first, and you might get some pushback. But declining unnecessary work frees up time for you to focus on your research and care for yourself. 
  • Get on a schedule: Schedules look different for different people. Some people need flexibility to be productive, so build that into your day. Other people find it easier to focus when they have every hour accounted for. Experiment with what works for you, and use the priorities established above to guide how you structure your time. 

4. Long-Term Commitment and Sacrifices

We’ve already discussed how demanding the everyday elements of a PhD can be. So when you consider that earning a PhD can take four to eight years, the stress and burnout really piles on. Plus, you may be living somewhere you don’t like, struggling to maintain relationships, and earning a pitiful stipend. At some point during their program, every PhD student has moments where they want to click their heels together and get transported literally anywhere else. 

How you can overcome it:

Since PhDs take so long, fixating on the end of the road can lead to despair. But reframing the process can help you rally the motivation you need to make it to graduation. So instead of looking far into the future, consider some of these strategies:

  • Celebrate short-term milestones: Did you finish a particularly hard reading? Have a little dance party. When you finally submit that journal article, give yourself a whole weekend off! Actively look for reasons to celebrate your progress and accomplishments. 
  • Reflect on how far you’ve come: Give yourself a few minutes to take stock of how much you’ve learned and how much you’ve accomplished so far. If it helps, write a list and tape it above your desk. Repeat as needed. 

5. Comparing Yourself to Peers

Imposter syndrome, anyone? Some research suggests that over 70% of academics experience feelings of imposter syndrome at some point during their career. So if you’re feeling like you aren’t performing as well as your peers, it’s a sure bet that many members of your cohort are experiencing the same self-doubt. 

How you can overcome it:

Unfortunately, we can’t just decide to stop feeling like frauds. But there are some strategies that can help:

  • Cultivate a growth mindset: We learn the most when we take risks and challenge ourselves. So if you feel like you’re struggling, remember that struggling is part of the point. You’re earning an advanced degree in order to grow, so lean into it.
  • Document your wins: Make yourself a file on your desktop for letters of recommendation, nice comments you’ve received on your work, and anything else that reminds you how talented you are. Review it as often as necessary when you are feeling inadequate. 
  • Talk about it: Remember, many others are feeling the same way. Talk about it honestly, and figure out ways you can hype each other up and support one another. 

6. Lack of a Clear Structure

You’ve read your degree handbook, reviewed your program checklist, and are in touch with your advisor. Your path should be super clear right? Most PhD students would disagree. There are hundreds of little uncertainties that students deal with on a day-to-day basis that can make it hard to stay on track. And since the major milestones in your program are years apart, it can be difficult to structure your writing and research to stay on schedule. 

How you can overcome it:

How you cope with the uncertainty and lack of structure in your program depends a lot on your learning style and habits. But here are two ways that successful PhD students of all types cope with a lack of clear structure:

  • Build your own structure: Break down your major tasks into smaller deadlines. Put them on your calendar. Take them seriously. Perhaps you can get your advisor on board to help you stay accountable. Breaking down big tasks into smaller chunks can keep you from procrastinating and help you see how much progress you’re making. 
  • Find an accountability group: Many academics at all points in their career have accountability partners or groups to help them stay focused. And it’s super easy to set up. Find someone else (or multiple others) who are at a similar point in their program. They don’t have to be in your field or have any background in your work. Then make a plan to check in. Some groups just get together and work. Some groups start a Zoom call and a timer and work quietly until the time is up. Others have regular phone calls to meet up and check in on everyone’s progress. 

7. Budget and Finance Pressures

You may have 100 problems, and 99 of them are likely money-related. Even if you’re lucky enough to have a stipend, it still might be a struggle to make ends meet. If you’re financing your education through loans, the thought of repaying them might be plaguing you. When it comes to grants and funding, there’s never enough to go around. Because the consequences of running out of money are dire, it makes sense to be more than a little stressed out about your bank account.

How you can overcome it:

Unless you win the lottery, money is always going to be a source of anxiety. But knowing your resources and having a plan can help you feel more stable. 

  • Build a budget: Knowing how much money you have coming in and going out can make you feel more in control of your life. Sit down with your bills and pay stubs and figure out how to balance the scales. If you’re not sure where to start, the State of Oregon has an excellent tutorial.
  • Utilize your resources: Many schools have a grants office to help graduate students and faculty find funding. Set up a meeting, and see what ideas they have for you. You can also look for grants, fellowships, and scholarships from outside private and professional organizations to help support your studies.
  • Make use of mutual aid: See if your school has a food pantry or supply closet for students. Research groups in your community that do clothing exchanges, communal meals, or offer other kinds of support. These types of groups are designed to help communities thrive, so don’t be anxious about participating. You can pay it forward after graduation or offer to volunteer some time to give back to the organization.

8. Job Market Concerns

We don’t want to stress you out more, but the job market for academics is really competitive. But stressing about the future can be a huge distraction and make it hard to excel in your current work. On the flip side, keeping your anxiety in check can improve your career prospects.

How you can overcome it:

The uncertainty you’re feeling about the job market probably isn’t going to go away. But much like with money, having a plan can help reduce your stress. Here are a few things you can do now to feel more in control:

  • Diversify your skillset: PhDs are all about focused research, but it doesn’t have to be that way. In many places, you can earn a graduate certificate in a related field without taking on too much more work. Or try collaborating with researchers in different specialties. Hiring committees value interdisciplinary skillsets because they make you a more versatile instructor. 
  • Look outside academia: Even if you have your heart set on a professor position, it doesn’t hurt to have a plan B. Consider other careers relevant to your degree that you might enjoy, and research the skills and qualifications employers look for. 
  • Network: Knowing the right people can make a huge difference when it comes to the job hunt. The more people you know, the better your prospects might be. Go to conferences, attend events, talk to people outside of your institution and stay in touch. You might get some hot tips about new job openings down the road. Plus, collaborating with a diverse set of researchers for papers and panels can help build your academic credibility. 

9. Perfectionism

You’re under a lot of pressure to put out excellent research, but nothing can ever be perfect. In fact, striving for perfection can often get in the way of producing top-quality results. When you’re in the depths of your studies, it can be hard to know when something is finished. There’s always the impulse to make one more tweak or find one more source. At its worst, the pursuit of perfection can cause you to trash a promising project and start over from scratch.

How you can overcome it:

To counter perfectionism, you need a system to decide when enough is enough. The amount of work you need to put in before you declare something “done” can, and should, depend on its relative importance and relationship to your other goals. Here are a few ways to keep things in perspective:

  • Remember that learning never stops: Your PhD is a huge milestone in your academic career. But it’s not the end of your studies, as there will always be more knowledge to discover and opportunities to build on. Your next article, paper, or even your dissertation doesn’t have to be a definitive document, so don’t treat it that way. 
  • Keep your priorities in mind: The amount of labor you put into a task should be directly proportionate to its importance. Set time limits for lower stakes projects so you have more time to focus on the big stuff. 
  • Get an outside perspective: Talk to your peers, professors, or advisors about what you’re working on. They can let you know if you’re doing too much and need to move on. 

10. Advisor and Committee Relationships

As much as we’d like to believe that the hallowed halls of academia exist in a world separate from the trivialities of petty disputes and drama, we all know this isn’t true. Academics are humans, and so — like all humans — you’ll have to navigate conflict, awkwardness, and compatibilities with your peers and professors. Unfortunately, many PhD students experience challenging relationships with their advisor, chair, or committee members. Because these relationships are so important to your success, it can be hugely stressful when things aren’t going well.

How you can overcome it:

Academics aren’t famous for their social skills, so it can be an extra burden to keep things rolling smoothly. But good communication, initiative, and a bit of groundwork will get you far. 

  • Communicate clearly: Be professional but explicit about your needs, boundaries, and commitments. It’s a good idea to follow up on conversations with a quick e-mail to ensure everyone is on the same page. 
  • Be proactive: If you see dark clouds on the horizon, prepare before the tornado hits. This might mean having a quick check-in if things are feeling tense, changing how and when you communicate with your supervisors, or exploring the possibility of working with other people. 
  • Ask for help: If you feel lost or need some advice, get another perspective, or seek support from somewhere else in your institution. 

Simple Self-Care Tips to Relieve Your PhD Student Stress

As a society, we celebrate the “rise and grind” mentality — but we need to stop. Trying to push through stress is really, really bad for you. Taking the time to care for your stress can help you avoid serious mental and physical issues down the road. So make self-care part of your daily routine. Self-care doesn’t mean spending your whole stipend on a spa day. There are plenty of no-cost ways to care for your brain that are more effective:

Connect with your peers.

Find time to talk to other people. Call a friend while you’re walking to class. Set up a writing group with your peers where you can socialize and do work at the same time. At least a few times a month, plan something that has absolutely nothing to do with your studies. Connecting with other people inside and outside of your program gives you the chance to vent, get new perspectives, and reset your brain.

Set a regular sleep schedule.

A well-rested brain is a productive brain. Sleep helps you process information and builds connections between the things you are learning and the things you already know. Sleep is also when your body clears out stress hormones. So when you get a good night’s sleep, you wake up smarter and calmer than the night before. Guard your sleep with your life.

Don’t neglect your interests and hobbies.

PhD programs are long. If you try to dedicate all your waking hours to your studies, you’re signing up to get crushed by burnout. So make time for some fun. Even if it’s only a few hours a week, incorporating some balance can help you stick with your research for the long haul.

Get outside.

Whether you’re in the lab or the library, PhD students spend a lot of their research time indoors. But fresh air, sunlight, and movement are all excellent remedies for stress and anxiety. Even for busy PhD students, it can be relatively painless to incorporate some outdoor time into your routine. Take a walk around the building when you’re feeling frustrated, find a local park to read in, or bond with your peers by going on a hike. Your brain and body will thank you for it.

Practice good eating and exercise habits.

We know, this can be a tough one — but it really matters. Incorporating some vegetables and moving around a little can be powerful de-stressors. So consider some strategies to have healthy food ready to go. Many people like meal prepping at the beginning of the week. And if you’re trying to stretch out your stipend, this Reddit thread has some great tips. Now about the exercise: Any movement you work into your day helps. Maybe incorporate a walk into your lunch routine or take a gym break during the afternoon slump. Even chair yoga or simply parking your car a little farther away can help get you moving.

Track your progress.

An eight-year-long “to do” list probably isn’t doing your mental health any favors. But have you considered a “got done” list? There are a lot of unexpected tasks that come up every day. Recognizing all the things you took care of can remind you how much you’ve accomplished during the week, even if you’re feeling behind on other tasks.

Journal and practice gratitude.

Practicing gratitude may sound a little frivolous, but it is a science-backed practice to reduce stress and manage mental health. And now that we’re on the topic, so is journaling. You don’t have to spend hours detailing your day in “dear diary” format to benefit from gratitude and journaling practices. A few minutes a day will do the trick.

Seeking Outside Help: Who to Turn to for Extra Support

When you’re struggling, it might feel like you’re a burden on others. But that isn’t true. What is true is that no matter how alone you’re feeling, you have an army of people in your corner. You just need to know where to look. Here are just a few of the people who care about you and want to see you succeed:

Friends & Family

It can be hard for people outside of your program to understand the unique pressures of earning your PhD. But even if they aren’t in the trenches with you, your friends and family can be important sources of support. A quick chat or hangout session can go a long way toward boosting your mood. Making plans with people close to you can help you get out of a funk or try something new. Outside voices can offer new perspectives on the challenges you face. Or you can ask them to simply hold space for you while you vent and talk through your problems.

Your Academic Advisor

Not all academic advisors are created equal, but they are all human beings who have taken on the task of helping you succeed. Because your advisor has an inside look at your program, your work, and the resources available to you, they can be an important resource. They may have insights on your research or ideas about how to manage your workload. Additionally, they may be able to point you toward funding and grants to support your work and cover some costs. However, if you find your advisor is a source of stress rather than a resource, you might explore the possibility of working with someone else in your program.

Mental Health Professional

Maybe you need more support than your peers and colleagues can offer. Or maybe it’s easier to open up to someone outside of your day-to-day life. In either case, connecting with a mental health professional can absolutely change your life for the better. Many campuses offer free or reduced-rate mental health services, so take advantage of them. Society is slowly but surely chipping away at the stigma around seeking counseling, so be a staunch advocate for mental health. A PhD is a huge undertaking, and you deserve all the support you can muster.

The Disability Resource Center

If your stress or mental health are negatively impacting your studies, you may be able to access structural support from your university. Your school’s disability resource center (DRC) can approve you for accommodations like extended test time or more flexible deadlines. Depending on your situation, these accommodations can be short term to help you through a crisis, or last for the duration of your program if your challenges are more enduring. These types of accommodations can make all the difference if you’re struggling to keep up. Note that you will have to talk to a DRC counselor about the mental health challenges you’re facing, but that information will not be disclosed to your professors or colleagues.

Online Support Groups

Connecting with PhDs across the land can be a great option for getting support from others in your position while maintaining some privacy. Online support groups like PhD Balance are spaces where you can talk about your problems and share tips and tricks to cope. These groups can also be very low commitment. You can drop in when you need to and aren’t committed to showing up when things are going well. Having a network like this in your life can help you crowdsource practical solutions to the challenges you’re facing. You can also look for support through online forums or academic organizations.

Interview with a PhD Student: Stress Management Advice from a Peer

Rachel Hallnan is a PhD student in the Hydrologic Sciences program at University of Nevada, Reno. Her research focuses on the impacts of climate change on alpine water systems. She also works as a Hydrologist in Yosemite National Park. When she’s not out working in the streams of the Sierra Nevada, you’ll find her climbing, running, reading, or drinking coffee with a delicious pastry.

1. Can you give me a picture of the responsibilities you’re currently navigating in your life, both academic and personal?

I have a professional job, but I’m also doing my PhD classes and research. So that’s my number one challenge. On top of that, I still want to make time for my personal life, relationships, activities, and hobbies.

2. How do the stressors you’ve encountered in your PhD journey differ from your experience earning your master’s?

I’ve grown a lot since my master’s. I have more lived and work experience, and that’s helped me build a capacity to manage things better. So even though I have a lot going on, a lot of the biggest stressors from my master’s aren’t as big of an issue now. For example, I struggled with time management during my master’s program. I would procrastinate on my research for weeks at a time, then end up having to work 80 hours for a bunch of weeks in a row to catch up. Now I have more experience and feel less likely to fall into that trap. 

Time management is a big challenge for a lot of grad students because there are tons of things to do, but very little structure. So I see that being an issue for lots of people. 

3. What supports does your university offer to help you manage your studies, research and other responsibilities?

The university has been really supportive in helping me pursue my studies while keeping my job. My work involves a lot of fieldwork at sites that are a few hours away from campus. So my professors, department chair, and advisors have figured out how I can Zoom into classes and work remotely when I can’t attend in person. 

The other big thing is that I have a research assistantship. So in exchange for 20 hours of research a week, I get a small stipend, and my tuition is covered. That financial support is huge because it’s letting me dial back my hours at work to focus on school. 

4. How do you manage the various stressors and challenges that you face in your work?

My main stress coping mechanism is spending time outside. I love the outdoors, so it’s really important to me to make space for that. Every day I try to make time to take a break from work and go for a run or something. Since it’s already something I love, it’s easier to carve out time in my day for it. 

I do other things too, like meditating and journaling. They are helpful but don’t come as naturally to me, so it’s harder to do them consistently. It’s much easier to choose something I’m prone to doing anyway because it doesn’t feel like another chore on my to-do list. Otherwise, it can be hard to carve out time for self-care when you’re already busy and stressed.

5. Balancing academic commitments, personal life, and potential work responsibilities can be overwhelming. Could you share some practical tips for maintaining a healthy work-life balance throughout your doctoral program?

Choosing stress relief that feels easy to accomplish is a big one. Otherwise, it can be hard to maintain. 

Staying organized can be really helpful as well. When you have a lot of chaos in your life, the more you can ground it is great. Lists, calendars, and stuff like that can make things look and feel more manageable — having your work laid out like that makes it easier to see where you need to be spending your time. 

I’m also a big proponent of hand-writing out my own schedules. During the school/work week, I’ll literally write down everything I need to do and when I plan to do it. Every hour of the day is accounted for. I’ll start with things like when I’m going to wake up, when I’m going to eat breakfast, and all the other little and big things on my list until it’s time for bed. That includes stuff like spending time with friends and going outside. This makes it really easy for me to see how I’m going to get everything done and lets me gauge if I’m getting off track and need to refocus. 

6. How do your peers, professors and other important people in your life help you manage stress? Has anything been particularly helpful?

Having a community of friends and peers with different interests in terms of research or hobbies can be really helpful. It keeps you from getting bogged down. Other people can give you a new perspective on a problem you are having, and interacting in different ways can give you a break from work. 

Also, having people who can create the space to listen is really huge. When I’m stressed, I’m not always looking for solutions. Sometimes I just want to blow off steam. Having people who can be there for me for that is really helpful.

7. Is there anything you wish you’d considered in terms of stress management before starting out?

It would have been good to consider my obligations and what I could pair down in terms of studying and work and all my responsibilities. 

I think it would have been good to spend more time considering all my obligations. Balancing work and school is a lot, and I maybe didn’t give that enough weight. It would have been helpful thinking about what other responsibilities I could pair down to make more time.

Online Stress Management Resources for PhD Students

  • Graduate School and Mental Health: This podcast episode from the American Economic Institute and researcher Valentin Bolotnyy explores the mental health outlook of eight top economic programs.
  • Gratitude Journaling and Mental Health: If you’re curious about how journaling can help you manage stress or need help getting started, this guide from Recovery Centers of America is a great place to start.
  • Guided Recordings from Dartmouth Wellness Center: Dartmouth College has a massive library of guided meditation practices, relaxation music, and other stress-reduction content. It’s a great place to explore various techniques and see what works for you.
  • How I Stay Organized as a PhD Student: This blog post gives the ultimate rundown on using a planner to stay on top of things. We can’t help but gawk at the beautiful journal layouts, but even if your journal isn’t as aesthetically pleasing, it can still be just as effective.
  • Morning MeditOcean: If you’re having trouble getting into mindfulness meditation, maybe jellyfish will help. This fun meditation series from The Monterey Bay Aquarium pairs mindfulness activities with videos of their aquatic residents.
  • PhD and Productivity: This YouTube channel is entirely dedicated to thriving as a PhD. Join over 29,000 subscribers for regular tips and chats about how to manage your time and responsibilities.
  • PhD Balance: This organization helps PhD students connect through support groups and online forums. It can be a great way to get support while maintaining your privacy.
  • Promoting Graduate Student Mental Health: The Role of Student Affairs Professionals and Faculty: This article summarizes relevant statistics about graduate students’ mental health before offering concrete steps that university communities and administrators can take to foster student wellbeing.
  • Relaxation Techniques for Students: This guide from the graduate school at Washington University in St. Louis offers detailed descriptions and videos of four science-backed relaxation techniques. All of these techniques can be used in situations of acute anxiety or as general maintenance.
  • Top Tips for First Year PhD Students: This guide from the Society for Personality and Social Psychology is a goldmine for PhD students at any stage of their studies. Hear from experts and real students about how to manage time, build a social network, and generally thrive in your program.