Meet the Expert
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.
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.
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.