Getting a PhD: Stress management – A balancing act

While doing postgraduate research, sources of stress can be academic, personal or work-related (if you’re working and studying at the same time). If you are an international student, you could also experience the stress of culture shock and not having close family around, so a few practical tips on stress management:

Be aware of your response to stress before you get into stressful situations:  
Do you tend to eat/sleep a lot or too little? Grow irritable? Forgetful? Experience neck pain, tension headaches, skin problems? Hiss and sigh a lot? Identifying your symptoms beforehand helps you control them when you begin to encounter stressful situations (quite like getting kitted for war before the battle begins, not after).

Take care of yourself
Eat sensibly, exercise, take breaks- it is said that most postgraduate researchers are highly driven people, so tend to find it difficult to switch off from academic work or subconsciously feel guilty for doing so. A commenter in one of The Guardian’s articles on academic life goes, “In science [or  PhD research, in general], there is this expectation that you can only be successful if you forego your personal life... It is helpful, however, to tell yourself that breaks are periods that help you work more effectively in the long run. Furthermore, PhD students often complain about feeling isolated, which is not surprising given the number of hours spent facing a computer screen or conducting lab or field tasks which require steady concentration. So actively seek supportive people to surround yourself with- people you can give and receive advice from, indulge in rant sessions with, proofread work, set up mock defence/viva sessions, etcetera.

Grow your skills
I'm told that a PhD develops not only your research skills, but your personal skills as well. Obviously the process can test your patience and determination, and you will have to marshal other personal effectiveness strategies in order to manage yourself, your project and various people. Do you find it hard to be assertive or to politely disagree with your supervisor? Do you find it hard to prioritise? Manage time? Do things at the right time? Express yourself? Call your supervisor by first name? (the last one is an issue for a number of international students as we often think this is disrespectful). Devoting some time and effort to developing skills makes life much easier in the long run. Let's be more specific: 
  • In terms of managing time, identifying your next day’s tasks and breaking them down to manageable portions saves time and helps you prioritise. 
  • Some PhD projects are part of a larger research project, meaning that you'll need to work as part of a team, which is great... if you've got dedicated team members. Assuming they are not, consider clarifying your specific research questions/tasks with your supervisor and then having a discussion with your team members about your tasks and how much assistance you are willing to offer each other when the need arises. It is not an easy conversation to have, but like most relational things, I think the key lies in timing and presentation-  anticipate the possibility that you may be asked to do more than your share of the work. Determine your response to this, then calmly set your ground rules early (ps: it might make you look like the stubborn/unfriendly newbie to some, but I take this over over-worked/resentful newbie any time).
  • Large volumes of books/journals to read? Try reading review articles first- these give good overviews on the subject area you are interested in, which gives you a better idea of the work that has been done.
  • In terms of avoiding procrastination, try giving yourself incentives to start an unpleasant task, like- “if I do x now, I will have more time for y” where y is your more agreeable pleasant activity or hobby. 

       Best wishes to us all.

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