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Experienced PhD stress in the world of academia

The academic world has changed a lot over the passed decade which has resulted in the deteriorating status of the researchers [2], a lot of work-related stress ( PhD stress ), and mental health issues for people working in academia [1],[3]. According to study [3], 47% of the PhD students in Berkeley reached the threshold for being depressed, and according to study [1], 40.81% of the PhD students in Flanders, Belgium felt under constant strain. Compared to highly educated professionals or students, people with a PhD or PhD students report much more mental health issues [1],[2]. Feelings of being powerless, helpless, stressed, depressed, unhappiness, and being unable to enjoy every day activities are common among people working in the academic field. On top of that, low self-esteem and perfectionism are common among academics [19]. Job insecurity, temporary contracts, too many PhD students and too little faculty positions, and changes in the funding policies are some of the contributing factors to more PhD stress [1],[2]. The biggest problem for most people working in the academic world is that they can’t do anything about these contributing factors: you join the rat race or you’re out!

Fortunately, PhD stress and the chance of developing mental health issues can be reduced to a minimum with the tips on this page. This article focuses on PhD stress , its causes and ways to reduce the experienced stress levels.    

PhD stress – Why do PhD students experience so much stress these days?

There are several contributing factors that add to the stress PhD students experience:

Future perspective

PhD stress – Ratio between PhD students and faculty positions

Due to the economical crisis worldwide, many universities and research institutes are experiencing financial problems, because governments have been cutting in the funds for education for years now. Less funding leads to fewer (permanent) job positions or promotions, less money for research, and an increase in job insecurity and short-term contracts [1],[2]. Most research institutes and universities are forced to apply stricter criteria in the allocation of research funds. In some countries, research funds can only be obtained by universities and research institutes if research proposals are accepted by international funding commissions [2]. The cuts in funding can also be seen in the reducing amount of available job positions or promotions; people with a permanent job prefer the security the job gives them over the new challenges they face with a new (temporary) job. On top of that, the amount of PhD students has increased significantly over the past decade, whereas the amount of faculty positions has only slightly increased (see image) over the past decade [1]. More PhD students for few positions leads to more competition and PhD stress . The increasing amount of PhD students in combination with the poor job/promotion prospects has created a huge pool of unemployed people with a PhD. In short : less money for research and education has lead to more short term contracts , poor promotion/job prospects, more unemployment, more competition, and too many highly educated people (PhD students or higher) compared to the amount of positions available. Consequently, this leads to a lot of PhD stress .    

Personal life

Family to work: work to family by gender

A lot of PhD students or people with a PhD work in the evenings and weekends due to the high workload, which negatively affects their social life (missing out on family time, parties, and date nights with partner). This is a clear example of work-to-family interference. Both work-to-family and family-to-work conflicts are associated with psychological distress [1], job dissatisfaction, and burnout among employees in a range of occupations [5]. A possible reason could be the negative sanctions (at both personal and institutional levels) academic scientists face when family interferes with work [4]. Unsurprisingly, if the departmental climate becomes more competitive and stressful, the probability of work-to-family conflict increases significantly [4]. These circumstances will add to the PhD stress most academics experience, especially if nothing changes.    

Work context

PhD stress - 8 bad leadership traits

8 bad leadership traits

Stress has a negative impact on leadership styles. When a supervisor experiences a lot of PhD stress , their leadership qualities deteriorate, which leads to higher levels of stress and burnout in their subordinates [6]. Also, destructive leadership is associated with counterproductive work behaviour and a negative attitude towards the organization in subordinates [7].

In other words: reducing PhD stress by applying changes on an organisational level can be effective if organisations focus on leadership styles and job demands and job control.  

Job demands and job control

There is a strong relationship between high job demands and emotional exhaustion and depressive feelings. Job demands are those physical, social or organizational aspects of the job that require sustained physical or mental effort [10]. High job demand and low job control is associated with increased PhD stress . Job control refers to control one experiences regarding the timing of breaks, usage of skills, and working pace [1]. High job demands, low job control, and certain leadership styles in combination with fewer (PhD/permanent) positions in academia creates a PhD stress cocktail so lethal that it’s almost impossible to sustain a health work-to-family life where weekends and evenings can be spend with family.    

Personality and mental health

Some people are more sensitive to stress than others. Certain personality traits such as neuroticism, disagreeableness, and tendency to perceive hostility can all lead individuals to be more reactive to stress as well as to perceive the behaviors of others in a hostile manner [8]. Also, suffering from PTSD, anxiety disorders or mood disorders can increase stress levels, because these mental disorders negatively affect daily life and work performance.    

What can you do to reduce PhD stress?

There are several things someone can do to reduce PhD stress and to stay as productive as before. For some people, small changes and adjustments are sufficient, whereas for others, it means they need to develop a whole new way of living and working. In some cases, the stressor will disappear, in other cases, however, coping skills will be offered to deal with them, because it’s difficult to control them (think of leadership style). Let’s have a closer look:  

Adopt a healthy day and night rhythm

An unhealthy day/night rhythm can cause all kinds of changes in peoples’ behaviour and mood. In general, sleep disturbance impairs quality of life. Compared to good sleepers, people with chronic sleep problems experience more psychological distress and impairments in daytime functioning [13]. People who experience sleep disturbances (or nightmares or insomnia), for instance, have significantly more suicidal thoughts and behaviours [12]. And right before people experience a manic or depressive episode, they report sleeping problems [13]. Therefore, it’s important to keep a healthy day/night rhythm: use the bed(room) only for sleeping; sleep a minimum of 6,5 and a maximum of eight hours a night [13]; switch off electronic devices one hour before you go to bed; develop a bedtime routine (brushing teeth, taking a shower, read for 10 minutes, turn off light); immediately leave the bed when you wake up (no snoozing).  

Adopt a healthy lifestyle

A healthy lifestyle both prevents and reduces the amount of stress one experiences [14]. People who’ve adopted a healthy lifestyle, pay attention to their nutrition, are more in touch with nature, exercise and relax regularly, and possess stress management skills and/or meditate [14]. Exercise and meditation do not only reduce the amount of stress one experiences, they also help reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression [14]. At the same time, both meditation and exercise force you to take a mental break from work/study related activities, and give you time to recharge mentally again. Paying attention to good nutrition indirectly affects the stress levels one experiences, because it prevents people from eating too many calories, and to eat healthy and varied. Obese people are at higher risk of developing depression; the odds increase for severely obese people [15]. Herbal and nutritional supplements such as kava, passionflower, Lysine, and Magnesium help reduce symptoms of anxiety [16], and thus add to the reduction of PhD stress . NOTE: Next to taking in anxiolytic ingredients, users of passionflower and kava may also consume ineffective of possibly toxic substances [16]. Therefore, it’s important to discuss the intake of herbal medication with your General Practitioner. Avoid (too much) coffee and alcohol. Although coffee has a stimulating effect on people, on the long run people can get dependent on caffeine with means that they need more caffeine to experience the same stimulating effect as before. Unfortunately, regular caffeine and alcohol intake leads to feelings of fatigue and tiredness.  

Visit a specialist

Visiting a therapist or counselor when someone feels emotionally or physically exhausted, also known as burnout, or depressed, suffers from symptoms of anxiety or has self-esteem issues is highly recommended. Sometimes, people cannot get better on their own and need a professional to treat or guide them through this process. It is possible that work or study is so demanding that it exhausts you mentally or physically, which increases the chance of developing a mental disorder or symptoms of mental disorders. Sometimes, (old/childhood) traumatic experiences resurface or get triggered, which can lead to sleeping problems, irritability, flashbacks, numbness, and eventually reduce the productivity levels needed to perform at work or for study. For others, low self-esteem may cause a lot of PhD stress , because they constantly question their own academic (writing) skills and are afraid to make mistakes. This may result in perfectionism and perfectionism leads to more worry and rumination about work [19]. Worry and rumination add to stress levels.  

Use a family calendar

People working in academia may experience a lot of work-to-family and family-to-work stress [1] due to job demands and family obligations. A lot of the problems within families are caused by self-centeredness: the intense desire to achieve desired goals and little tendency to satisfy the others’ needs [18]. Although there is no relationship between communication skill level and marriage satisfaction [17], there is a relationship between marriage satisfaction and conflict resolution: a domineering, authoritarian or autocratic control of the conflict leads to less marital satisfaction and longer lasting conflicts [18]. Due to this approach, partners are less likely to adjust to their partner’s needs and competition and feelings of jealousy between them grows [17]. Knowing in advance what someone’s schedule is, prevents surprises, conflicts, and increases the likelihood that the partner will adjust their schedule a little. A family calendar is very helpful for those who have a busy schedule and have children. People can plan events and deadlines way in advance and it reduces the experienced PhD stress significantly.  

Schedule breaks

It is common for people in academia to work on articles for hours at once, because they need to get into a flow (increases their productivity). Unfortunately, writing/working for hours without a proper break is exhausting on the long run, and makes people less emotionally available (which leads to more conflicts at home). Consequently, people become less productive which will lead to longer writing shifts. Therefore, it is important to have regular breaks of 10 minutes, and to have one big break of one hour around lunch time. Exercise, relax or socialize with friends in the evening. This will help you recharge your battery for the next day.  

Have a support network

Having a support network moderates the effects stress has on psychological distress and significantly improves quality of life [20]. Also, a support network is a strong predictor of a person’s physical health and wellbeing, and helps people cope with phd stress. Intimate social relationships, rather than family relationships, is the strongest predictor of overall life satisfaction [20].  

Have a back-up plan

Temporary contracts, less funding for research, too many people with at least a PhD (compared to the amount of positions available), and a strong competitive field, significantly reduce the chance that one will finds a PhD position or job in their desired field. Add the fact that switching careers is considered a failure (because you were not good enough), and it becomes clear that this may be the most difficult piece of advice to follow-up on. Unfortunately, it’s a fact that most people who do their PhD will not end up working in academia, or will have to live from temporary contract to temporary contract. Especially the latter adds to the experienced PhD stress . Make sure you have a back-up plan. Discuss with family or friends how long you will try to get (a) a PhD position or a permanent position in your desired field, before switching to plan B. Discuss what plan B will be and make sure that you like plan B, and that finding a job is easier with plan B.  

Schedule regular meeting with your supervisor/boss

Communicate with your supervisor/boss to know what he/she expects of you and to keep them updated about your progress. Depending on your boss’s leadership style and personality, it is likely that you boss will not ask too much of you when he/she knows how much you have to do still.    

Dad punished his submissive sweet daughter after school

Beyond the Professoriate

5 Helpful Steps for Better PhD Stress Management

Doing a PhD is stressful and isolating under the best of circumstances.

And in case you haven’t noticed, we’re not exactly in not the best of circumstances these days.

Stress and anxiety run rampant among PhD students. Many of us are feeling overwhelmed. We all know this. And yet, we rarely talk about it. Why?

PhDs are well-equipped to examine the external world. From quarks to the cosmos, from singe historical figures to entire civilizations, we study all manner of abstruse and abstract scholarly topics.

Yet, when the time comes to turn the investigative microscope upon ourselves, we, uh, don’t do so great.

So, in this week’s article, we’d like to go over some tips and advice for PhD stress management.

We’ll talk about the importance of normalizing PhD depression and anxiety, how to practice mindfulness and work/life balance, and finally how to seek on-campus professional help.

1. Normalize PhD Stress & Anxiety

Everyone experiences stress, anxiety, and/or depression  in graduate school.

Whether they talk about it or not.

Even though depression is a startlingly common phenomenon , people tend to experience it in a state of loneliness and isolation. This is partly due to social stigma and partly due to the nature of the condition itself.

It’s a cruel irony worthy of Shakespeare, or one of Dante’s circles of Hell.

So, the first step in dealing with stress, anxiety, and depression in grad school is to openly acknowledge how common it is, particularly among PhD students.  A survey in September put the numbers at 40% generalized anxiety and 37% major depressive disorder among STEM PhDs alone.

Remember, everyone feels depression sometimes. That doesn’t make it okay.

If you’re suffering from stress, anxiety, or depression, talk about it .

If you think someone you know may be depressed, talk about it .

2. Practice Mindfulness and Self-Care

What is mindfulness?

Some people define mindfulness as a specific form of meditative exercise. But for our purposes, mindfulness simply means becoming more aware of yourself and your immediate surroundings.

Mindfulness can be summed up in three words: be here now.

If you’re struggling with PhD depression and anxiety, or feeling the onset of the dreaded imposter syndrome , take a step back from your work.

Try, just for a little while, to forget about the past and future. Focus on daily life. Live for today only.  Do your PhD research for today . Write what you need to write today . You’ll do more work tomorrow, and the next day. Worry about that later.

The other half of mindfulness is self-care . Learn to recognize your stressors and devise methods to cope. Avoid negative coping mechanisms.

Eat well, get regular exercise, and socialize regularly (insofar as that’s possible these days).

One good way to instill mindfulness into your work life is to create a to-do list for each day. Write down all the tasks that must be completed today.

These can include self-contained tasks (getting groceries, replying to an email) or parts of larger projects (write one paragraph of your dissertation; grade the first 10 student papers).

The key is to practice time management and break down big tasks into manageable chunks. Decide exactly which chunks must be done now .

When you’re done, stop. Take some time to care for yourself.

3. Find Work/Life Balance

As we’ve discussed before, achieving a healthy work/life balance for PhD students is no simple matter.

With the academic job market more competitive than ever before, the pressure to work can be overpowering.

PhD students are asked to conduct research, write your dissertation, teach or TA, present at conferences, apply for grants, and churn out a steady stream of articles and book reviews. If you’re on the job market, add a mountain of job applications to the mix.

Weirdly, the sheer amount of work PhD students undertake is often both the cause of and solution to our depression, stress, and anxiety. The work drives us into depression, and we cope by burying ourselves ever deeper into our work.

In the worst cases, we start to feel that all we know how to do is work. Work is life; life is work; a equals b .

If this describes you, the best PhD stress management tip we can give here is to change environments.

Visit your parents for a few weeks. Take a vacation. Stay at a friend’s house. Go somewhere besides the place where you currently live.

While you’re there, do housework for them. Write a screenplay. Learn to play banjo. Do literally anything besides your PhD work.

The point of all this is to leave your grad-school work behind. Force some ‘life’ back into your life. Build work/life balance.

4. Reflect on Your Career Goals

If your grad-school work is consistently making you depressed, you may wish to seriously reconsider whether pursuing a PhD is the right career path for you.

We mean this with no negative judgment whatsoever.

Rest assured, quitting your PhD will not close off any post-academic career paths . Employers are interested in skills, experience, and enthusiasm far more so than a credential like a PhD.

If you’re unhappy or if your career plans have changed, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with quitting.

For a more in-depth discussion, check out this article .

5. Seek On-Campus Mental Health Services

Don’t ever be afraid to seek professional help.

One of the truly great things about a graduate student stipend is that it often comes with generous health coverage. If you’re at a university with a strong medical school, you likely have access to world-class mental health services right there on campus.

Seriously, if you’re lucky enough to have health coverage, use it!

Call up your campus health center and schedule an appointment with a therapist. Just having someone to talk to about PhD stress management can make a world of difference.

Moreover, don’t be afraid to try antidepressants if a psychiatrist recommends them.

Sadly, as with depression itself, there’s a fair bit of social stigma surrounding antidepressants.

There is, of course, no good reason for this.  Pain occurs both physically and mentally. Aspirin is for physical pain; antidepressants are for mental pain. That’s all there is to it.

What’s more, mental health treatments have been shown to transfer very well to a telehealth setting . As the pandemic shows no signs of slowing down, more people than ever are turning to teletherapy.

All we’re suggesting is that you consider what mental health services have to offer. If you’re pursuing a PhD, you already believe in the value of professional expertise.

Give mental health professionals a fair shot.

In conclusion, we sincerely hope that this article has done something to help you with PhD stress management.

It’s a difficult topic to talk about. But just by talking about your PhD depression and anxiety, you’ll take the essential first step towards normalizing it and being open about it.

Remember, managing depression and reducing stress is a long-term project in and of itself. Do a little bit every day. Keep at it. Seek help whenever needed.

Looking for more mental health advice? Please check out our full blog section on self-care in academia and beyond.

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Stress and Anxiety in the Life of a PhD Student


Career advancement can be exciting but at the same time demanding, which can cause stress and anxiety in students of all levels of education. Particularly, the academic responsibilities of a PhD student may be stressful if not well managed.

In recent research carried out in Belgium by policy makers so as to ascertain the extent to which PhD students are affected by how they organise their studies and the level of their mental health challenges, Levecque et al. (2017), identified three key facts that should be of real concern. These are:

Stressed PhD student

Image from 

1. One out of two PhD students experiences mental anguish while one out of three is in danger of developing a psychiatric illness.

2. Compared to students of other levels of education, and also to highly educated employees, PhD students suffer mentally related health challenges the most.

3. Work and organisational setting are the key determinants of PhD student’s mental health.

Bazrafkan et al. (2016), define stress and anxiety as a “ syndrome shown by emotional exhaustion and reduced personal goal achievement ”.

Causes of Stress and Anxiety

There might be several reasons why PhD students go through stress because they are anxious about work and studies. Bazrafkan et al. (2016), mentioned several causes some of which are time management (lack of proper time management by the PhD student), selection of a good thesis topic, poor writing, problems in the student-supervisor relationship, lack of feedback from the supervisor, and a lack of financial resources among others.

Mandal (2019) mentions that a study involving 5,700 PhD students, revealed that 20 percent of the respondents were “overwhelmed” with course and research work which have led to stress and anxiety. In another study by Advance HE in the United Kingdom which surveyed 50,000 PhD students in order to ascertain their level of stress and anxiety, it was again exposed that 86 percent of the students experienced astronomical level of anxiety.

Prevention of Stress and Anxiety

According to Cheeky Scientist (2020), feeling stressed and anxious is not a weakness but rather a medical condition that demands help. Such students could see a psychiatrist or other supportive people for assistance. Making friends, forming relationships and networking during conferences, class discussions, social gatherings and writing to loved ones could also help in alleviating the situation.

The key points to observe seem to be: do not be hard on yourself by measuring your value based on your achievements – the conferences you have attended and presented, number of publications or your level of progression compared to colleagues. Engage in physical activities like exercises – aerobics, walking, jogging, skipping, skiing with friends and colleagues etc.

phd stress and anxiety

Image from

Write down your success stories no matter how trivial they may be. Be thankful to God and yourself for your achievements. For instance, having a time out with friends after a successful conference presentation. Try to foster a good working relationship with your supervisors.

Research indicate that “keeping a gratitude journal makes you more creative by opening up the blood flow in your brain. It also helps you sleep better” (Cheeky Scientist, 2020). Do not concern yourself with what other colleagues think or say about you. Grab every opportunity that comes your way and take things easy.

Positive Stress

Stress can also be positive and it’s known as Eustress. Eustress is stress that motivates and allows one to achieve high performance (Jarinto, 2010). Psychologist Dr. Kara Fasone says eustress is about adequately challenging yourself without spending all your resources. This type of stress empowers you to grow in three areas:

1. Emotionally, eustress can result in positive feelings of contentment, inspiration, motivation, and flow.

2. Psychologically, eustress helps us build our self-efficacy, autonomy, and resilience.

3. Physically, eustress helps us build our body (e.g., through completing a challenging workout).   (Lindberg, 2019).

So it is not all bad news! Stress, handled well, can spur us on to greater things .

Stress and anxiety are part of life; they happen to everybody at one time or the other. The key thing is how it is handled and managed. PhD students suffer stress and anxiety most in the field of education because of the toughness of the programme.

I think PhD students would be better placed if they get orientation or advice regarding their research topic and its likely work demands at the very beginning: this would alleviate this stress because, you have an idea about what you are getting into before you begin.  With a positive attitude and hard work, one can surmount these challenges. Work more on the positives and limit the attention one pays to the negatives.

Bazrafkan, L., Shokrpour, N., Yousefi, A., & Yamani, N. (2016). Management of Stress and Anxiety Among PhD Students During Thesis Writing. The Health Care Manager, 35(3), 231–240. doi:10.1097/hcm.0000000000000120.

Cheeky Scientist, (2020). 7 Ways PhD Students and Academics Can Deal with Stress, Anxiety and Depression, Retrieved from [], accessed on December 20, 2020.

Jarinto, K., (2010). Eustress: A key to improving job satisfaction and health among Thai managers comparing US, Japanese, and Thai companies using SEM analysis. Japanese, and Thai Companies Using SEM Analysis (December 29, 2010).

Levecque, K., Anseel, F., De Beuckelaer, A., Van der Heyden, J., & Gisle, L. (2017). Work organization and mental health problems in PhD students. Research Policy, 46(4), 868–879. doi:10.1016/j.respol.2017.

Lindberg S., (2019). Eustress: The Good Stress, Retrieved from [], accessed on December 20, 2020.

Mandal, ananya (2019). phds riddled with more stress than students can handle says study, retrieved from [], accessed on december 18, 2020..

Dolores Mensah Hervie

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Dolorae Mensah Hervie GiLE article writer

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Management of Stress and Anxiety Among PhD Students During Thesis Writing: A Qualitative Study : The Health Care Manager

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Management of Stress and Anxiety Among PhD Students During Thesis Writing

A qualitative study.

Bazrafkan, Leila PhD; Shokrpour, Nasrin PhD; Yousefi, Alireza PhD; Yamani, Nikoo MD, PhD

Author Affiliations: Department of Medical Education, Medical Education Research Center, University of Medical Sciences, Isfahan (Drs Bazrafkan, Yousefi, and Yamani); and Applied Linguistics, Shiraz University of Medical Sciences (Dr Shokrpour), Shiraz, Iran.

Authors' Contributions: Leila Bazrafkan developed the study design, conducted the interviews and analysis, ensured trustworthiness, and drafted the manuscript. Alireza Yousefi, as the supervisor, participated in the study design, supervised the codes and data analysis process, and revised the manuscripts. Nikoo Yamani and Nasrin Shokrpour, as research consultants, participated in the study and advised during the study.

Funding/Support: The present article was extracted from the thesis written by Leila Bazrafkan and was financially supported by Esfahan University of Medical Sciences (grant no. 92-6746).

The authors have no conflicts of interest.

Correspondence: Nikoo Yamani, MD, PhD, Department of Medical Education, Medical Education Research Center, Isfahan University of Medical Sciences, Esfahan, Iran ( [email protected] ).

Today, postgraduate students experience a variety of stresses and anxiety in different situations of academic cycle. Stress and anxiety have been defined as a syndrome shown by emotional exhaustion and reduced personal goal achievement. This article addresses the causes and different strategies of coping with this phenomena by PhD students at Iranian Universities of Medical Sciences. The study was conducted by a qualitative method using conventional content analysis approach. Through purposive sampling, 16 postgraduate medical sciences PhD students were selected on the basis of theoretical sampling. Data were gathered through semistructured interviews and field observations. Six hundred fifty-four initial codes were summarized and classified into 4 main categories and 11 subcategories on the thematic coding stage dependent on conceptual similarities and differences. The obtained codes were categorized under 4 themes including “thesis as a major source of stress ,” “supervisor relationship,” “socioeconomic problem,” and “coping with stress and anxiety.” It was concluded that PhD students experience stress and anxiety from a variety of sources and apply different methods of coping in effective and ineffective ways. Purposeful supervision and guidance can reduce the cause of stress and anxiety; in addition, coping strategy must be in a thoughtful approach, as recommended in this study.

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How to manage Phd stress, anxiety and disillusionment

Rakhi Acharyya

Either that or they feel like this is the only path that could possibly delay the pains of job hunting.

Whatever be the reason, one ends up in grad school, one looks forward to an experience of academic growth, with the professors. The professors, they think and hope, will walk them through the expansive mire of intellectual space.

All that quickly fades away, much like the career of a-once-popular Baba Sehgal. It starts with qualifiers, comprehensive exams, proposal defense- many names but all with the same intent, an initiation of sorts, to getting used to being intimidated.

With the load of courses and teaching assistantships , one gets little time, if any, to start research. Well, at least that’s how it works in most of the US, unless you get some kind of a fellowship and don’t have to worry about earning a living through teaching. When I say earning, though not being paid in peanuts, it is just enough to buy a sack of peanuts and rent a measly apartment to store it in.

Now, having completed the obligatory dance-around-the-fire, one is ready to start on their doctorateship . After careful consideration of – which field to go to, whether Prof. X has funding to last ones’ thesis, and whether he would pass the congeniality test, in the last month’s issue of the Cosmopolitan – one chooses their advisor, Prof. Right.

Call me cynical, but six and a half times out of ten, advisors turn out to be that guy your Mom warned you about. It is not that advisors want to be mean. It just so happens that after years and years of dealing with students, bean counting funding agencies, over-critical paper reviewers, school administrators and financially disappointed family members, the only people they feel almighty over, are their PhD students.

Since, churning anecdotes is my favorite thing, here’re some.

In an unnamed school, an unnamed advisor had forbidden, his unnamed student, to return to his home-country to visit his critically ill father-in-law, Mr. Patel. There is no need to take leave to meet distant relatives. Try telling your wife that her parents are nothing but distant relatives who don’t concern you!

In another unnamed school, another unnamed advisor made his student work 7 days a week, without a break, for 15 hrs everyday. The student was from one of those troubled countries who couldn’t just visit home, on a whim. He sent for his mom, to meet him after 5 years. In the two weeks she was visiting, his advisor let him stay home for just one weekend!

I know, I am known to see the worst in people, and there are advisors who treat their students with respect and consideration. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that the system relies a lot on the relationship between students and their advisors. And such a system is too delicate to not cause any stress.

PhD research is a demon in itself. It is not always easy for students to transition from the receiving end, of education, to being the ones who are finding new things about a subject matter. One can spend 5-6 years on a project and end up with no result, or be told that someone has already published a paper on the same problem she/he has been pursuing. It is not uncommon to find PhD students, in their final years, to reach a state of impasse. Often students show symptoms of, what is called, an impostor syndrome . Feeling like they are frauds, pretending to be intellectuals, in academia. With constant intimidation from advisors and bleak job prospects, this feeling is quite understandably reinforced. Questioning, ones’ decision to pursue a PhD, becomes a common theme among students.

With this much overwhelming cynicism, disappointment, intimidation and overall disillusionment, how can a PhD student keep up with demands of the program?

According to a study, at University of California at Berkeley , nearly 47% of surveyed PhD students showed signs of depression, highest numbers being in the humanities and arts departments. Nearly 10% of them had even contemplated suicide during their program.

The root of these depressive feelings are related to their PhD in more ways than one. Feelings of disillusionment, are also woven into the feelings that lead to depression. Uncertainty in future job prospects, financial instability, isolation, lack of clear academic progress, not feeling valued, strained relationship with advisor, health and sleep deprivation, all add fuel to the fire.

How then, can a student seek help? One can begin to answer by suggesting a few things.  

How to manage Phd Stress, Anxiety and Disillusionment

1. have a social life.

It is absolutely essential to have friends/agreeable family as a support system. You can always find this one gal/guy who is always in the lab, in the library, reading papers, studying. While still being an excellent means to complete ones’ PhD a year before others, it can make such a student unable to define her/his existence beyond the program. In its worst form, it can even lead to depression.  

2. Cultivate Hobbies and Interests

I got hooked on carpentry and old TV shows, during my PhD. In fact I know enough American criminal law, from Law & Order , to arraign and prosecute any psychopathic murderer…as long as they confess. Hobbies are an excellent medium to channel ones’ frustrations away. Hobbies are a well-suggested means of countering stress and depression. It takes care of the constant obsessive pattern of research, that students subject themselves to.  

3. Stay Healthy

PhD students are notorious in treating their health as secondary. Sleeping 3-4 hours, keeping odd hours, surviving on cheap and low quality food, and stressing way too much. All this comes at the cost of a healthy body. Stress, being a self-feeding phenomenon, makes it easy to prey on constitutionally weak students.  

4. Improve relationship with advisor

During my PhD at Michigan State University, I was blessed with an excellent advisor who, however, was not beyond the occasional loss of temper. After one such occasion, I had gone back to his office, later, to tell him that I couldn’t continue working for him if I was going to be scared of his temper all the time.

And amazingly, he apologized. I, who had never spoken my mind to another Professor, before in India, wasn’t expecting to be apologized to.

But I learnt a lesson from that episode. Professors are just humans, not aliens with superpowers. An honest confrontation could possibly be their kryptonite.

With an open relationship, with ones’ advisor, a student can begin to address the feelings of inadequacy in her/his work. With that, will come, confidence and the much needed self reliance.  

5. Have a Plan B

What if academia is not your thing? You can get a PhD and still decide to go do something else. The web is full of career change stories . Having some plan to fall back on, can be the reassurance needed to carry on and not be stressed about the what-ifs .  

6. Don’t be afraid to seek help

Follow some simple steps to manage stress, as has been summarized in the articles, 5-a day stress management techniques or 15 stress management tips . Talk to friends/family and seek counseling, at the University health facilities or avail of a free online counseling startup facility .

In the end, PhD is an ambitious and challenging program. The optimum qualities, for success, are determined by many factors, many of which are beyond hard-work and intellect.

PhD students have more to gain by learning how to keep themselves from getting carried away with stress and doubt. One can then hope to still keep up with the optimism, one started with, and leave that much-desired mark, and not a stain, in academia.

Rakhi Acharyya

3 thoughts on “How to manage Phd stress, anxiety and disillusionment”

Very useful article! Interestingly, these constitute a healthy practice at any stage of life. We have a tendency of taking ourselves seriously, perhaps, a little too seriously. And that too in our familiar and comfortable constructs, whatever those may be. For me, the entire phD-experience kept shattering this, repeatedly. With some combination of the above, it was possible to improvise and adapt, to the point that stress could induce creativity, almost a Pavlovian one.

At any rate, for me, phD and managing through it would remain as a trailer to how life in the real world is.

@rakhi, How can you have the patience for post doc. Am confused between phd and ms because i think i may not have the endurance for phd though i like that option

The answer is so subjective, Ronit. All I can tell you is that whatever program decision you make, you should be looking into its benefits after you get the degree. What field are you in? It always helps to see the career path that your seniors have followed. What job options are there post MS and/or post PhD? By what age would you be possibly graduating from your PhD (‘coz trust me, that matters)? And many more considerations that would be pertinent to your field, personality, institution, your adviser and so and so. I guess what you can do is identify your field of interest, talk to potential advisers, see if you think it is feasible in terms of time and money and then perhaps you will have more information to make the decision. Did that sound helpful?

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phd stress and anxiety

7 Ways PhD Students And Academics Can Deal With Stress, Anxiety And Depression

phd stress and anxiety

Written by Catherine 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.

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.

If you’re ready to start your transition into industry, you can apply to book a free Transition Call with our founder Isaiah Hankel, PhD or one of our Transition Specialists.  Apply to book a Transition Call here.

Book a Transition Call

Hi, I'm Isaiah Hankel, PhD

I am CEO of Cheeky Scientist, the world's largest career training platform for PhDs. If you want free insights on resumes, LinkedIn, interviewing, careers and more, just enter your details below.

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phd stress and anxiety


Cathy has a PhD in Medical Life Science and Technology and is COO of the Cheeky Scientist Association. Cathy is passionate about science communication including translating science to lay audiences and helping PhDs transition into industry positions. She is Chair of Cambridge AWiSE, a regional network for women in science, engineering and technology. She has also been selected to take part in Homeward Bound 2018, an all-female voyage to Antarctica aimed to heighten the influence of women in leadership positions and bring awareness to climate change.

Catherine Sorbara, Ph.D.

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The Importance of Maintaining Structure and Routine During Stressful Times

Kendra Cherry, MS, is an author and educational consultant focused on helping students learn about psychology.

phd stress and anxiety

Verywell / Bailey Mariner 

Key Takeaways

Some people love to have a solid daily routine, while others shudder at the thought of having a predictable schedule. During times of great stress, however, maintaining structure and routine can help you feel more organized and in control.

Having a routine can be helpful at any time, particularly if you are trying to establish healthy habits, but these routines can be particularly important when aspects of your life feel uncertain. 

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A Sudden Lack of Structure

Many people are either working from home or faced with the prospect of an unknown period of unemployment. Those working at home may quickly discover that the constant isolation and lack of a normal schedule can be mentally taxing. 

Rachel Goldman, PhD

When people don't have a routine or structure to their day it can cause increased stress and anxiety, as well as overwhelming feelings, lack of concentration, and focus.

A lack of structure and routine can actually exacerbate feelings of distress and make you pay more attention to the source of your problems. As Rachel Goldman, PhD, a psychologist and clinical assistant professor at the NYU School of Medicine, explains: “If people don't have structure and are sitting around with less to focus on, then they also probably will find themselves thinking about the stressful situation more, which can also lead to additional stress and anxiety."

One way to get out of this cycle that promotes ruminating over the source of your stress is to maintain some structure and routine throughout your day.

The Benefits of Having a Routine

Research has consistently shown that routines can play an important role in mental health. One study, for example, found that routines could help people better manage stress and anxiety.  

Having a regular routine can help you:

Getting necessary tasks out of the way can also help you find more time for healthy behaviors like exercise and leave you more time to enjoy fun activities and hobbies. 

Focus on Things You Can Control

Managing your own behaviors can help you feel more in control of the situation. Goldman recommends focusing on the things that are within your power to control.

A good place to start with creating a new routine is to set wake-up and bedtimes, as well as meal and activity times.

The key is to create a routine that adds structure and a sense of predictability to your day. Of course, your schedule may change somewhat depending on the day of the week, but sticking to a basic structure for when you will wake, eat, work, do activities, and sleep can help you feel less stressed out and more organized. 

Structuring your day also ensures that you accomplish those basic tasks that must be done, which will leave you with the time to schedule in other things that you want or need to accomplish.

You’ll feel more organized and productive with a regular routine, which will help you feel more proactive and in control in the face of a stressful situation.

Follow a Routine That Supports Your Health

There are some things that you can make a part of your daily routine to help manage stress levels. These include:

Of course, the situation you personally are coping with can also affect how easy or hard it is to stick to a daily routine.

Make Your List

One helpful activity is to make a list of the things that you normally do during the day. Include everything from work to meal preparation to household chores. Once you have an idea of the basic tasks you need to accomplish, you can start creating a general outline for what you might need to accomplish each day to stay on track.

Stress can make it hard to concentrate, so outlining these daily activities can help you better focus on what’s important.

While its important to get the essentials done, be sure to find things that you can look forward to, whether it’s watching a favorite television show or calling up a friend. Making these little rewards a part of your routine can help you stay upbeat and focused when you are working on a task that you might not enjoy as much.

Find What Works for You

Is it better to have a structured daily schedule or just a general to-do list for the day? Some people might thrive with a highly structured daily schedule that outlines activities in specific blocks of time , while others might do well with a loose list of things they need to get done in the day. 

How do you decide which approach is right for you? Consider your motivations as well as what you need to get done. “If it is something that is of high importance and needs to get done on a specific day, then scheduling it into your routine and carving out that time may be necessary to make sure it gets accomplished,” Goldman recommends.

In other words, deliberately schedule a specific time to take care of those high priority tasks. Knowing that you have that time set aside for those tasks will leave you free to focus on using the rest of your time effectively. Goldman also suggests that it may be helpful to schedule things that you may not be motivated to do.

When we don’t feel motivated to do things, it is very easy to procrastinate doing them and they will continue to get pushed for the next day and the next day.

Knowing that you need to do those tasks at a certain time on a certain day will help keep you on track and hopefully overcome the urge to just keep putting them off.

Remember It Takes Time and Practice

Just like trying to create a new habit , starting and sticking to a new routine takes some time and effort. You know yourself best, so if something doesn't seem to be working, try tweaking your schedule to make it work for your needs.

Goldman recommends paying attention to how you feel throughout the day in order to determine what times of day you are the most productive. "If you feel like each day you feel unmotivated and lethargic at a certain time, then that is a sign that you may need a mental break at that time," she says.

When you find yourself in those moments, think about what you might need to feel better and get motivated. That might mean that you need to take a break, go for a walk, have a snack, or spend some time working on a hobby.

Structure your day to make the most of the natural ebb and flow of your energy levels. You'll get more done and ensure that you're getting what you need in terms of rest and relaxation.

“Plans don’t always go as planned, though, so remember to be kind to yourself,” says Goldman. “This is not the time to put extra pressure and expectations on yourself. It's not easy to create new routines, or add structure to a day, when our lives feel completely disrupted and turned upside down, so it may take some time to get used to this "new" routine and be able to feel accomplished.”

What This Means For You

While having a routine is important, give yourself some flexibility and don’t beat yourself up if you have trouble sticking to your own schedule. Everyone copes with stress differently. Having a routine can help you maintain a sense of normalcy and focus through tough times, but don’t stress yourself out more if you sometimes deviate from your plans.

Arlinghaus KR, Johnston CA. The importance of creating habits and routine .  Am J Lifestyle Med . 2018;13(2):142–144. doi:10.1177/1559827618818044

Eilam D, Izhar R, Mort J. Threat detection: behavioral practices in animals and humans . Neurosci Biobehav Rev . 2011;35(4):999-1006. doi:10.1016/j.neubiorev.2010.08.002

By Kendra Cherry Kendra Cherry, MS, is an author and educational consultant focused on helping students learn about psychology.

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Amy Green PhD

Writer's Anxiety

Where all this worry is coming from and what to do about it..

Posted  July 13, 2017

Matthew Henry/stocksnap

Writing is practically synonymous with graduate school. As grad students, not only are we encouraged to publish, publish, publish, but we’re also required to write excellent dissertations, compose flawless ethics applications, and hash out insightful term papers.

Not writing is rarely an option.

Yet, writing can be a major source of stress and anxiety for students. In fact, some research has suggested that around 50 percent of doctoral students in the U.S. and Canada drop out during the research proposal or dissertation-writing phases of their degrees before finishing their programs [1][2] .

(This, by the way, is not an encouraging statistic for a person who’s currently in the middle of drafting her proposal. But I digress.)

So what’s getting in the way of all this writing? In a study published this month in the Higher Education Research & Development journal, authors Huerta, Goodson, Beigi, and Chlup explored writing anxiety, self-efficacy , and emotional intelligence (EI) amongst graduate students (N = 174) at a large, research-intensive university in the US [3] . Before I dive into their findings, I’ll briefly describe what they mean by each of these three factors:

I imagine all grad students have faced hiccups in at least one of these areas at one time or another. However, these authors wanted to know more about these constructs, how they were related, and if there were any differences amongst students in how they experienced them.

Results revealed that, perhaps unsurprisingly, self-efficacy exhibited a significant negative association with writing anxiety (that is, higher self-efficacy was related to lower writing anxiety). In contrast, the authors found that EI accounted for very little of the students’ writing anxiety, and that this contribution was not statistically significant. However, the sample included highly emotionally intelligent individuals to begin with; thus, as the authors noted, the lack of variability in EI scores amongst participants may have skewed results.

Additionally, demographic differences contributed to the ways in which different groups of students experienced writing anxiety. For example, higher writing anxiety was reported amongst women, master’s students (as opposed to doctoral students), and students for whom English was not their first language.

So what do we do with this information? The authors of the study concluded by outlining ways in which universities can help reduce writing anxiety and increase self-efficacy amongst graduate student writers. They cited literature that has found tactics such as self-regulating one’s writing, writing regularly, and participation in a writing group as helping academic writers increase self-efficacy and decrease anxiety.

While these suggestions are likely helpful, they left me feeling a bit underwhelmed. It’s also important, I think, to uncover where writing anxiety is coming from. Is it unpleasant experiences with writing during grade school? Or systemic pressures for academics to be “natural writers” who do not need support?

Additionally, I can’t help but think about how so much of academic writing is devoid of creativity and personality . In an article written by Antoniou and Moriarty in the Teaching in Higher Education journal [7] , the authors stated that:

Where guidance and support on academic writing has existed, the focus has been on technical issues, e.g. structuring journal articles, and procedures and protocols for publishing. Little attention has been paid to the more holistic aspects, such as the lecturer-writer’s sense of self and identity , their emotional orientation to their writing and their creative process.

This quote highlights what I believe are imperative aspects of the writing process; that is, that it is often deeply personal, emotional, and creative. However, academic demands and the belief that academic writing is purely an intellectual task can lead to disenchantment with the writing process, creating resentment amongst many academics. However, Antoniou and Moriarty argue that writing in any genre requires all aspects of the self, and they encourage academic writers to take a step back from the mechanics of writing and ask themselves questions such as: Who am I? What are my values? What does writing mean for me? Only after that should they ask themselves what they want to say through their writing and how they want to say it.

Anxiety Essential Reads

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Furthermore, the authors suggest several beliefs about writing that can be used by faculties and graduate students to support writing anxiety:

Antoniou and Moriarty also note that, “the most important lesson in developing one’s writing is to WRITE.” With this quote, I’m reminded of an undergraduate journalism course I took many years ago. My instructor reminded us that we wouldn’t expect to learn how to play an instrument without practice; similarly, we cannot expect to develop self-efficacy for writing without putting pen to paper (or hands to keyboard).

Council of Graduate Schools (2008), PhD Completion and Attrition: Analysis of Baseline Program Data from the PhD Completion Project. Washington, DC: Council of Graduate Schools.

​Huerta, M., Goodson, P., Beigi, M., & Chlup, D. (2017). Graduate students as academic writers: Writing anxiety, self-efficacy and emotional intelligence. Higher Education Research & Development, 36(4), 716-729.

See Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York, NY: Freeman.

See Salovey, P., & Mayer, J. D. (1990). Emotional intelligence. Imagination, Cognition and Personality, 9, 185-211.

Bastug, M., Ertem, I. S., & Keskin, H. K. (2017). A phenomenological research study on writer’s block: Causes, processes, and results. Education & training, 59(6), 605-618.

Antoniou, M., & Moriarty, J. (2008). What can academic writers learn from creative writers? Developing guidance and support for lecturers in higher education. Teaching in Higher Education, 13(2), 157-167.

Amy Green PhD

Amy Green, M.A., is a doctoral student in Counselling Psychology at the University of Calgary.

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10 Effective Stress Management Tips for Ph.D. Students

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Did you embark on a PhD with a preconceived notion that it’s going to be a stressful journey? If your answer to that was a resounding yes, then you are not alone and definitely not wrong about it either! Sailing through a PhD can be quite daunting. As revealed by a survey conducted by  Nature , over 36% of the total researchers seek help for anxiety or depression related to their PhD. Although these results come from a small sample of around 6300 PhD students worldwide, the results are significant enough to address the prevalence of mental health issues in academia. Stress management is imperative for a smoother and tension-free research outcome.

With passing years, the stress levels among PhD students is worsening. Much has been spoken and written about how to overhaul the system and help students in their battle of coping with stress. However, in reality, the advice to PhD students is just a concept that’s heard and read about.

This article will guide PhD students and will discuss various factors that trigger stress levels at different stages in the life of a researcher. The tips for new PhD students will help them to combat stress and preserve your mental health.

Factors Causing Stress and Depression in PhD Students

Stress management of next generation researchers needs a systematic approach . However, before finding solutions, knowing the root cause is necessary to avoid similar situations in the future.

1. Growing Competition in Your Field

Students often get intimidated by the ongoing research in their field and compare the progress and status of their work with other researchers’ work.

2. Work Overload

Excessive work pressure and relentless overtime working induces anxiety and increases stress levels amongst PhD students.

3. Role Ambiguity

It is often seen that a candidate is unaware about their role in the study and what the supervisor or the Principal Investigator (P.I.) expects out of them as a peer.

4. Physiological Factors

While embarking on a PhD., students often take time to adapt to the physiological changes that come along. Dealing with physical health issues diverts your mind from focusing on your research work.

5. Behavioral Approach

Researchers tend to follow a fixed framework to complete their experiments. When unexpected results are derived, finding an alternative solution to obtain conclusions and scheduling a proper action plan encroaches the minds of a PhD student.

6. Performance Pressure

Most Ph.D students also work while pursuing their research. Hence, maintaining regular attendance, achieving goals, keeping the grades high, and completing assignments while adhering to deadlines can take a toll on their mental health.

7. Relationship with Supervisor

Working in isolation will not take you a long way. Not maintaining a healthy work-relationship with your supervisor affects the research outcome and by extension affects your mental health.

Tips for PhD Students to Overcome Anxiety

The solution to the  rising stress levels and mental health issues  faced by PhD researchers does not solely lie in the institutions providing on-campus mental-health support. Furthermore, it also does not depend on the institutions providing training for supervisors to deal with their group of students in coping with the stress. It also lies in understanding that stress is a consequence of an excessive focus on measuring performance. In addition, other entities such as the funders, academic institutions, journals, and publishers must also take responsibility of the mental health of researchers in a way that is feasible and within their limits.

The late nights and early mornings spent within four walls while completing your PhD, juggling between work and study, papers to publish, supervisors to please, and perhaps also living up to your family’s expectations takes a toll on you.These are some common instances where most Ph.D students are taken aback and left clueless.

The first step in fixing the problem is acknowledging it!

1. Finding an Credible Supervisor

As your supervisor is someone who will guide you throughout your program and help you face challenges, it is imperative to select your supervisor carefully. This process of identifying an incredible supervisor could get difficult and leave you confused. But a trick to deal with this is identifying a supervisor who is supportive, actively working in your field, has a strong publication record, and can give you sufficient time for mentoring.

2. Find the Right Research Funding Body

High rates of stress and depression arises at this stage of your PhD Strategizing your path into  choosing the right funding body for your research  is very important. Focus on maximizing the value of your research rather than just looking for monetary support.

3. Time Management

As a researcher, the key to a  stress-free research workflow is effective time management . Prioritize your tasks and plan your day based on the same. Set realistic and achievable goals. Do not overwhelm yourself with too many tasks to be done on a single day. Online project management tools such as Asana, Trello, ProofHub, etc. will help you to be on the top of your tasks.

4. Maintain a Healthy and Professional Supervisor‒Student Relationship

Finding yourself alone is quite normal for most people. Try building new connections with your colleagues and be affable to everyone. Maintaining a healthy and professional supervisor-student relationship is critical for the success of any research work.  Good communication will give you and the supervisor a clearer picture of your work. Share your honest concerns with your colleagues and supervisor in the most respectful way. If there is minimal response, reach out to the mental health team of your institution to resolve any conflicts amicably.

5. Presenting Negative or In-conclusive Results

There’s nothing to be ashamed of if your experiment does not deliver the expected results. Honest presentation of results is what makes you an ethical and respected researcher in the community,  irrespective of the results being positive, negative, or mixed . Compare your results and review them using tables or charts for effective presentation.

6. Writing Your Thesis

Here’s when you are one step closer to completing your PhD! The journey from here on is only uphill. So don’t push yourself back now. Start with planning your writing activities with a fresh mind. Furthermore, define sections of your thesis and focus on one section at a time. Don’t bother yourself with editing and formatting of the thesis. Complete the writing part first. Work on editing and finally  proofreading  your article to refurbish it in the next stage.

7. Select the Right Journal

Now that the writing process is completed, there’s no looking back from here. But the threat of falling prey to predatory journals cannot be unseen. Make this process easier by finding a journal that is related to your discipline. Consider the impact factor of the journal. Use journal finder tools such as  Enago’s Open Access Journal Finder , Elsevier Journal Finder , Springer Journal Suggester, Manuscript Matcher Tool in Web of Science Master List, etc. Once you have a list of journals, check their aims and scope to ensure your article fits their criteria.

Stress Management Tips for PhD Students and Early Career Researchers

Researchers must understand that completing their PhD is a part of their life and that it will come to an end someday. Whilst pursuing PhD  neglecting your mental health will eventually affect your research outcomes  in future. Therefore, stress management is very crucial to preserve your mental health and lead a peaceful life.

Follow these tips to maintain a work­‒life balance and preserve your mental health:

1. Acknowledging the Problem

We often deny that our mental health is affected by an external factor. It is important to understand what is bothering you and keeping you from achieving your goals. Therefore, once you are aware of the cause, accept it and work in a way to combat it.

2. Talk About the Problem

Being negligent and keeping those bothersome thoughts to yourself will only worsen the situation. Talk about your concerns with people who would care about it and help you deal with your anxiety.

3. Improve Your Organizational Skills

Your  key to successfully completing your PhD  is by managing your tasks efficiently without over-committing. Hence, maintaining a balance between professional and personal work is crucial.

4. Social Involvement

Engage yourself in social activities to keep your mind from spiraling in the pool of negative thoughts. Additionally, join groups that are not related to your domain. Learn to make connections with new people and get to know them better.

5. Rekindle Long Lost Hobbies

Get that old sketch book you left in the groove! Reembrace hobbies you haven’t been able to catch up with for a really long time. In addition, engage in fun activities or games that make you happy.

6. Practice Mindfulness

Try the 2-step exercise called “ The Mindful Pause ”. In this, you pause before or during a stressor and attentively breathe for 15 seconds, followed by one question for yourself — how might I use one of my character strengths right now? Take positive action with any character strength that pops up.

7. Meditate as a Relaxation Response

Spare 10-20 minutes a day, preferably in the morning to meditate. This involves silent repetition of a word, sound, or phrase while sitting quietly with a good posture and eyes closed.

8. Get Involved in Any Form of Physical Activity

Implement any form of physical activity in your daily routine to improve your cognitive and physical abilities. Consequently, the release of endorphins whilst exercising acts as a catalyst in keeping your spirits high.

9. Be Grateful

Acknowledge and appreciate the gift of life. Unleash your gratitude for being able to fulfil your dreams. Furthermore, remember every positive thing that has ever happened to you and express gratitude for having made things possible.

How often have you been stressed out while pursuing your PhD? Have you ever followed any stress management tricks? What are your thoughts on these advices to PhD students? What was your move in coping with stress associated to your research? Has maintaining proper work-life balance been easy for you? Let us know about your and your colleagues’ experiences in combating stress in the comments section below!

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Wellbeing in Doctoral Education pp 47–58 Cite as

You Are Not Your PhD: Managing Stress During Doctoral Candidature

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As a PhD student, I experienced significant stress which impacted on my wellbeing during my candidature. In this chapter, I reflect on my doctoral journey, exploring the causes for my increased feelings of stress and anxiety. I analyse my experiences through the lenses of the transactional model of stress and coping, the impact of imposter syndrome, and the effects of comparisons with others. Finally, I provide several strategies to help other PhD students manage their levels of stress and anxiety in their doctoral candidature.

Many PhD students take the view that if you’re not doing overnight experiments, missing meals, or binge drinking, you’re not doing it right. Academics Anonymous (2014), para. 17 .

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I would like to thank Vista Bhopti for sharing her clinical psychology expertise during the preparation of this chapter. I would also like to acknowledge the MBio Discovery Scholarship that enabled me to conduct my doctoral studies.

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Lau, R.W.K. (2019). You Are Not Your PhD: Managing Stress During Doctoral Candidature. In: Pretorius, L., Macaulay, L., Cahusac de Caux, B. (eds) Wellbeing in Doctoral Education. Springer, Singapore.

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Managing Stress and Anxiety in Graduate School

Stress and anxiety can strike at any age and grade. However, graduate students experience a different type of stress than their undergraduate and workforce counterparts.

According to a 2018 study on stress and health behavior among graduate students, “Since graduate school is less about transitioning to independent living, but rather focusing on a specific career path, the stress experiences are often more related to academic pressure, finances, career planning, and other responsibilities. This focus on academics may contribute to a lack of healthy balance in one’s personal life.” 1

This guide will discuss the difference between stress and anxiety, how to recognize the signs, what causes graduate students to experience such conditions, tips for managing stress and anxiety, and additional resources if you need more help.

What Are Stress and Anxiety?

In simplest terms, stress is generally short-lived and related to a specific external situation, while anxiety is persistent, excessive worrying, and may not have a particular trigger. While stress is a response to an external cause or factor and usually lessens when the cause is over, anxiety is the internal reaction to that stress that may persist even after the initial concern has passed.

But there’s a gray area: These terms are sometimes used interchangeably because stress and anxiety have similar physical and emotional symptoms. 2 Keep in mind, the longer anxiety lasts, the more likely you’re dealing with an anxiety disorder, which is relatively common .

Stress Statistics

As of this writing, the most recent stress-related statistics from the American Psychological Association (APA) include issues raised by the COVID-19 pandemic. The APA’s Stress in America™ 2021 report notes that stress levels, in general, have been holding steady over the last few years, with significant causes of stress remaining mostly unchanged between 2019 and 2021.

According to the APA, the most common causes of stress include:

In general, the younger generations are more likely to feel stressed. Those who are currently young teens through about age 24 are the most stressed, followed by those ages 26 to 42—the age range most likely to be in graduate school.

Currently, many Gen Z-ers say focusing on their academic futures is nearly impossible. In fact, 87% of those in college say education itself is a major source of stress. Though most of Gen Z isn’t graduate school-aged yet, they are quickly approaching those years.

Between all the constant stressors, the negativity they’re feeling toward school, and the potential for prolonged aftershocks from 2020-2021, will they even enroll in graduate school? And what happens to our workforce that requires higher degrees if they don’t?

Anxiety Statistics

Anxiety disorders are the most common set of mental illnesses in the United States. Approximately 18.1% of Americans over 18 deal with an anxiety disorder each year—yet less than 40% of people experiencing these treatable disorders seek treatment. 3

Anxiety and depression frequently go hand-in-hand, with about 50% of people with depression also living with anxiety. In one study of first-year graduate health sciences students, 17% had moderate to severe depressive symptoms, 6% had suicidal ideation, and 14% had moderate to severe anxiety. 4 And those are just first-year graduate students.

It’s much harder to continue your studies if you take a break to receive extensive mental health treatment. So as soon as you recognize there’s a problem, it’s important to seek assistance.

Types of Stress

There are three umbrella types of stress: acute, episodic acute, and chronic. 5

Acute stress is a reaction to an emergency or thrilling situation, like going to a haunted house on Halloween or hitting the brakes just in time to avoid rear-ending a car. For graduate students, this could be a pop quiz or being called on in class when you aren’t sure of the answer.

Episodic acute stress is when you encounter acute stress often. This is especially true if you’re in graduate school, where each day can bring unexpected challenges, and you’re trying to juggle all the demands of your program. Severe acute stress is an extreme version of one of the above. This can lead to post-traumatic dress disorder (PTSD) or similar issues.

“The workload is too much, especially for teaching assistants (TAs),” says Irem, a graduate student in the social sciences, about her episodic acute stress. “Last year, I was a TA for all core Ph.D. courses as well as one undergraduate course, and they were all different subjects. With this workload, we are trying to meet the deadlines for our own assignments and research.”

Chronic stress means you’re under high stress for an extended period, which may be the situation for many grad students. While you may be under a lot of pressure, if the stress is unbearable, you should seek the help of a professional.

Any of these types of stress can ultimately trigger anxiety.

Common Causes of Graduate Student Stress

When people think of graduate school, they may think it’s similar to high school or undergraduate school: class, study, homework, exams, repeat.

However, graduate school is distinctly different from other levels of schooling in a fundamental way: The students are independent adults. Even without school, being a grown-up is stressful. Whether attending an online program (such as one of many online Master of Social Work programs) or an on-campus one, students are expected to do all that is required of undergraduates, plus more. In addition, much of graduate study is done independently, and many students struggle with staying motivated to do this on their own, perhaps without peers doing the same work.

In addition to one’s own academic work, graduate students may be dealing with:

All these strains can, of course, be manageable and not overwhelming. But there are many things even the most prepared graduate student can’t necessarily be ready for until they experience them.

Anxiety Among Graduate Students

Many mental health issues like anxiety and depression “begin during the adolescent and early adult years with increasing pressure during transition periods, such as the college and graduate school years, as these are particularly stressful times.” 6

In a piece for Scientific American, graduate student Prateek Puri reflected on graduate students being three times likelier to have mental health issues, with 10% experiencing suicidal thoughts. Puri stated, “While these findings are alarming to some, as a current graduate student myself, I regard them as hardly surprising.” 7

As Puri points out, this is partly because many people don’t realize that not all graduate programs have specified graduation dates. Uncertainty is the root of anxiety.

While some programs require a specified number of credits and a clear end goal (thesis, dissertation, capstone, etc.) to be completed by a certain date, many subjects are “publish or perish,” with students expected to churn out publishable work meeting standards of the profession.

Even when there is an end date, every piece of work can seem to be a make-or-break situation. In social work , for instance, students are often tasked with helping people with real-life implications to their problems. This is all while still studying, writing papers, and training to do this correctly.

Then, no matter how well you do throughout your program, you may end up with a major project that can be rejected, putting your degree and future employment in the field at risk. With everyday adulthood worries, the stress of school, and not knowing when or if you’re going to complete your program combined, you have anxiety’s perfect storm.

Irem describes her anxiety during her graduate program: “The reason why I was very anxious is that I had no time to prepare for the presentations because of my TA responsibilities and stress stemming from that, and I felt like I wasn’t able to show my true potential. My work was sloppy, I was struggling emotionally, and the professor had no flexibility.”

Symptoms of Stress and Anxiety for Graduate Students

If something feels off, examine your physical and mental health to help determine if you’re feeling stressed or anxious. 8 , 9 , 10

Note: These symptoms alone can’t tell you which you’re experiencing; they just let you know something isn’t right. Never hesitate to seek professional assistance; we list some resources at the end of this guide.

Physical Symptoms of Stress and Anxiety

Regardless of whether you’re dealing with stress or anxiety, some of the signs can include:

Emotional and Behavioral Symptoms of Stress and Anxiety

Cognitive Symptoms of Stress and Anxiety

COVID-19 and Graduate Student Stress and Anxiety

An article for Nature pulled no punches with its article titled, “Signs of depression and anxiety soar among US graduate students during pandemic.” 11 It referred to an extensive study in 2020 of over 15,000 graduate and 30,000 undergraduate students that discovered anxiety rose by 50% compared with the year before COVID-19 became a global crisis. More specifically, after being given psychological exams, 39% of graduate students tested positive for anxiety, and 32% were positive for depression.

As Sarah Lipson, a public health researcher at Boston University, said, “The pandemic has unearthed so much uncertainty, and that’s what anxiety is all about,” adding she noticed a rise in “hopelessness among young people.”

Different groups were affected at different rates. For example, female students more often had to take on additional caretaking responsibilities in addition to—or instead of—school. LGBTQ learners reported a loss of community and easy access to resources, with some having to “return to the closet.” Lower-income students showed higher anxiety. However, no graduate students were invulnerable to anxiety and stress caused by the COVID-19 epidemic, as everyone had class disrupted, dealt with grief , or simply had to “watch the world burn” while feeling helpless.

10 Ways to Manage Stress in Graduate School

The good news is that there are many ways you can keep stress under control during graduate school. “Getting help,” explains Irem when asked how she managed stress and anxiety. “I applied to the counseling services at the university, and talking to a counselor was the best thing during those times. It helped me with slowing down my thoughts and clearing my mind. The other thing that really helps is working out, whether walking, yoga, pilates, etc.”

You can also use many of these tips to handle anxiety.

1. Practice Reappraisal

Trying to ignore stress tends to lead to adverse outcomes. Reappraisal, on the other hand, can lead to positive results like increased motivation and resiliency. 12 So when you feel stressed, try to look at stress as providing you with a challenge you can meet, rather than a barrier.

2. Use Your Advisor

When students enroll in college, they’re given an advisor whose job it is to help them find resources to manage stress, schedule classes in a way that meets their needs, and more. If your advisor is not a good resource, seek counsel from another faculty or staff member you trust.

3. Take a Break

Every second spent not working feels like a second wasted. However, when you don’t give your brain a rest, it becomes less effective. Do something you enjoy, whether it’s going for a run, watching a movie, or meditating even for just half an hour. “I create time for myself,” says Irem. “For example, I do nothing related to work/school/research on Sundays, even if I am swamped.”

4. Talk to a Loved One

Spending some time talking to a friend or family member on the phone, in person, or even via text can be a great way to relieve stress. That person can serve both as a sounding board and a distraction.

However, it’s essential to avoid “co-ruminating,” where you both spend the conversation in worry. This can make things worse. You don’t have to avoid a loved one who is prone to this—just try to steer the conversation elsewhere. 13

5. Make a Plan and Stick to It

Create a to-do list of what you must get done (including eating and sleeping) and what you want to do. While some changes may be unavoidable, don’t feel bad about saying “no” to an invitation you don’t want or need to accept.

“I keep a task list so that I can see clearly what I am facing. Focusing on one task/thing at a time is also very helpful when buried in work,” says Irem. “I keep telling myself that I just need to start somewhere, and the rest will be more straightforward.”

Prioritizing and planning give you control over your life, and having control can lower stress and anxiety. 14

6. Celebrate Small Wins

If you just finished a massive term paper, treat yourself to an ice cream sundae, a night out with friends, or even that haircut you’ve been putting off. You deserve it. And as a post on Duke University’s website explains, acknowledging you’ve done your work via a reward “can give your endorphins a boost, allow you to breathe a little deeper, and provide a shift in focus that can be valuable in regenerating yourself for the next leg of the journey.” 15

7. Find a Mentor

Try to find a person who is a year or two ahead of you—or a recent graduate—and is willing to talk about their experiences. Regardless of whether or not they have good advice for you, just seeing that someone has survived can be helpful! 16

8. Eat a Stress-Busting Diet

Eating healthy is always a good idea, but some foods are better for stress management than others. According to WebMD, these are stress-reducing foods based on their vitamin content and “comfort food” statuses: 17

9. Go to the Doctor

When was the last time you had a checkup? Taking an hour for a routine physical or your flu shot could save you a week or more in bed with an illness. 18

10. Write in a Journal

Journaling can help you process your feelings and get your stress out so you can start fresh tomorrow.

Can Stress Be Helpful?

Stress can be helpful; anxiety can’t. There’s a term for good stress, which is “eustress.” Some experts suggest that we focus on eustress rather than stress (or, more accurately, “distress”) when discussing the role of stress in academics. 19 If you tell someone, “Stress is always bad,” they often internalize it and feel and act accordingly.

A few positive effects of stress are:

As a reminder, stress can only be helpful over the short term and in moderate amounts. Severe acute or chronic stress can lead to anxiety, depression, and other health issues. 22

How to Get Help With Anxiety

The above ways to manage stress could help with anxiety, but anxiety is still a bigger beast—especially if it has become an anxiety disorder. If you realize stress is overtaking your life or have a personal or family history of anxiety, seek additional help.

The type of therapy you receive depends on the kind of anxiety you have. Anxiety relating to an eating disorder is handled very differently than generalized anxiety disorder, for instance.

Don’t wait to get help. While some stress can be motivating, as discussed, consistent stress and anxiety can have physical, emotional, and cognitive detriments over the long term—in other words, trying to “tough it out” can harm you academically. Therefore, it’s better to take a little time to get help than to potentially spend a lot of time recovering from the consequences of waiting.

Additional Resources for Graduate Students

Most larger college campuses have mental health centers available, and the cost of their services is often built into your tuition and fees. However, if you’re uncomfortable with this route—if you’re a counseling major , for instance, you may know the counselor you’re talking to—speak with your advisor, the disability office, or search online for affordable therapy options in your area that are unconnected with your educational institution.

Beyond those options, here are a few additional resources for graduate students dealing with stress and anxiety:

13 Books That Shine a Light on Anxiety This list from Healthline, reviewed by Kendra Kubala, PsyD, points out 13 books that may help you deal with anxiety. Look through the list and see which ones speak to you.

Calm This app helps with sleep, stress, anxiety, focus, and more. It uses breathing exercises, calming stories read by celebrities with soothing voices, and a function to track your mood over time to help you with your challenges. Healthline’s medically reviewed article on it may help you decide if Calm is right for you.

Stress and Anxiety Quiz Greater Good Magazine, run by U.C. Berkeley, created this quiz to help you determine if you’re dealing with stress or anxiety. (Note: This is not meant to diagnose but to guide.)

Talkspace Talkspace is an online therapy service that allows you to contact a licensed professional counselor on your schedule. The site takes a variety of insurances and now offers medication management in addition to traditional counseling.

The National Grad Crisis Line Grad Resources offers a wealth of information for graduate students who may be struggling, but we particularly want to point out their helpline. Graduate students in crisis can call them anytime; a trained volunteer will be waiting. 1-877-472-3457

1 Van Berkel, K., & Reeves, B. (2018). Stress Among Graduate Students in Relation to Health Behaviors. College Student Journal, 51 (4), 498-510. Retrieved from

2 The Jed Foundation. (n.d.). Understanding Anxious Feelings. Retrieved October 15, 2021, from The Jed Foundation:

3 ADAA. (2020). Facts & Statistics. Retrieved October 14, 2021, from ADAA:

4 Hoying, J., Mazurek Melnyk, B., Hutson, E., & Tan, A. (2020). Prevalence and Correlates of Depression, Anxiety, Stress, Healthy Beliefs, and Lifestyle Behaviors in First-Year Graduate Health Sciences Students. Worldviews on Evidence-Based Nursing, 17(1), 49-59. doi:

5 Healthline. (2020, February 25). Everything You Need to Know About Stress. Retrieved October 15, 2021, from Healthline:

6 Hoying, J., Mazurek Melnyk, B., Hutson, E., & Tan, A. (2020). Prevalence and Correlates of Depression, Anxiety, Stress, Healthy Beliefs, and Lifestyle Behaviors in First-Year Graduate Health Sciences Students. Worldviews on Evidence-Based Nursing, 17(1), 49-59. doi:

7 Puri, P. (2019, January 31). The Emotional Toll of Graduate School. Retrieved October 15, 2021, from Scientific American:

8  Van Berkel, K., & Reeves, B. (2018). Stress Among Graduate Students in Relation to Health Behaviors. College Student Journal, 51(4), 498-510. Retrieved from

9 American Psychological Association. (2020, September 21). What’s the difference between stress and anxiety? Retrieved October 17, 2021, from American Psychological Association:

10 Richardson, C. M. (2017). Emotion regulation in the context of daily stress: Impact on daily affect. Personality and Individual Differences, 150-156. doi:

11 Woolston, C. (2020, August 18). Signs of depression and anxiety soar among US graduate students during pandemic. Nature, 585 , 147-148. doi:

12 Richardson, C. M. (2017). Emotion regulation in the context of daily stress: Impact on daily affect. Personality and Individual Differences, 150-156. doi:

13 Korte, K.J., Denckla, C.A., Ametaj, A.A., & Koenen, K.C. (2020). Managing Stress. Retrieved October 16, 2021, from Harvard university:

14 UC Davis. (2021, March 2). 5 Tips for Grad School Stress. Retrieved October 17, 2021, from UC Davis:

15 Class, G. & Pesetski, C. Tips for Dealing with Stress. Retrieved October 17, 2021, from Duke The Graduate School:

16 IU Bloomington. Surviving Graduate School. Retrieved October 16, 2021 from IU Bloomington Student Health Center:

17 Zelman, K.M. (2019, November 5). Foods That Help Tame Stress. Retrieved October 15, 2021, from WebMD:

18 Reeves-Blurton, Z. (2020, October 20). Tips to help graduate students manage mid-semester fatigue and stress. Retrieved from Arizona State University Graduate College on October 16, 2021:

19 Rudland, J.R., Golding, C., & Wilkinson, T.J. (2019). The stress paradox: How stress can be good for learning. Medical Education, 54, 40-45. DOI: 10.1111/medu.13830

20 Selna, E. (2018, November 20). How Some Stress Can Actually Be Good for You. Retrieved October 16, 2021, from Time:

21 Jaret, P. (2015, October 20). The Surprising Benefits of Stress. Retrieved October 16, 2021, from Greater Good Magazine:

22 Richardson, C. M. (2017). Emotion regulation in the context of daily stress: Impact on daily affect. Personality and Individual Differences , 150-156. doi:


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