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I am a second-year PhD student, but I think this question may interest a broader readership.

I'd like to ask experienced researchers for some insights on how to navigate a prolonged stressful period.

For "prolonged stressful period", I intend a timeframe lasting for at least a year in which balancing work demands and personal life becomes challenging.

To provide you with my case, I'm approaching the last year of my PhD. So I got to relocate aways from my family and friends, work on my dissertation, contribute to several research projects, collect data, attend meetings and so on. Furthermore, I have a demanding advisor who, despite its sometimes overcritical mannerism and being almost a workaholic, cares about me becoming a better researcher.

As you can imagine, I cannot "say no" to many things. Thus, my personal life tends to be frequently jeopardized as workdays blur into weekends. I often have to work at least ten hours a day, and there are times when at the end of my workday (around 09:00 AM to 08:00 PM), I receive new assignments, sometimes due in a very short time.

I'd like to receive grounded, honest advice on how to deal with these upcoming months.

I acknowledge that these stressful times can be an excellent opportunity for me to become a better academic, the job I'd like to pursue in the future.

However, I am afraid because I haven't figure out the mental and emotional attitude I should adopt to navigate all these challenges altogether.

So, which is your honest, straightforward advice? How to deal with a prolonged stressful period?

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You know your problem. You stated it yourself.

I cannot "say no" to many things.

And as a result, your employer is asking you to work more, to the point you're not getting time to "recharge". Along this path lies burnout. When that happens, expect not to work for a period of time between four months to two years.

Obviously you probably don't want to hit that milestone, so take action now.

You must be planning out your time. If you are not, that's the first thing to do. Many people plan their time more effectively using a system. I personally think the Franklin Planner was an excellent system; but, it is a pen and paper system and a lot of people recoil in the horror of not using a computer.

Basically, you have a running list of things to do, and a calendar day broken into 15 minute intervals. Every day you add items to the "to do list" and every day you schedule about 15 to 30 minutes to "plan your day".

This plan involves going down the list and marking each item. "I" for "Important", "U" for urgent, "IU" for both. Then you take the "IU" items and you estimate how much time they take, and where you put them in your remaining time. Once all "IU" items are scheduled, move to the "I" items, and then fill the remainder of the day with "U" items. The problem is that we often fail to do the important stuff because the urgent stuff takes priority. That leads us to work in ways that we never make real progress.

Now, I've explained an entire system and have sort of skipped the answer you need, that's because this system is "I" important. I'll explain why.

You need time off to recharge. You haven't considered what this time off looks like, so you need to improve in planning it. It has been neglected for a long time, so it is clearly not urgent; but, it is starting to affect your desire to work so it is clearly important. You need to decide how much time off you require, and you need to schedule it just before you start allocating time to urgent items.

If you plan this, you can maximize it's impact by focusing on the kinds of activities you require. Everyone relaxes in different ways. If you feel you are near a breaking point, you might even consider your time off Important and Urgent "IU" which means it will be the first things you plan.

Aligning your behavior with your needs is the key to success. Urgent items often distract us from the important items, and it leads to a long term feeling of always being behind. You see, we can't forget the important items.

You'll notice that some of the items are not marked I or U. They are the non-important, non-urgent items. I highly recommend that if you can't fit them into the day, don't carry them forward to the next day. Drop them from your planner. Life is too short to fill your day up with non-important, non-urgent items. And please, stop considering "fun" to be non-important.

Good luck, it takes practice and discipline; but, it's a single approach to planning a more balanced life that works for many. Perhaps it won't work for you, but the practice of attempting to plan a balanced life will have benefits in any future approaches you attempt, so give it a try.

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  • Dear @Edwin Buck, thank you for your helpful answer. Yes, I need time to breathe. I already reached the verge of burnout in the recent past. The thing I hate the most about this situation the consistent use of messaging apps to communicate things. This leads me to be anxious all the time to the point that I need to turn off my phone to feel "safe". There are times when I feel like taking an uninterrupted two-hour break is misconduct of some sort in a culture of "productivity" (let's say).
    – James
    Jun 17 at 14:03
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    Messaging apps are incredible urgent, but rarely important. There's a drive to respond quickly, but often the subject is not important at all. I've had 30 minute "chat" conversations with my wife over what we will eat for dinner, when all of my responses are basically "whatever you like, I don't need anything specific." Forming boundaries is hard to do, because it requires others who understand boundaries, and many people just don't understand them. Try communicating what interruptions your need, and which ones you don't. Maybe they will honor your request, if not, powering off is fine.
    – Edwin Buck
    Jun 17 at 14:10
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Going back to student days, I spent 45 years in Academia, including 25 as a professor. I've lived the challenges you describe. Some years back I took early retirement and these days among other things work as a coach helping professionals, including academics and students, deal with the sorts of issues you are describing.

There is no simple fix to the problem. The stress and anxiety that you are experiencing are probably mostly habits on your part. That is not meant as criticism; they are habits that you have been taught both explicitly and by example. (This is not psychobabble. There is a lot of recent psychological, behavioral, and neuroscientific research pointing to the importance of habit loops in all of our behaviors, including things like chronic stress and anxiety.) As above, there are no quick fixes. Dealing with stress means working to understand your own habits of behavior and mind and what triggers them. With that understanding in hand, you can then work on changing those habits. Good short term news is that simply seeing stress for what it is can provide some relief.

There are a few clear physiological effects that can be addressed straight away. The two big ones are exercise and sleep. Get in some amount of intense exercise a day, even if it's just 10 or 15 minutes of intervals on an exercise bike. Also take frequent breaks during the day when you get up and move around for a couple of minutes. Then set a sleep schedule and stick to it. BTW, the sleep is not wasted time. There is good research that shows that when tackling conceptual difficult problems and even memorization, those who "sleep on it" accomplish their goals faster and more effectively than those who just push on through. They also just feel better, which also adds to productivity.

If you are posting here, you are likely the kind of person who would appreciate a deeper insight into this stuff. Our experiences and emotions do not happen "to" us. They are constructed "by" us, and reflect the concepts that we hold about the world and ourselves. This rabbit hole goes extremely deep, into everything from evolutionary psychology to the very counterintuitive functioning of memory, to the role of the cerebellum in high order thought, to the neuroscience of Bayesian predictions by the brain. But you don't have to dig all the way into that to get the benefits.

A few people I would track down who discuss just how fundamental this is to we humans include Lisa Feldman Barrett (author of "How Emotions are Made"), Anil Seth (his TED talk "Your Brain Hallucinates Your Conscious Reality" is a delight), Charles Duhigg (author of "The Power of Habit"), and Jud Brewer (whose company among other things offers good even if cheesy app-based support for changing habits including anxiety).

Social context matters. If your group spends a great deal of time bemoaning and reinforcing counterproductive perceptions and patterns of thought it will make them worse. Bitch sessions, among students, faculty or anyone else are likely to do more harm than good. On the other hand it can be extremely difficult (and typically impossible) to really tackle the problem without social connections that support you, explore the issues, and provide accountability. We are social primates and are not wired to deal with this stuff by ourselves.

A key attitudinal change is to place your own welfare at the top of your list of priorities. The tyranny of the urgent will pass if you let it. You are in this for the long haul.

On a very pragmatic front, time management skills are critical and often lacking. I recommend David Allen's "Getting Things Done." I'm not big on most self-help books, and Allen can certainly be a bit "rah rah" for my taste. But the organizational strategy/workflow he develops (Capture, Process, Organize, Plan, Do) is widely recognized for its effectiveness.

Finally I will note that having open and candid conversations with a boss or advisor can be extremely useful. Chances are what you are saying will resonate; in all likelihood the person you report to has had or continues to have a lot of the same kinds of problems. When someone hangs up a sign that reads, "The beatings will continue until morale improves" is probably talking to themselves as much as anyone else. That is also the person who can directly affect the conditions under which you work and help you better understand how you might be misinterpreting expectations.

Do be aware, though, that advice on stress management from someone with "Professor" in front of their name should be viewed with some skepticism. Given that there is an epidemic of burnout among faculty, be careful of the blind leading the blind.

Time spent as a student is an excellent (and usually relatively low stakes) opportunity to develop habits and attitudes that will serve you well throughout your life and career.

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As you can imagine, I cannot "say no" to many things. Thus, my personal life tends to be frequently jeopardized as workdays blur into weekends. I often have to work at least ten hours a day, and there are times when at the end of my workday (around 09:00 AM to 08:00 PM), I receive new assignments, sometimes due in a very short time.

That is far beyond the normal work expectations for a PhD candidature as set out in most university policies. Check your university PhD policy, but usually they will specify an expectation that full-time students commit roughly 36-40 hours per week to their program (i.e., roughly commensurate with a full-time job). Programs also have leave entitlements that are roughly commensurate with a full-time job.

In your circumstance, I would recommend you have a talk with your supervisor and let him/her know that you appreciate that they are trying to make you a better researcher, but you are finding the work hours for your program to be excessive. Pass on the information you have given us about the hours you are working, and seek to negotiate work expectations that fit in with standard full-time hours. Ask your supervisor about your progress, and seek advice for whether you are progressing well enough to complete if you drop back to standard full-time hours. Unless you are behind in your program, it ought to be possible to negotiate reasonable work hours and still make adequate progress on your program. Your supervisor may need to be reminded of the expected hours in university policy (assuming this exists at your university) and encouraged to see work expectations accordingly.

Also, don't be afraid to apply for and take leave. I see some research students who grind through stresses for months or years on end without even taking their leave entitlements in their program. Most PhD programs give you four weeks of recreation leave per year (or whatever is equivalent to a full-time job in your country) and when you are on leave you should not be expected to be doing any work on your program. If you have leave entitlements accrued, I recommend you apply to take some of this leave. Make sure you hold the line and do not accept work while you are on leave; also, do not except a higher workload when you return because "things piled up while you were on leave".

Most supervisors are reasonable people, but it takes practice for us to allocate the right amount of work to students (especially since research students vary widely in their abilities). Sometimes we overestimate what you can get done in a period of time, and you need to tell us if you are struggling. Most supervisors will want to build up a program where they are allocating the right amount of work to progress the candidature properly, but still within the expected work hours for the program. Talk to your supervisor and negotiate a good balance.

It sounds to me like work is being put on your shoulders precisely because you have not learned to say no to things. Learn to work within reasonable hours commensurate with the proper expectations for your program, take periods of leave, and say no to unreasonable allocations of work that go far beyond the program hours.

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