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I know there are a lot of similar questions but most of them are related to stress/pressure from their supervisor. I am doing my PhD and I am in my third year out of four. Everything is going very (or even extremely) well. I have two first-author publications in prestigious journals and one of them even in one of the “big two”. I attend several conferences a year, the salary is great, my supervisors are very supportive and relaxed and I have all the freedom to do whatever I want whenever I want.

However, I feel often very stressed and pressured to produce new groundbreaking results or to just learn new things and work (even on the weekends). My supervisors never pressure me into producing new results etc., so it is mostly self-caused. The uncertainty that comes with an academic career is also adding to the situation. I don’t know what happens after my PhD, if I have to move countries (again), or when/if I would get a permanent position. I really like the place where I live right now and I don’t really want to move somewhere else. I never can really shut off, not even on vacation. If I would know that I get an (academic) position after my PhD, I wouldn’t feel like I permanently have to push myself to increase my chances.

Is this a common feeling? It doesn’t feel very healthy but I don’t know how to deal with it in a better way.

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    "Is this a common feeling? It doesn't feel very healthy" Yes and indeed, I'd say. But admittedly, this response isn't particularly helpful, so I won't write it as an answer. ;-) Aug 13, 2023 at 14:26
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    and work (even on the weekends) --- Interestingly, for me (and for many of my graduate student peers), weekends were times when we often got more done (per day) because we didn't have classes to attend (this is in the U.S.) or office hours to hold (for our T.A. work) or department seminars and such to attend. The longer uninterrupted periods of time I had on weekends allowed me to more deeply engage with the thorny problems that required these periods of time to sort through. Aug 13, 2023 at 19:18
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    Do you do regular exercise as this helps a lot (I go to the gym four times a week and forget about academia momentarily when I am there).
    – Tom
    Aug 13, 2023 at 22:57
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    @Tom yes I am working out daily otherwise I wouldn't be able to stay sane :D Aug 14, 2023 at 6:38
  • @DaveLRenfro more or less productive, it does not really matter: it means pursuing a PhD requires a commitment of much more than the normal working hours, without reward (unless one is applying theseefforts to applied stuff). What you are implicitly saying is that it makes sense to have a regular, decently paid job, even 80% parttime, then pursuing a PhD in your freetime (no judgement, I know you are not saying this, I am just extrapolating)!
    – EarlGrey
    Aug 14, 2023 at 8:03

6 Answers 6

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I once heard that what makes academic life so stressful is the winner-takes-all tournament-like characteristic of the employment market. That is, just like in a tournament, if you are the 2nd-best competitor, you get the same thing as the 399th-ranked candidate: you get nothing (no job). Put in another way, if you manage to be 99% as good as the #1 candidate, you don't get 99% of the benefits, but 0%. Yes, once the #1 candidate is off the game, you can then apply to the next job, but no two job requirements are the same, and new candidates join the arena every day. So there's an extreme incentive to "just do one more thing", e.g. one more paper, one more presentation, one more grant application, one more project, one more committee, etc., or whatever might give you that extra 1% edge over the other top candidate. And that is a recipe for burnout and a mental health crisis. This all to say that among top candidates, the feeling is common. And as you suspect, it is not healthy. (I will leave aside the fact that the academic employment market does not actually behave like a tournament, it just feels like one.)

Now that I am at the other end of that, having finished the PhD, done the postdocs, gotten the job, tenure, full professorship, etc., it would be easy to say "don't worry about it, it will work out at the end", but the truth is that it was never guaranteed to work out at the end. I have lots of regrets for the years of overwork and constant pursuit of "that one more thing", but again, perhaps that is what brought me where I am. But one thing I can tell you is that you are not your job and that your worth is not the sum of your accomplishments. You can love academic work, but the university will not love you back. You can still love academic work without giving your life to the job. Surprisingly, and I learned this way too late in life, the more time I give to non-academic pursuits, the better I seem to perform as an academic, according to my own criteria of what it is to be a "better academic." Keep that in mind as you are tempted to keep the foot down on the gas pedal.

One more thing: I don't know your friends, but try to spend less time with those on the hamster wheel, and more time with people who live balanced lives. You might be surprised with how many academics actually live balanced, fulfilling lives worthy of admiration. You just won't find those people at the lab on Saturdays or on social media.

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    I think the first part of your second paragraph is a very important point. Quite of few people who have been in academia for a long time like to claim that "you shouldn't worry, because things will work out in the end". But there is arguably a lot of selection bias in this. Aug 13, 2023 at 14:33
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    On the other hand, I'm inclined to think that the last part of your second paragraph might also be a bit biased. Yes, there are quite a few things one can do to become a "better academic" that do not correlate with being a workaholic - but many of those things are much easier to do once one has a permanent position. Aug 13, 2023 at 14:41
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    @JochenGlueck Yes, it's part of the dilemma. This is why I wrote "easy for me to say" in the answer. But even considering my own possible bias, I still think there's value in the idea that putting your mind to something else than academic work can improve your academic work.
    – Cheery
    Aug 13, 2023 at 14:44
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    @Wrzlprmft the best competitor is the one that wins, not the best according to some objective measurments. So yes, the lucky one is the best one (and this makes the system even more unfair).
    – EarlGrey
    Aug 14, 2023 at 8:00
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    +1 for the last sentence. It's easy to fall prey to the way social media distorts reality. The less time we spend on there and instead look out into real life the better.
    – user116915
    Aug 15, 2023 at 6:14
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The solution is to talk to a mental health professional. What you describe is common enough that they will have likely solutions.

Yes, there is a lot of pressure, and more if you have very high ambitions, as seems the case. But, a lot of things help, such as time off, exercise (especially aerobic), and having other interests. We can't prescribe for you here, but a professional can. Your university may well have an office that offers such services. If not, your health plan might, depending on where you live. Go talk to someone who has the skill to evaluate and suggest.

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    Yet I wonder if the HP can really prescribe a release therapy for OP - though I have no doubt that they can make him/her focus on finding it. HPs are mostly generalists and would not have any insight to the particular nature of academia today with its competitiveness, financing, delicate human relations and challenging family/household-budget issues.
    – Trunk
    Aug 14, 2023 at 11:20
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    This. I never worked in academia but in industry (Silicon Valley; retired now), nonetheless the situation described sounds very similar to what I experienced. My solution for time off was to inform my employer that I am "out of the country and off the grid" and that is exactly what I did. Life without cell phone and the internet is possible :-) Where I went wrong is in not paying attention to the importance of aerobic exercise. My primary care physician actually prescribed daily walks in addition to medication at the age of 45, and I am still sticking to that regime many years later.
    – njuffa
    Aug 14, 2023 at 18:18
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    I think a lot of health professionals are not well equipped to advise on this kind of thing. (not that I am saying you shouldn't see one, but that advice from people in the same boat can be very useful in addition) Academia is a pretty unique beast and they often don't understand the kind of pressures and stresses we are under. Advice that applies to a 9-5 job doesn't always fit our situation.
    – Cole
    Aug 15, 2023 at 8:51
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    @Cole, the intention was mental health professional, actually. I've made an update.
    – Buffy
    Aug 15, 2023 at 10:11
  • @Buffy I interpreted the original post as mental health professional. Unless they have a PhD and are practicing clinically, they likely do not understand the unique pressures of academia.
    – Cole
    Aug 22, 2023 at 4:15
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First of all, we can only provide rational reasons to feel good, mental tricks, etc. These may not suffice and that’s when you may need a mental-health professional. Also, I will focus on aspects that are specific to academia.

That being said, here’s what kept me sane:

  • Shatter the meritocratic illusion. While skills and accomplishments are to some extent necessary for academic success, they become less relevant above a certain threshold. Instead, academic careers depend a lot on factors outside your control, in particular luck. There are several reasons for this, but the main ones are that research and publication success is luck-dependent and that academic job markets are specialised and thus small and therefore strongly subject to fluctuations.

  • Realise that the above means that you can fail through no fault of your own (but also that you can succeed without having given absolutely everything). Consider whether making a tremendous effort just to increase your chances by a tiny bit is really worth it to you.

  • Have a Plan B and C. Invest a small portion of your time (e.g. one day a year) to investigate alternative career paths. Become aware of what graduates of your field are doing for a living; search relevant job portals for positions matching your qualifications (after PhD); etc. Unless your PhD is in underwater basket weaving, your options are probably quite good. While you may already be vaguely assuming this, having this substantiated can considerably reduce the pressure.

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    I agree, talking to people about back-up plans so that you have something to fall back on if academia doesn't work can considerably reduce stress and even enable you to do better research.
    – Tom
    Aug 14, 2023 at 8:13
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I can only talk out of my own experience, after going through the hell of phd, several post-docs, constant anguish over ternure, etc...

The stress is not worth it.

Looking back, i wish i would have been more laid back on my pursuit of science. It really makes no difference if you spend one weekend more or less in the lab. The whole academic structure does not care about it, and having one more or one less paper is less important than you think.

As a matter of fact, i only managed to get my ternure position after i realize this fact, and started to let it go. You have to remember that your job, as an academic, is not only to generate "innovation" ( whatever this means), but more importantly to train the next generation. And you don't want them to be mindless working monkeys.

So, go ahead, have the beer on a friday night and forget that the lab exists on weekends. Being a phd candidate/post-doc/wathever is a job like any other else. It is just your function, and you are very much replaceable.

When it comes to carreer, i cannot stress this enough: place a deadline for yourself when it comes to professional goals. Like: if i dont achieve a ternure position by year X, i will go working in a bank. And stick to it. Also, make sure that, the closest you get to that deadline, the more of your research time is spent learning skills for jobs outside academia (e.g. programming in databases).

Most people do not manage to stay in academia, and most people shouldn't. It is just a job like any other, and should be treated as such.

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Your feelings are very common among academics and they may hunt you down for a long time if you let them. I can speak for myself on it. Maybe it is the thing that made me get where I am now (got my tenure and all), but this feeling of having to perform and having to to just one more thing never stops, even on weekends, holidays and so on. It may get better, but for me it is like an addiction… it keeps coming back! Even after 12 years of finishing my PhD, it still applies to me. One time my therapist said, when will it be enough for you? All of that said, it makes me rethink a lot of things in my life and the life of my students. I keep trying to let it go, it has worked lately, but maybe it is just part of the game to continue to be productive in the Academic "industry". I should say though that just realizing this, is already progress! You can only change if you know what needs to be changed. Some people don’t even have a clue.

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  • I often ask myself when enough will be enough but I can't find an answer (yet). Aug 20, 2023 at 7:13
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It is a very very common feeling. It's not healthy and PhDs must be watchful on its effects on their quality of life.

You are doing very well at a tempo that is not congenial to you.

Now that you have the makings of a thesis, I think you should start to review your work and assemble it - perhaps noting some additional interesting things that you might be able to do in the remaining time that would enhance your thesis further. I say perhaps as you don't want to get into another swirl of hectic work at a disagreeable cost to your emotional balance. Just some humanely manageable tasks and only if they add qualitatively to your final thesis.

Despite what you say about your pace being self-imposed, I get the feeling that your supervisers are delighted to have such a willing horse - and I am sure they know how to gee you up without you hardly noticing. So it is vital that from here onwards you assert your own tempo with your supervisers.

The slower pace (and your professed agreeable salary) should also help you start to have a better leisure time - away from the campus especially. Too many students lose the simple pastimes and joys they had before entering university as undergraduates and this trend is reinforced at postgraduate school. This is time gained at the loss of experience that might well save us even more time in our studies and research quandries.

So it's now time to close the circle and make your academic work fit into a natural and manageable life.

It is doesn't fit, it's time to look at other work paths that can.

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