I find myself experiencing back to school anxiety as a new semesters begins in less than three weeks, mainly because the unpredictability associated with graduate life.

In some ways it feels less structured than other endeavors such as starting a new semester as an undergrad, starting a new job or moving to a new country, since in graduate school you have to constantly prove yourself using your creativity and intellect and you have to do it alone. Whereas in industry (or some other structured work) you always have the opportunity to move up, or stay where you are at just by showing up to work, in academia there is plenty of room to free fall.

Things are on my mind at the moment:

  • How do I maintain a healthy relationship with my professor(s), how can I get them to look favorable toward me as a student while not appearing overzealous?
  • How can I find a new research topic that is interesting to me AND has practical application AND leaves room for future works AND satisfies my supervisor's research direction AND get it published AND host a conference about it AND grabs attention AND leaves room for collaboration AND... ... ...
  • How do I balance these extremely open ended research oriented courses? Will I find time to keep up my health and keep up my grade? Is my body even capable at waking up at 8:00 in the morning anymore?
  • Can I still learn given that I have forgotten so much and can't even understand the things I learned 4 month ago?
  • What if I hit a dead end and fail? What happens next? It is unthinkable.

Yes we all experience anxiety from time to time, but never is there a time when all these anxieties are bundled together then unleashed all at the same time.

Of course I could always pretend that things are going to be okay and just "deal with it"...but I find going into a new semester with a lot of anxiety does create problems, such as getting extremely upset at professors when they make a small mistake (it would be as if they are "intentionally" ruining my year), becoming overzealous at proving myself that I miss the point of a course altogether and professors are annoyed by high-fi questions only tangential to their course.

Is this feeling normal and is there anything one could do to alleviate some of the anxieties?

  • Unwind at regular intervals. Take up a sport that's not very competitive. Say, climbing. A lot of people I know do climbing (indoor bouldering). Sep 1, 2015 at 12:55
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    and you have to do it alone — [citation needed]!!!!!!
    – JeffE
    Sep 1, 2015 at 17:10
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    Yes, as @JeffE insinuates, you don't have to "do it alone". To interpret the situation as that is almost surely an error. Advisors should be helpful, not burdens. Sure, some advisors are not-so-good, but expectations of adversarial-ness will most likely make it be so... Sep 1, 2015 at 17:53
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    It is in your advisor's best interest for you to succeed. He is your academic father, there to help and guide you; not a god to bring pleasing offers, nor an ogre waiting for you to make a mistake to eat you.
    – Davidmh
    Sep 1, 2015 at 18:05
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3 Answers 3


Early in my grad school career, I dealt with many of the same feelings that you describe. Often, I could not sleep or function well academically or personally because my anxieties were uncontrollable and intrusive. If you are finding it difficult to deal with your anxiety, I would suggest visiting student mental health services or a similar resource available to you as a graduate student. They may be able to help you determine whether your anxieties are typical or reaching the level of clinical impairment, and suggest behavioral and/or pharmacological strategies for managing your anxiety. One of the thoughts that most delayed my seeking help was the notion that I should just be able to "deal with it" or "stop stressing out." But sometimes it's not possible to do that without help.

Today, even having received, and continuing to receive, help for my anxiety, sometimes I find myself at particularly stressful intervals and dealing with the types of thoughts you describe. In addition to continuing to follow my medication regimen, I use some of the following tools:

  • Regular exercise
  • Good sleep hygiene (http://www.sleepeducation.com/essentials-in-sleep/healthy-sleep-habits)
  • Meals with adequate protein and fruits/vegetables (e.g., not just fast food/delivery even though it's easier)
  • Progressive muscle relaxation--you can find cheap or free audio files on Amazon or iTunes that will lead you through this exercise
  • Try exercises in the Anxiety & Phobia Workbook by Edmund Bourne.
  • Avoid becoming overwhelmed by setting concrete, achievable goals and breaking larger goals down into smaller pieces. Make daily, weekly, and monthly goals. Ask your advisor(s) to help with accountability for certain self-imposed deadlines. I have found habitica.com to be a fun way to help keep myself on track with my to-do lists; you could set up a group on there with fellow grad students to help each other stay on track.
  • Inviolable "you" time, set aside at the same time every week. Don't work all the time. Make time for an activity you enjoy. You'll be more productive and creative afterwards.

Take it one day at a time. Stay organized. Ask a lot of questions. Show that you're an independent worker, but seek clarification if need be. Get openly excited about research that you're fascinated by. Work, work, work. If you find a supportive department, make friends and talk about problems, which are likely common to everyone. Push distant things to worry about into the future: there's no reason to think about conference viability, for instance, before you've even nailed down a research topic.

Many graduate students run into problems of some sort or another, but the likelihood of running into so many issues so simultaneously so suddenly that you have to drop out overnight is extremely small. If something's going wrong, talk to a faculty member and work it out. Then it'll be behind, and honestly, most faculty are so busy that they forget about little hiccups within days. (And even big hiccups. I wrote an absolutely abysmal course paper a few years ago, and it nearly sunk my grades for good. Recently ran into the professor and got very self deprecating about the paper, because he can be critical. He didn't have any memory of it!)

Anxiety and catastrophizing are normal to some extent, but if they're really getting away on you, look into cognitive behavioral therapy.

Best of luck!


Hard to answer. Yes, such changes are stressful, being anxious about it is quite normal. As you state, you are through a few such changes already, so this should be another one.

Even after teaching for 30+ years, I'm still anxious when meeting a class for the first time...

If this is a really big problem for you, you might want to seek professional help.

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