Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Managing PhD Stress

Stress is not an unfamiliar term for a grad student. As for a PhD, stress is almost part of it.

There can be many reasons for grad student stress, but let's take them up in another post. Right now, I am going to post a few tips on handling it.

How to know that you are stressed:


  1. You start losing sleep
  2. You feel busy, but end up only checking email or surfing the web instead of getting any work done
  3. You lose appetite
  4. You get easily irritated, especially when talking to friends or family


One or more of these signs will start appearing. The most common and easiest to note is not being able to sleep.

Here's what to do to get rid of the stress:


  1. If you think a paper deadline caused the stress, stop writing the paper. Your health is more important than a publication. And you won't miss much; there are more than enough journals and conferences for you to submit later.
  2. If you think it helps, tell your advisor that you are under too much stress
  3. If you know that your advisor won't help you in this case, tell him in a different way. Write an email to him saying that you are stressed up and might need medication, but send it to the lab mailing list. Professors are dead scared of "academic harassment" charges, so they don't want to be on record for ignoring your stress.
  4. If you are losing sleep or appetite, go to a doctor. If possible, avoid the university medical center (I will explain this later)
  5. Add more balance to your life. Have a hobby that takes you away from a desk. If you are studying abroad, take time to make foreign friends and visit new places. If you have a host family, meet them more often.

As for me, my PhD was generally smooth thanks to the training I got at my internship. I had already learned how to do independent research, so I just had to convert that to a paper qualification. But my last postdoc had stressful times, so let me take one as an example and tell you how I handled it.

I was funded by a fairly large research project. My boss, the principal investigator of the project, had also invested in a startup that was using the research results in their systems. So the project had both publication and commercial pressures.

Once I was asked to write a paper to a workshop. This sounds fine, just that the deadline was ten days away and I had just submitted all my recent work to a separate conference. Apparently the boss found the venue good for "exposure". I said that this is hard, but agreed to give it a try.

For two or three days, I tried to develop one of my new ideas in to a paper. However, it usually takes at least three months to come up with something publishable. So, I ended up getting only two hours of sleep on the third night, and zero on the fourth. I decided to stop working on the paper, but that was too late. I still could not sleep.

I first went to the university medical center, and told the doctor what happened. Here's a part of that conversation:

Doctor: "It is clear that you are losing sleep because of work stress."
Me: "I guessed."
Doctor: "So you want medication so that you can finish the paper"
Me: "No. I have already decided to stop writing the paper. I want medicine so that I can get some sleep and get back to normal life"

(University health centers are sometimes over-tuned for the university system. If you can afford it, seek medical help outside)

I was given medicine that helps me to relax and sleep. It took two-three days for me to get back to normal sleep pattern.

Now here's how I communicated this to my advisor. I wrote to him after going to the doctor, explaining what happened and "informed him" that I stopped writing the paper (note that I did not ask his approval for it). I did not get any reply (common method among profs when students are not going their way). So, when a memo about the next lab meeting was sent, I replied to it with some details on the medicine I was prescribed :o). During the lab meeting, I told the boss that I am unable to write a paper at this point (the other lab members were listening). He verbally agreed.

A few days later, when I met my boss for some other thing in his room, he wore an extremely fierce look (those can't scare me, though) and said:

"Remember that there is no stress in this project!"

If you get this kind of response, you should know that your boss is not going to help you to relieve your stress :-p