Under Pressure: Breaking Free from the Stress of Your PhD

Under Pressure: Breaking Free from the Stress of Your PhD
3 years ago

Under Pressure: Breaking Free from the Stress of Your PhD

“Under Pressure” has always been one of my favourite songs from the legendary band Queen and the one and only David Bowie. A few months ago, I was singing this song in my lab (completely out of tune, by the way) while washing my cells and suddenly, I asked myself: “Noe, when was the last time you felt under pressure?”. You should know that I talk to myself a lot. But you should also know that the answer to that question was “yesterday”.

How did I respond to this? My first reaction was to keep working, and I am pretty sure a lot of people would have done the same. Although we are all busy and we need to get things done, the problem with not acknowledging when we feel under pressure or stressed might bring consequences later on. Therefore, one of the things we should learn is to stop when we have to, and to analyse where the pressure is coming from. Don’t get me wrong, this is difficult. After several years in science I am still learning to slow myself down.

For example, during my PhD, I worked a large number of hours. More than I dare to say out loud. I love science and my job more than many things in the world, and my PhD was/is one of the things I love the most about my life. I had excellent mentorship and training, and I was inspired on a daily basis by my supervisor and colleagues, so I squeezed every drop of enjoyment I could from my project. However, it was inevitable that I would feel stressed and tired sometimes, and even after all those working hours, occasionally I felt I would never be good enough to get my PhD. Now that I have my PhD diploma (and my viva was one of the best days of my life!) I can tell you that I was wrong.

Learning not to panic

Stress and/or pressure can come from many different directions, and each individual can be triggered by many elements. But we need to learn not to panic. Whatever stressful situation you are handling, ask yourself these questions: What is it that I need? How can I respect myself? Who can I reach out to? I know it might sound silly, but this is a much better approach than pushing yourself to the point of exhaustion.

In this article, I intend to lead by example and show you a few elements that were quite important for me during my PhD. Most importantly, I want to emphasise how I tried to overcome them, and to underline that it does not matter how many times you feel triggered or stressed by something, it is how you act upon these feelings that is important, and how you can learn to love yourself in the process.

Silencing the voice inside your head

Ah, the infamous Imposter Syndrome (IS). Let’s do a small exercise together. Imagine that a colleague of yours has a big presentation to do at work. They are slightly nervous and ask you for advice. Imagine you say to your colleague the following sentences: “Your data is inconclusive, so why bother? Instead of worrying about the presentation you should worry about the questions; they are going to find out you are a fraud”. Would you talk like that to someone that trusts in you? No. Then why do you speak to yourself like that?

During my PhD, my IS and I were holding hands all the time. I actually named my IS Ursula. Yes, THAT Ursula from the Little Mermaid movie. I named my IS because to me, IS is/was like a creature with many arms and legs that holds you tight and does not want to let you go. It is tiring, having a voice inside your head that constantly tells you that you are not worth it, or you are a fraud, or you just got lucky. It’s exhausting. However, having my IS so close to me taught me many lessons. It is normal to be discouraged, but I also gained so many aptitudes from the experience, mostly because one day I decided to “stand up” in front of my IS and say: “What if you are not right?”

Am I alone? No, I am a firm believer that absolutely everyone has felt like this at some point. Even the most confident person. Even the most brilliant researcher, or the most successful group leader. Although this happens on every rung of the academic ladder, I must say that PhD researchers are a highly vulnerable group. Regardless of your scientific experience, a PhD can be a tough and lonely run. You are constantly gathering and reporting data, either for a meeting, or for that humongous thesis you need to write at some point. Spoiler alert, postdoc/academic life is not that much different. As a postdoc and/or academic, you should start thinking about your immediate future, papers, teaching, grants…etc. And then paper and grant rejections kick in, alongside managing people, which can really make you feel like a fraud.

What can I do? From my personal experience, it took me some time to be “at peace” with my IS. This is because we are our own worst critics, and we can be extremely harsh to ourselves. No one hears you, right? Plus, hectic academic environments can push us to forget about the thing that is bothering us as long as we keep working. Here are some tips that have been very useful to me:

a) Find support. Talking about my feelings was incredibly helpful for me. Not only during my PhD, but also during my postdoc. Whether it is to your supervisor, your friend, your lab mate, find someone that you trust, and you can speak to. Verbalising your feelings is incredibly cathartic. No one is going to think less of you for having those thoughts. You are not less of a scientist because you are feeling like a fraud. And it is because you aren’t!

b) Find evidence. This is vital. When you feel you did not do enough for that presentation, or your paper was not that great, or you did not deserve your job, find evidence. Has someone told you this? Have you received bad feedback? Most likely you will find it is all in your head!

c) Give yourself time. I still struggle with this, but the more I work in science, the more I realise how important it is to rest. You can power through days, weeks, months, years, but at some point, you will burn out. We are all human. Find something that makes you forget about your work for a while, whatever it is that makes you happy. And most importantly, let yourself feel. Do not repress your feelings. They are part of you, but most likely they do not define you, so give yourself time to be sad or angry, and then come back energised when you are ready for it.

d) Write down achievements and good feedback. This is a good one. I have a secret notebook (well, not so secret anymore!) in which I write things that make me feel proud. Those could be work related or something that a friend said to me that made me smile. You cannot imagine how fulfilling it is to read these when you have had a bad day. When you struggle to feel motivated, read those over and over again. They were told to you for a reason!

The desire to be superhuman

Although being ambitious is good, there are some limits. The necessity of achieving a very long task list and managing more things than we can handle is quite common among scientists (and I am definitely guilty of it). On top of this, there is a glorifying culture about overworking, especially in academia. Therefore, sometimes I think we fill up our task list just for the purpose of seeing it full, and not because we are rational about our work.

In addition, I believe that the combination of environments that compare individuals against each other with underlying individual’s insecurities feed up the superhuman sentiment. As a result, sometimes we adopt schedules that are similar to our colleagues, which will never work. This is because we should be working towards our own personal ambitions and goals, not because we feel we are doing less than someone else.

Am I alone? Definitely not. Science is a job of action, in my opinion. The more experiments you do, the more knowledge you will acquire about your project, and the more you will learn. However, science is not all about publishing papers, or getting those crucial results on a bank holiday. Science is about the pleasure of learning and sharing with the scientific community. Yes, papers are good. Productivity is good. But to get papers we need to be scientists first.

What can I do?

a) Remember that we are all different. You need to walk your own path and find what works for you. If you feel you are lacking productivity, or you are insecure with your own work, ask yourself why. Are you trying to follow someone else’s schedule? Are you lacking motivation? Reflect on yourself first, and definitely speak to your supervisors about your work, they are there to help!

b) Realise what overwork means. It means exhaustion, and sacrifice. Science is amazing, but you do not need to sacrifice yourself to be a good scientist, and it took me years to understand this! But now I have realised that having hobbies that I love outside of work, taking care of myself, and enjoying science overall is way more important than pushing myself to work eleven hours a day. And that does not mean I will progress less or achieve fewer milestones. It is the opposite! The more content you are with yourself, the better you will work.

Dealing with grief

This is a tricky one. I find grief extremely common (unfortunately), but for some reason, no one talks about it. One week before starting my PhD, my grandmother passed away. So, after taking care of everything, I packed up my grief and went back to the UK from Spain to start my PhD. I could have taken time off, of course. My supervisor offered me unlimited rest from the very beginning. At that point, it was my choice to keep myself busy and try to forget. I am not good at staying still. However, let me tell you that overworking was a bad decision, and it really impacted my mental health. In addition, it is not easy to confront grief when you are alone in another country away from your family.

Am I alone? Unfortunately, grief affects us all, often more than once in our lifetimes. You are definitely not alone, even if no one talks about it.

What can I do? There is a saying in Spain about grief. We usually say that grief lasts for one year. Then, everything gets easier, because you learn how to cope with it. This was quite true for me, and here are some tips that helped me:

a) Seek help. Do not keep anything to yourself, it is only going to build up and make you collapse. Don’t be scared of things like therapy, or mental health specialists. I can guarantee that they will help you tremendously.

b) Take breaks. I know it sounds contradictory to what I wrote above, but this is so important. For me, starting my PhD was good to keep myself busy, but I definitely went too far. To be honest, I was scared to take breaks because that would mean I would have free time to think about my grandmother. I know it’s scary, but the reason you are remembering that person is because of how much you loved them. Taking breaks and respecting your body and your feelings is a must, and that will never take away from your capabilities as a scientist.

c) Trust the process. Grief is particular to each individual. I know friends that are not “bothered” about it. I have other friends who need to cry it out and be away from everyone. Trust that whatever feelings you have, they are the correct ones. Your mind and body are healing, so listen to them. Do you need to be sad? Be it. Do you feel like calling a friend to go out? Do it. Whatever you need, be kind to yourself and trust that one day your grief will be less heavy.

Standing up to gender discrimination

This topic can be pretty extensive, so I am going to do my best to summarise it. I am not sure why, but even in the 21st century, some people still think of women as less capable than men. Or deserving of fewer opportunities because of motherhood. Or, my favourite… that we are too emotional for a serious job like science (this is where I would insert an angry emoji!).

Not only is this utterly ridiculous, it’s also wrong. As female scientists, we are capable of much more than we get credit for. We multitask, lead projects, supervise students, manage labs, win awards, get degrees, cope with mental health, and some have children in the middle of all this. And still, sometimes we are not respected. At a personal level, this is devastating. Receiving less respect or credit than a male colleague simply due to your gender is outrageous. It makes you feel small, and if you lack confidence, it can severely affect you. If you receive discrimination from a senior colleague, you might even start to believe that you aren’t a good scientist. And as a woman, you are expected to just accept it, and move on. Ironically, if you stand up for yourself, you are bragging about it. So, in summary, you can’t win.

Gender (and any other minority group) bias is a hard pill to swallow. What worries me is that gender bias creates a barrier for the next generation of scientists. Think about it. How will they feel if they see women being actively discriminated against in science? Will they pursue that career in STEM if they see how hard it is to be a female scientist?

The retention of girls and young women in science roles is key. There are considerably less women in high hierarchy positions, if you compare them to undergraduate level (AKA “the leaky pipeline” phenomenon). But we are not going to increase their retention if we do not fight against discrimination. Rome was not built in a day, they say. Well, fighting against stereotypes isn’t easy either. However, it is up to us how quickly we want to change society's expectations. Visibility of role models is one of the most powerful elements in encouraging youngsters to follow careers in science. I believe that if we educate and showcase female role models to little girls and young women and they see someone that looks like them, or comes from a similar background, science automatically becomes more about the people who make it, rather than being smart or having certain skills.

In addition, we need to help each other as a community. If you see a female colleague being subjected to discrimination, speak up. Help your colleague. If you do it, and I do it, and others do it, we will be one step closer to educating our colleagues and making science a more welcoming space in which everyone can feel at home.

Learning to be happy with yourself

I very much hope that this article has helped you to understand my view about the topics I have described. Most importantly, I hope it has helped you to appreciate that all the tips I’ve given start from our inner selves, which is what we have to nurture. Although I still get stressed sometimes, I am now much quicker in identifying what is making me feel bad, and what I need to do to feel better.

This is because your life is always about you. It is not about others, or about your job. What matters is your discovery, your own adventure, and how much you get to grow and to be happy with yourself, embracing you. We have the power to change ourselves and in turn, the community.

Remember, like Queen and David Bowie said: “Pressure, pushing down on me, pressing down on you no man asks for. Under pressure, that brings a building down, splits a family in two, puts people on streets (…) Can't we give ourselves one more chance?”


Dr Noelia D Falcon is a senior research associate at the School of Pharmacy, University of East Anglia, UK. She completed a BSc in Marine Sciences and an MRes in Biomedicine back in her home country of Spain before moving to the UK to undertake work experience and eventually complete a PhD. She works in Dr Aram Saeed’s Lab carrying out research on tissue engineering and biomaterials. She is also the host and creator of the I Belong Here podcast, which aims to showcase and share the stories of women in STEM from all around the world.

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