By Sabrina Islam |
I have had anxiety disorders since I was an early teen. Being completely uneducated on the topic of mental health, I simply accepted this as a character flaw, or maybe even a hallmark of academic achievements. I got medically diagnosed with anxiety after starting my PhD, which took quite a bit of psychological work to reckon with.
My diagnosis motivated me to look for strategies. Curious about other researchers’ experiences, I started initiating conversations, and I realised that nearly every graduate student struggles with some form or some phase of anxiety.
Statistics supported my observation. In the 2019 Nature study sampling 6300 graduate students, more than one-third of the respondents admitted requiring resources for anxiety or depression (1). In another study sampling 2278 graduate students, again, more than one-third of respondents scored moderate to severe depression or anxiety ranges (2). Personally, I identified some common psychological barriers that lead to academic anxiety. These include feeling unintelligent or incompetent, conflicts, uneven power dynamics, uncertainty, absence of clarity and lack of direction. Any of these can factor in to debilitate researchers from starting a task, finishing a dissertation, or just staying motivated. Those are the three categories I shall be addressing.
Disclosure: I am not a professional. I am not speaking from a position of superiority. I fully understand exactly how debilitating anxiety can be, and no, there are no panacea or life hacks that magically transformed me from a neurotic individual to a hyper-confident one. This post is not me “figuring it out”, this post is me “thinking it out loud”.
Anxiety around starting (aka procrastination)
David Allen, father of the GTD method famously said, “If it takes less than two minutes, then do it now.” Later on, James Clear, bestselling author of the Atomic Habits put his spin on that: “Any habit can be scaled down into a two-minute version” (3). The concept here was to make the start-up as little challenging as possible. I try to look at the things that I have been putting off. Then I start doing a very teeny tiny bit of the thing, for a very teeny tiny amount of the time. After simply showing up, I am more likely to continue making progress. Jumpstarting the task at a very small but finite level will make it less daunting. And the mental reward would very likely drive me to continue with the task.
One caveat here is that you have to make the step you are taking a concrete step. You need to make sure you are making an actual contribution, and not just distracting yourself into a flurry of “busy work” (guilty!)
Anxiety around finishing (aka out the door)
A flip side of procrastination is clinging to our work and refusing to call it a job well done. So many PhD students have difficulty letting their theses go or hitting the submit button. We keep revising and reiterating and um, “perfecting”.
There is a catchphrase common in every thesis bootcamp: done is better than perfect. We want things to be consummate and perfect. But no matter how much we try, flaws or imperfections will just bloom on our work upon every revisit. One way around this is defining early on what qualifies as an acceptable answer. Set standards for “good enough” always helps. Another way could be through looking at your feedback – if multiple advisors agree that my work surmounts as quality work, then it probably is.
Another subtler reason the PhD students develop existential crises around submitting is because they don’t know what comes next. While I cannot yet speak for submitting a thesis, I can speak for submitting chapters and drafts. What helped me is developing a new project ahead of time that I can look forward to next. I am planning on doing something similar before I submit my full thesis.
Anxiety around fluctuating motivations
A lot of the times, a long-running research project is not a test of our scholarship, but a test of our consistency of motivation. Through the course of my PhD, there have been spells of extreme demotivation, and being stuck in rut.
Mark Manson, blogger and bestselling author, is a firm proponent of the “Do something” principle. Instead of waiting for the stroke of inspiration, he advises to just keep showing up, even if you don’t feel like it. Especially when you don’t feel like it. Chances are, once you start doing something, your nervous system will catch up.
When my PhD feels too overwhelming, I try focusing on the next milestone instead of the whole thing. It could be the next presentation, the next meeting, or the next chapter. My university’s counselling services compared graduate research to a marathon, not a sprint. The “finishing line”, being as abstract as uncertain as it is, can already be an anxiety-inducing metaphor. The trick is not to focus on the finish line, but to focus on the “next 50 meters, and the next, and the next”.
I think the root cause of academic anxiety is perfectionism. We all want to have a concrete insight materialised from our study. The alternative otherwise can be too intimidating. So, we struggle to start a project that may not have a perfect answer within the perfect time frame. We struggle to let go of the paper that is still imperfect. And we struggle to stay motivated in a career where uncertainty is the name of the game.
I once attended a lecture by Dr Don Newgreen. “Science is probationary”, he said. “Nobody gets to have the final word.” Those two sentences shifted my perspectives completely. Now, I simply accept that my work will never be perfect, but it can be of great quality. We are doing our research to not conclude, but to contribute to the knowledgebase. Despite having anxiety, simply reframing my study as an act of contribution helps me to get things done, as well as impart meaning and value to what I do.
- Chris Woolston. PhDs: the tortuous truth. Nature. 2019; 575: 403-406. doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-019-03459-7
- Evans, T., Bira, L., Gastelum, J. et al. Evidence for a mental health crisis in graduate education. Nat Biotechnol. 2018; 36: 282–284. doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/nbt.4089
- James Clear. Chapter 13: How to Stop Procrastinating by Using the Two-Minute Rule. In: Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad One. New York: Avery, an imprint of Penguin Random House. 2018. p- 131-138
All images are (C) to the author of the post.
Sabrina Islam is a PhD candidate at the Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry and Health Sciences, University of Melbourne. Sabrina is a rookie coder who is trying to answer what committing to the response by serotonin means at cellular and evolutionary contexts by looking at biological data.