The authors are recent PhD graduates who’ve all experienced anxiety during and after their doctoral program.
Here they share their story to support current doctoral students working to navigate and maintain a healthy work/life balance.
The lifestyle of graduate school has been associated with the presence of mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety, in students during their academic programs. A 2013 analysis of the 2009 National College Health Assessment found that 61.3% of current graduate students reported ever feeling anxiety, with 43.8% feeling anxiety within the past 12 months. As recent graduates from a doctoral program, we’ve experienced this anxiety firsthand, and hope that our stories and recommendations can help to tackle this problem head-on.
Stress is an essential reaction to danger, a mechanism ingrained in us long ago to force a “fight” or “fly” response. However, it’s how we react to stress that impacts our long-term health, including the potential development of anxiety through cognitive distortions and unhealthy coping mechanisms. While we three may have already been naturally anxious people, this became increasingly heightened when under the stress of working on our PhDs.
“It was maybe a month before the first draft of my dissertation was due. I was on track. I sent my advisor the document a week before going on a weekend vacation, expecting feedback when I returned. I still felt like I shouldn’t be traveling for pleasure. I shouldn’t be doing “nothing.” I shouldn’t relax. On the flight, I felt like I wasn’t going to be able to breathe. I felt sweaty, light headed, and shaky — and like I didn’t want to be stuck in a synthetic metal test tube with wings. That awful experience created a fear of flying in me — or rather, a fear of having a panic attack on a plane — that I am still working on today.”
As graduate students begin their programs, stress and anxiety become normalized: everyone you work with has experienced the same feelings, and it’s often seen as part of the process of becoming a doctor — an initiation into the club. This notion may discourage sharing, for fear of revealing weakness. So, you swallow it, thinking that others are likely going through the same thing and it’s all part of the process.
What’s most confusing to those around us is that we were “good students” and appeared so calm, leading others to wonder how and why we could ever be worried. But those logical thoughts are pushed out by cognitive distortions when five years of work becomes an important crossroads to you, where your work ethic, intelligence, and passion are tested.
We thought that once we defended our dissertations, the stress and anxiety would disappear. It didn’t. We’ve obtained one of the highest levels of academic achievement. We found great jobs immediately doing what we love. And every day we have to work to manage our anxiety. We believe that more honesty and communication on the topic, more acknowledgment of this as a reality during graduate school, and more support (even when we didn’t realize we needed it) would have been helpful. We wish we could have anticipated the amount of anxiety we might experience during a PhD program.
It is essential for graduate programs to not only acknowledge and discuss the difference between acute stress, depression, anxiety, chronic stress, and poor coping skills during doctoral programs, but to also train faculty and staff to refer students to appropriate resources and create a supportive culture.
We think everyone should take a moment each semester to reflect on how, if at all, you’re managing stress. Support your friends who may be struggling — and lean on each other as resources. Be open and honest when you feel like you need help. Work to create and promote this supportive culture.
New PhD students: reach out to recently graduated PhDs. Current PhDs: seek to mentor an incoming student. After all, you were once starting on this journey and, whether you knew it or not, needed someone to support you. There doesn’t have to be panic during a PhD program, and together, with open and supportive communication we can help bring holistic health and wellbeing to the taxing and ever-so-rewarding-process of becoming a doctor.
Alyssa Brooks, Erica Roberts, and Erin Tagai are recent graduates from the doctoral program at the University of Maryland School of Public Health. All are conducting research and evaluation in the field of public health.