The Anxious PhD: 3x3 Useful Strategies for Completing a PhD with Anxiety
This first post, written by Dr. Emma Kennedy, is the first in a series on mental health and graduate school. Be on the lookout for the second and third installments on both Wednesday and Friday.
I completed my PhD in English Literature at the University of York, in the UK, in 2014. I was diagnosed with anxiety in around 2013, but I’ve had some form of anxiety for much, much longer. I wanted to write this post to highlight some of the things I found most difficult, and some of the strategies I used to overcome them. However. One of the things I found most anxiety-provoking was advice about how to do my PhD, and so I wanted to say the following:
This is a list of things that worked for me, in my specific context. Some or all of it may or may not work for you: and that’s totally fine. Feel free to try things out, experiment - and if it doesn’t work, then absolutely don’t force yourself to continue. One of the things that made me most anxious during my PhD was the avalanche of PhD advice: however well-meaning and well-reasoned it was, I wasn’t always able to separate the ‘you can do this’ from ‘you should do this’. The below list is definitely things that you can do - if you feel able. You may not be, and that’s OK too.
There were three main things I found challenging as a PhD student with anxiety and nerves around social events/public speaking:
Structure. I get very anxious if I don’t have enough structure in my life, but I only found this out mid-way through my PhD when I decided to ask why exactly I spent hours sitting at my desk feeling like a rabbit in headlights.
Conferences. Giving papers, answering questions, making small talk: all anxiety-inducing.
Teaching. I felt like students wouldn’t respect my authority, that I didn’t deserve to have them respect my authority, that I’d get everything wrong, I would find myself forgetting stuff, and that I’d eventually just break down in class.
With the benefit of time and perspective, as well as a supportive community, I’ve been able to find three main ways to deal with each one of these.
This was the big one. A humanities PhD in the UK, in particular, can be dreadfully devoid of structure. Depending on your supervisor, you might have meetings once every two weeks, once a month,or even less often. We don’t have exams, but some time between the end of the first and start of the third year most PhD students will have an ‘upgrade’ or ‘confirmation of ‘status’ process. For this, you have to prove to a committee that you’re on track to finish in a reasonable time: it’s also a chance for you to highlight any concerns you have. That’s it, though: one meeting in three years.
I realised quickly that I have a tendency both to drift and to let that drifting make me anxious. This became a vicious cycle: anxiety about drifting led to further inability to focus, led to… more anxiety. Great!
In order to stop this vicious cycle, I tried to do three things:
Work a consistent schedule. Working 9 until 5-6pm worked for me personally, but you don’t have to do the 9-5 thing. You can do the 12-7 thing, or the 2-8 thing - whatever hours work for you. You might find that fewer hours are better, or that splitting them up so you have a longer break in the middle, works for you: the key is to find what works and then stick to it. I found that making this a habit made it easier for me to get up in the morning: I knew at least roughly what my day would look like.
As well as the ‘when’, try and establish a ‘where’ that works for you. I was lucky that York’s Humanities Research Centre provided study space for postgraduate students: what works for you might be somewhere at home, a department, a space in the library or a certain coffee shop. The only criteria is that it’s somewhere that works well for you. Even if you don’t always go there (we all need a change from time to time) having a ‘default’ space meant that I didn’t always have to decide where to go. One less decision = more mental space for my PhD.
Now that you’ve sorted the when and the where: the what. Find a way to record to-do lists (and tick them off - this is important). I use Workflowy, an online to-do list that you can log into from anywhere, along with the Most Important Task system. Select your three most important tasks and prioritise those. This process means that when you have limited energy, even if you don’t have the energy to work for 7 hours, you’ll spend the time you can work on the things that are most important to you. I also found this system worked well for writing: 3 most important paragraphs, 1 most important section, 2 most important sources to analyse. The process of prioritising helped me to focus.
As an anxious person and an introvert, I find even the best conferences exceptionally draining - especially those big disciplinary-association ones that everyone feels they should go to at least once (for me that was the Renaissance Society of America). Here’s what I learned from my conference experiences:
Schedule in some alone time. Miss a panel, especially at a three-day conference, or at least find somewhere to have lunch. Find somewhere to sit away from the crowds and just be - read a book, or the Internet, or just stare into space. I found that doing this once a day recharged me enough for the rest of the day - especially if it included dinner.
Connect with people on social media. If you arrange to meet someone you already know from the Internet, you’ll likely know more about them and have things to talk about - and it’ll be less scary than having to go up to complete strangers at drinks receptions. Getting on the conference hashtag also means that, even if you’re not feeling up to meeting anyone, or even leaving your room, you’ll be able to get points across in the conversation and make connections. You don’t have to be a social butterfly to ‘network’ if you don’t want to.
Give your paper the way that works for you. I’ve been giving papers for six years, and it’s only in the last two that I’ve felt confident enough not to write my whole paper out first. Write the paper out in your speaking voice, not in your written voice, and people probably won’t notice. Do your best to be interesting, sure - but put yourself, and your confidence, first. Don’t push yourself to ad-lib with minimal notes because someone else tells you to. I write my papers out (including notes to pause and breathe) and print them out in 14-point font, double spaced. I look up roughly every 3 lines to get some audience eye contact, and keep a timer running where I can see it.
It came as a surprise to me that I enjoy teaching. Having had anxiety and shyness for almost all my life, I assumed that I wasn’t cut out for teaching - until I actually started doing it. I loved it! It did, however, make me unbelievably anxious. What if I did something wrong? What if I forgot the lesson plan, or a key fact? What if they found me out? However much I told myself that teachers didn’t have to be some sort of mystical authority who knew everything and never made a mistake, I never truly believed it. I knew, deep in my soul, that that was what a teacher was - and that I was not it. I had to confront this head on, and the only way to do that was:
Own your imperfection. I was so afraid of forgetting stuff and losing my way mid-session, and I didn’t get over that until I’d done it several times. I found that every time I successfully concealed or glossed over any mistakes only compounded my fear of being ‘found out’: the only way out was through. I cheerfully said to the class, ‘I’ve lost my way! Hang on while I check my plan’, and ‘I don’t know that fact! Let’s find it out’. This took some practice, and it felt horrendous the first few times - but it was worth it.
Related: don’t take criticism to heart. I was lucky in my first few years of teaching. I had wonderful students who accepted that I didn’t have to be an authority on everything in order to be their teacher, and who laughed with me when I made stupid mistakes. I know that not everyone has that luck, and that student evaluations can be careless and cruel. I wrote about this here, but the gist is: negative evaluations don’t make you a bad teacher. You can use them as an opportunity to improve, but don’t take them to heart.
Use all the crutches you need. In the same way that it’s fine to write out your conference paper if you need to (or your lecture: same rules apply), you may need to over-prepare in order to feel safe. Try not to exhaust yourself, but don’t force yourself to teach a session on sparse notes if you don’t feel OK doing so. I printed out all the handouts for each session I taught, and in the first few I even wrote out full sentences in my plan. I didn’t always use them, and once I found I didn’t need them I stopped. But it got me through the fear of freezing in front of the class, so it was worth it. You are the expert on what you need to feel safe and confident in the classroom.
To sum up:
Work a consistent schedule.
Find a default workspace.
Sort out a to-do list system that works for you.
Schedule in alone time at conferences.
Connect on social media at conferences.
Give your conference paper in the way that you feel best.
Own your imperfections when teaching.
Don’t take student criticisms of your teaching to heart.
Prepare - over-prepare - as much as you need to feel safe when teaching.
That’s 9 rules, and I’d like to add a 10th, general one:
The only rules that work are the ones that help you.
If you find yourself trying to integrate multiple, conflicting sources of advice; if you spend more time trying to follow a rule than you would have done without it; if a piece of advice doesn’t save time or energy, and doesn’t make you happy - get rid of it. You’re doing fine, and the only person who is an expert on your PhD is you. Seek feedback, of course, and listen to people - but trust yourself and your instincts as well. Doing a PhD is a long old road, and what you need to get through it will almost certainly be different from what others needed. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you want and need, and give yourself a break. And if you find yourself in the Valley of Shit, read this post by the Thesis Whisperer (aka Dr Inger Mewburn) and know that you’re not alone.
Dr. Emma Kennedy works for the Educational Development Team (ADEPT) at Queen Mary University in London. She received her PhD in English Literature from the University of York in 2014. You can read more about her work at The Higher Educationalist. You can (and should) also follow her on Twitter: @EmmaKEdDe