What are you worried about?

If you are naturally someone who worries, then being a PhD student gives you plenty of opportunities to exercise your habit. You will have research-specific concerns about experiments working and deciding which approach to take. Inherent uncertainty comes with the submission of an abstract or paper, or presenting your work for scrutiny, when you may well face unexpected questions or criticism.

These sorts of worries are part of doing research and do become easier to deal with over time. I have developed strategies for dealing with certain setbacks and knowing that I have worked through problems in the past makes me more calm when I am the next sticking point.

But there are concerns that play on the minds of PhD students, beyond the research-specific challenges. Back in 2009, the Graduate Schools at Imperial College researched the wellbeing of PhD students. 1202 students responded to an online survey, and the Graduate Schools put together the conclusions of the research. The top three “most troublesome items” were perhaps not surprising:

  • Feeling frustrated / demotivated by your results and apparent lack of progress
  • Experiencing high levels of stress because of your research
  • Being unclear about the next stage of your career after your PhD

If you take a look at the full list (pdf) of the top ten most troublesome items, many students would nod along with at least some of them. The Graduate Schools also produced some guidelines for supervisors (pdf) suggesting how supervisors can help their students with these difficulties. The guidelines for supervisors centre on giving students realistic information about the nature of research and what is expected of them, as well as pointers towards sources of support.

If, as a PhD student, these sorts of anxieties are getting to you, there are things you can do. As well as looking to your supervisor for a realistic assessment of where you are at, seek support from your fellow PhD students. The results (ppt) of the wellbeing survey suggest that these concerns are common, and if you discuss your anxiety with other students you will probably find empathy if not immediate solutions!

If you are an anxious person, then to some extent, accept that you are going to worry about your progress, and that the anxiety might be there whatever you did. With research, whilst you can plan your experiments and develop a strategy, you will face difficulties and unexpected problems.

One of the attendees at our Science Blogging Workshop spoke of their plans to start a blog. They expressed a lot of anxiety about not knowing what they would write about beyond the first few posts. My suggestion was that not knowing where blogging would take you should not stop you from starting. My blogging has certainly brought me some surprises. In blogging, as in research, learning to sit with uncertainty is a useful skill to have.

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