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Anxious in Graduate School?  You Can Overcome It

I was in the drive-through line waiting to order fast food, and I became extremely hot. I started sweating. I felt like I couldn’t breath. "What is happening?," I thought. I told my fiancée my symptoms, and he said it sounds like your having a panic attack. Just focus on your breathing, and take deep breaths.

I was in fact having a panic attack. Why? I was preparing for my 2nd year departmental exam, and if I didn’t pass, I would be asked to leave the program with my Master’s degree. I had to read a research article and prepare to present on it in addition to proposing my thesis project. They could ask any questions about the paper and random questions about science concepts. To sum it up, you really didn’t know how to prepare for the exam. You just had to know as much about the paper as possible, and hope that you actually retained knowledge from the four years of undergrad science classes and your first year of graduate courses.

Anxious and overwhelmed were both understatements for what I was feeling.

Why was I anxious? Was it that I had over 50 references that according to senior graduate students, I should read through and be familiar with? Was I anxious that I had to learn more than 4 new biology and biochemistry techniques that I had never heard of? Was it that I had to present my research with little to no data, and explain why this would be a great thesis? Perhaps, it was all of these things.

The real cause of my anxiety was that I was afraid to fail. I was afraid that my committee would find out that I wasn’t smart enough to be a PhD student. I was afraid they would realize that they did make a mistake in accepting me into the program. I was afraid to have to tell all my family and friends that I am no longer in a PhD program because I simply wasn’t good enough.

Sounds familiar?

Do you feel nervous when you have to present at group meeting or a conference? Your probably afraid someone will ask you questions that you have no idea how to answer. You may even fear that someone will highlight that the research you’re doing is absolute crap and a waste of time.

Are you nervous when you have a one-on-one meeting with your research advisor or committee members? You have no data because you just realized before the meeting everything you did is wrong due to a mistake. Maybe, you have tons of data but have no idea what it means. Maybe your data is completely opposite of what you expected, and while this is science and its still interesting; lets face it, you can only publish positive results. Maybe you had a meltdown, and just wasn’t productive for the past couple of days or weeks, and your afraid your mentor will say, “Is this all you have?” Or my absolute favorite, “This is straightforward and should work,” when in fact it’s not straightforward and isn’t working.

Do you try to avoid asking your peers and/or postdocs in your group technical questions? You may fear that the answer is super simple, and you in fact asked a dumb question. Maybe, you want to figure it out alone because you feel you have something to prove to yourself. You may even want to avoid having to sit through a condescending and belittling response answer that makes your worst fear come true.

Do you dread applying for grants and fellowships? Let’s face it. Everyone applying has over a 3.5 GPA, publications, impressive research and personal statement, amazing CV, and outstanding recommenders. You may feel like it’s a waste of time to apply when the chances are so low for you to actually get funding. There are ALWAYS budget cuts in scientific research, so what’s the point?

I’m confident that if you’re in graduate school, one if not all of these apply to you. In fact, you may feel a little anxious right now just thinking about these scenarios.

Now that I’ve just highlighted many of the anxieties and fears we experience daily in graduate school, I wouldn’t dare leave you hanging without offering some advice on how to overcome them.

My advice on how to overcome these anxieties is very simple: Whatever you fear and want to avoid as a graduate student, do it as much as possible. Over and over again.

If you hate giving talks, sign up for as many talks as possible. Instead of presenting a poster at that next conference, challenge yourself to apply for an oral talk instead. Meet with your peers and/or lab mates bi-weekly and perform chalk talks about your research in an informal environment. If your in a research group where you present only once a year or maybe you don’t even have formal group meetings, take initiative and ask your research advisor to schedule a group meeting where you present your work every few months. Look for outside opportunities to speak in front of an audience and get feedback. Toastmasters are a great example. Also, there may be workshops held on your campus for science communication either through your department or the Graduate Division. The reality is you have to present your research, and the more you practice the better you become. Consistent practice can also boost your confidence.

If you don’t like to meet with your research advisor, make a consistent schedule to meet with him/her. Some of you may already have a consistent meeting schedule with your research advisor. Kudos to you if you do! For those that may have a hands-off mentor who is never around, take initiative and schedule meetings with them often. Depending on where you are in your graduate trajectory, the amount of meetings may vary. For example, when I wrote my first paper, I set up a consistent bi-weekly meeting with my advisor. In the meetings, I came with an agenda and we generated action items that I should have completed by my next meeting. Let me tell you, this was an excellent source of accountability, and it kept my advisor engaged throughout the writing process.

Give yourself a time limit on overcoming a technical issue; once time is up, ask someone for help. There is nothing worse than reinventing the wheel in grad school. More times than not, there is someone that has already generated a protocol for that experiment your performing, that has a script to carry out some computational task, or may be able to point you in the right direction to answering that question you have. The reality is, everyone has been where you are before, so you shouldn’t feel ashamed asking questions. Also, your much more efficient if you can delegate tasks in your research, which is a skill you will use throughout your professional career.

View grant and fellowship opportunities as a way to enhance your science communication skills and receive outside feedback on your research as opposed to just getting funding. While applying for grants can feel like a long and daunting tasks, it is such a great learning experience. During my third year, I applied for the NIH F31 grant. While I didn’t obtain the grant, applying for this grant forced me to sit down, think about, and communicate the broad implications of my research, which was great preparation for my candidacy exam. I learned firsthand what writing grants is all about. Lastly, while the reviewers were very candid with their feedback, their comments were so useful. The more opportunities we get for receiving feedback, the better we become as a student and ultimately a person. If you can learn to be open and appreciate the constructive feedback, and keep the destructive feedback in perspective and not take it personal, it makes you a better graduate student and researcher.

Being cognizant of anxiety triggers in your graduate program can then allow you to be intentional in facing them head on as often as possible. While overcoming our anxiety, we still need coping mechanisms; some habit that will help deal with the nervous energy. We must build these into our routine no matter how busy and crazy graduate school gets; it will keep you sane!

The best way to cope with the pressures of graduate school is to build a daily ritual that includes something that calms you and brings you to a state of peace. I really suggest some form of physical activity AND a mental activity (exercise, yoga, meditation, or repeating positive affirmations). Exercising is always a great way to maintain both physical and mental health. If you already have a workout routine, keep it up! If you don’t, no need to worry. You can start small; even going for a 30-minute walk or doing some stretching for 15 minutes will help. The key is do it consistently, and you may have to crank it up during those special intense moments. For example, while writing my thesis and preparing for my defense presentation, it was imperative that I hit the gym at least 4-6 times a week. In addition to exercise, performing some form of mindfulness meditation was so useful. In my phone, I have a list of positive affirmations that I read over and over again when I’m feeling stressed or doubting myself. Lastly, make sure you consistently do something that you really love. If you really love the arts, go see a musical once a month. Treat yourself with a vacation out of the country. Make Saturdays movie nights, whether you go to a movie theater and watch a movie in your home.

For more advice on managing stress and preventing burnout in graduate school, see the Rutgers' iJobs blog.

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