Academia has a terrible effort-reward balance. This matters. Research shows that we get super-stressed when effort and reward are out of balance. Day to day there are very few wins or encouragements, and feedback, as we know, centers on criticism. Useful, and necessary criticism (in the best case), but it doesn’t exactly make you feel good. The rewards take an incredibly long time to manifest. We’re talking months or years before we have a new shiny publication… A friend of mine remarked: ‘and by that time you are so done with it you never want to lay eyes on the stupid paper ever again!’
When we have to work hard without returns it wears us down and stresses us out. If you are feeling this, you are definitely not alone. Even Nature is writing about it now.
A few tips to help you manage:
1. It is not you!
First and most important: this is not about you. If you are feeling blue or anxious, know it is because of how academia is set up. It has nothing to do with your capability. It has nothing to do with the quality of your work. And it has nothing to do with your personality. Well, actually it does have a little to do with your personality in the sense that people who are perfectionistic and highly committed to their work suffer more, but you need those traits to do well in academia, so eh, yes it is a bit of a catch 22. Main point: don’t doubt yourself. There is no reason to. The academic context is to blame for the imbalance, not you!
2. Small successes count
How to re-dress the balance between effort and reward? Your tendency may be to work even longer hours to gain a sense of ‘getting things done’ and feeling good about yourself, but that strategy may make matters worse: you are increasing effort, not increasing reward! One way of increasing reward is to notice those small successes that already occur. Our brain has a negativity bias, we tend to not notice the things going well, and take for granted all those steps that lead to eventual ‘success’. What if we celebrate right here, right now? What if we ourselves value what we do? Showing up for work counts. Reading an article counts. Writing a paragraph counts. Focused work sessions count. It all counts! This sounds a bit silly, but try it, it works.
3. Control what you have control over
You may not have control over outcomes — which is another reason we get super-stressed— but you can control the process. Some of it, anyway. A writing habit helps immensely. Steady work routines do too. If you are reliably moving forward (even if it feels slow), you gain a sense of control and reward in terms of steps foward. Your work habits can be a foundation you rely on, a trustworthy ally in your pursuits. You are showing up and doing the work, consistently. It allows you to relax about the process, as it is already taken care of. Check out the Stress-Free PhD Programme for building these routines over a six week period.
4. Look after yourself
Academia can be a bit much. Recent studies have shown that about half of PhD students experience psychological distress. Stress is the norm in an academic context, make sure to protect yourself and look after yourself! Find out what you need to feel well, and give yourself what you need. Seek guidance and support, even when you are doing alright. For example: there are often free counselling services for PhDs and staff available. Looking after your mental health in academia is a bit like brushing your teeth. Better to just do it.
5. And Relax
Last but not least, relax. Prolonged stress is really bad for academic achievement: it quite literally erodes the brain. It is key to find ways to get out of the fight, flight or freeze reaction, and back into relaxation mode. This way your parasympathetic nervous system gets a chance to do its glorious job of restoring balance, and preventing stress-related misery. Often when we feel we need to ‘speed up’, it is in fact the opposite we need: we need to slow right down. And once we slow down, we can see and think clearly, we can focus, and we can move ahead… Relaxation is the antidote to stress. Essential to pay attention to for both productivity and wellbeing.
Are you PhD stressed to the max? The Stress-Free PhD Programme, as its name duly suggests, will help you get out of any academia-related frenzies, and back to a more balanced place. Bonus: it chases away PhD blues as well. Come join me for six weeks of building sustainable and effective work routines. We start June 11th. Early bird prices apply, and there is a giveaway happening as well.