5 Common Fears of Ph.D. Students and How To Overcome Them

Ph.D. students are haunted by everyday struggles. You, more than anyone, can attest to this. No matter how much you try to escape, the inevitable catches up to you. Regardless, deciding to get a Ph.D. is a victory in itself. But to successfully earn the degree, one must go through all the hoops and hurdles graduate school may throw your way.

Graduate school is running on anxiety. In fact, research shows that Ph.D. candidates are more prone to experience stress, anxiety, or depression in comparison to highly educated employees. The same study revealed that one in two Ph.D. students is experiencing psychological distress. The prevalence of mental health problems is the biggest hurdle you have overcome in order to succeed in graduate school.

First, you must recognize or spot these mental-health risk. May it be stress, anxiety or depression – all these may significantly affect your performance.

Second, take control of your mental health. Do not let stress, the anxiety or depression get the better of you.

Lastly, accept that you are experiencing a mental health problem. Only when you start to accept, will you willingly seek help.

 

There is no point in suffering in silence, more so, alone. People in academia share the same struggle. That is the cost that all of you took. It is high time to have an open conversation about the common fears of Ph.D. students have while in graduate school. Most importantly, the means to overcome each of these fears.

Eventually, you will learn to channel these fears into productivity!


Common Fears of Ph.D. Students

No matter how strong you make yourself out to be, there are a few things that still haunt you. Let us take the time to discuss and explore these fears and find a way to overcome them.

Not Finishing the Dissertation On Time

It is vital that you finish your dissertation. Your dissertation is the foundation on which everything else in your graduate school life rests. After all, Ph.D. is just ABD or ALL BUT DISSERTATION.

The writing process is slow and dreadful. It can easily become paralyzing. Because of its size and importance, you might be tempted to set it aside. Facing the reality that your dissertation will be reviewed by your adviser and a committee is terrifying. Most importantly, your graduation literally depends on your successful completion and defense of your paper. However, the longer you delay your writing, the more tasking it is to actually start writing.

One of the main reasons for delaying your writing is because you are unsure of your topic. You become paranoid that the research you have done is not enough to back up your hypothesis. You’re wavering and you are fully convinced that it will not work. You aim for perfection that the moment you finish one section, you decided to rewrite it right away.

Good writing is essential in a dissertation. However, good writing cannot compensate for a paucity of ideas or concepts. Quite the contrary, a clear presentation always exposes weaknesses.

For research to be perfect, you need to get perfect results. But the results are not always… perfect. Researchers do not achieve the results that they want all of the time. That is the beauty of research. You get to experience frustrations and disappointments, but you keep going because you are passionate about what you are doing.

What to do

Your argument may not be solid and airtight, you may need to allocate more time into reading literature, but you need to start. The only way you will know the extent of the problem is if you start working. Start writing!

Let productivity win every time. In return, you will be amazed at what you are capable of doing. Encourage yourself to move on when you get stuck. Do not force yourself to finish the section you are unsure of yet. Learn to move on. Accept that you do not have the answers to all the questions you throw at yourself.

Strive for excellence but know your limitYes, your dissertation must meet publishable standards, but remember that it is, FIRST and foremost, a graduation requirement. Read. Do the required research. Make a contribution to the field of research. But, first, finish your project. Focus on the task at hand. Completing your dissertation is not a measure of your intellect, but a reflection of your discipline. It holds the key to a fruitful career in the academe. So, write!

Losing Research Funding

Having tons of student loans in your name is as normal as it gets. You are broke, and you are highly dependent upon the study grant awarded to you. But as you work towards the completion of your dissertation, there is a fear that your study or research grant may be revoked.

common fears of Ph.D. students - online-phd-degrees.com
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Generally, academic institutions have the right and discretion to revoke a study grant. It is not an easy or purposeful thing that institutions do. It is a rigorous and difficult process and usually taken as a last resort. But it is not impossible. Researchers, including Ph.D. candidates who purposely falsify data or results, misappropriate funds, and even those who do not show satisfactory progress are in danger of having their funding revoked.

The Federal Student Aid is an initiative by the United States Department of Education to provide financial assistance to deserving students. Of course, there are various requirements, and you must comply with the basic eligibility. However, it is not a guarantee that for the whole duration of your study, aid will be provided.

In recent years, the National Science Foundation (NSF), have taken measures to cut the Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant (DDIG). They have made an announcement through Dear Colleague Letter. This is very impactful as it affected many Ph.D. candidates in the sciences field. A big loss for science.  This being said, no one is immune to having their study grant revoked.

What to do

Explore your options. Debt is a dirty secret of graduate school.

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Avoid this. Be sure to check your finances. Grants.gov provides a wide range of grants to aid students and other organizations with their financial needs. All you have to do is to check to see if you are eligible.

Do not make a poor decision that will cause you to end up in a pool of debts. There are Ph.D. programs that are fully-funded. Choose from there. Adjust your lifestyle to your means. Do not become a mere statistic. Make smart decisions. An online Ph.D. program might be the best option yet.

Developing Anxiety and Depression

Beyond stress, anxiety and depression are the number one culprit why graduate schools are a cesspool of mentally ill students. The Association and Depression Association of America emphasizes that depression and anxiety are different and should not be mistaken for the other. Depression and anxiety are not the same. People with “depression often experience symptoms similar to those of an anxiety disorder, such as nervousness, irritability, and problems sleeping and concentrating”.

Most commonly, people who develop depression has a long history of anxiety. Ph.D. students are the most vulnerable group who expression these mental health conditions. There is no evidence one disorder causes the other, but there is clear evidence that many people suffer from both disorders. The pressure of finishing the required dissertation and surviving your thesis defense is enough to push you to the edge.

 

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Results of a survey revealed that 51% of the respondents experienced symptoms of mental health illness. The conflicting priorities of the academe, family life and professional career are only a few of the factors that result in mental health disorders.

It seems so ironic to me that biomedical scientists, the people who study the health of everybody else as their profession, have barely had their own health studied.

What to do

Take care of your mental health. It is never okay to allow your studies to devour you alive. Never work towards getting sick. Most importantly, the university should never tolerate the culture of mental health disorders in the academe.

Know when you need help. Seek the help of Counseling and Psychological Services at your university.

Your supervisor might affect your mental health. Be aware of the red flags. Know when to let go of your supervisor. It is important that you have a supportive and invested supervisor to offset the risks of having a mental breakdown. They are the voice that will lead you to a clear vision and in obtaining your dreams.

As your supervisor is your constant source of meaning and control over the progress you are making, it is important that you side with someone who will encourage you. Side with positivity while you endure the struggles in graduate school.

Missing out on Employment Possibilities

Job insecurity is a battle that Ph.D. students face. This is no secret. Pursuing a Ph.D. means sacrificing years of career advancement for years of academic misery. As they say, “you join the rat race or you’re out!”

Life in the university is a business. This is why Ph.D. students tend to focus on expanding their network. Refuse to be left behind by your peers. It is a race, after all. Be that as it may, a Ph.D. degree does not seem like a premium, at least, not anymore. It has even said that obtaining a Ph.D. is a huge waste of your precious time. A doctorate degree does not promise a secure job at the end of it all.

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What to do

Focus. If you are passionate about the academia, you should not be bothered by this fear. You have endured years of sleepless nights and hundreds of pages of research. Because of the training you completed, you are good at what you do. But remember that pursuing a post-doc is not the only way to go.

Yes, starting in the university is the safest career path after you graduate. However, there are more opportunities outside of the academe. There is work, and apparently, a life outside of the university. Most importantly, there is hope.

Not Getting Tenure

There are too many Ph.D. graduates and there are too little faculty positions. If you finally decide that you will stay in the academia to pursue a promising future, the fear of not making the cut is something you will face. It is a very competitive process. The transition to becoming a Ph.D. candidate to assistant professor is another battle for you to win. Earning tenure is a dreadful and competitive process. This may take 6 years, or shorter depending on your university.

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Based on Berkeley University of California Career Center, tenure file begins with:

  • Evidence of your teaching record and evaluations,
  • Copies of all your publications and/or artistic creations,
  • Outside letters assessing your scholarship and standing in the field, and
  • A record of your service to the institution and administrative contributions

Your university most certainly does not want to lose the brightest among their pool of grad students. Tenure will come, eventually.

What to do

Do your part. Prioritize getting published. As a rule of thumb, publishing your research cements your name in the academia as a professor and an emerging academic. “Publish or perish.” Having a paper published prior to earning your degree is a big plus. It places you a step ahead of your competition. It is the best predictor of long-term academic success. You may have limited time to accomplish this, but if you have the resources, who is stopping you? Prioritize it now, and you can thank yourself later.

Know the game and learn how to play it. Impress the university by having a solid mission statement. Your colleagues may make or break your career, so focus on making a good impression.

On top of everything, know that you are just starting out. There are no guarantees. You may or may not land your dream faculty job, but it does not mean that you will never get it. Keep working towards it. Have fun while you are at it! Nothing good ever comes easy. That is the game.


Life as a graduate student is not easy, it never was. If this what you really want, it will be a breeze. Try to have the best years of your life!