On Dealing with Anxiety in a Highly Competitive Environment (Part 1 – Achievement)

Going through a PhD can be particularly challenging when uneasiness and stress are part of your daily life. In this three-part piece, Alice dissects the main aspects of the PhD she struggled with, the worries that accompanied her through the process and how she handled them. The first part focuses on Achievement and the expectations that come with it.

It is no news that academia is competitive. Feelings of frustration and anxiety are not uncommon amongst postgrads. As an overachiever, I’ve always enjoyed challenging myself with difficult tasks, but unfortunately this came with drawbacks. I have never felt completely confident in myself or with my skills.

However, it was not until I reached my PhD that I realised how it was affecting my mental health. I was challenged with tasks that were way out of my comfort zone: giving talks, producing high-quality research, teaching, networking, etc. Studying has always been my strong suit, but it turned out that for a PhD that was just a starting point.

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I started my PhD with an array of insecurities and a highly competitive environment did nothing but amplify them. I would spend days and nights worrying about my performance or overworking to reach a standard that would be considered acceptable. Nevertheless, I kept getting quite negative feedback, I was working 24/7 and still felt completely unaccomplished. This perpetual state of anxiety made me even more insecure and ultimately deteriorated my motivation.

It took me a long time to understand how to deal with such a state of mind.

Here and in upcoming posts I detail what I learnt from experiencing anxiety throughout my PhD..

Achievement

Having spent several years as a student, I thought I would have been prepared for the stress of academic performance waiting for me at PhD level. I had probably grown too comfortable with the idea of being a successful student that the prospect of being a successful researcher didn’t seem so unattainable. Trouble is, it is complicated to find a good definition for “successful researcher”, especially at such an embryonic stage as at the first years of PhD. Does it mean you study or write “a lot”? Is achievement represented by the amount of hours you spend working or of problems you manage to solve?
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Since the beginning of my PhD, the pace has been hard to sustain, and the amount of work seemed insurmountable. It was easy to make the mistake of considering the workload as a measure for achievement. On top of this, I found it difficult to understand what was expected of me or what the standard was. Without an exam testing me it was impossible to quantify when the amount of work I had done was “right” or “sufficient”. The presence of a mark or a grade in the past had been comforting in many ways, and the lack thereof during the PhD made it hard to feel accomplished.
The worry that I would not be able to do enough, well enough or fast enough was overwhelming. I would spend hours stressing about how much I should work rather than working.

The hardest part of my thesis, was not getting any acknowledgement about my progress: despite having an ultimate aim (i.e. solving a specific problem), there are no proper milestones certifying “You made it until this point”. This makes the whole process frustrating for two main reasons, the first being, perceiving the finish line as always out of reach. Secondly, there seems to be no time to take a breath. These feelings pushed my workaholism to a point at which I was not productive anymore.

Realising this was already a massive first step. It wasn’t until the third year of my PhD that I understood how my attitude was feeding my anxiety in a way that was damaging to both my work and health. I started reconsidering what I was expecting vs. what I wanted from the whole PhD experience. This messy stack of worries was pushing me out of focus, while I needed to put them in order to visualise a concrete aim.

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I used to think that “you need to take your time” was a cliché expression to tell me that I was weak, and that indeed I wasn’t able to do enough. Now I understood that I did need time to “take a breath”. I did need time to rationalise what I have achieved so far. I did need time to build my personal milestones.

My sense of achievement was strictly intertwined with productivity, but not only did I have to be productive, I had to feel productive too. Overworking was not a solution, “More is More” was not an answer. There was no way of just eradicating the stress and worries, but I couldn’t let them take hold of my whole day. There has to be time for productivity, and there has to be time for worries.

To be continued…

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