Sokratis Papadopoulos data | urban | policy

How I got a stress-free PhD

Many argue that the PhD years can be one of the most stressful periods in one’s life. In fact, recently academics decided to come together to recognize and address the issue. (Good job Nature!)

In my case, getting a PhD was far from that. Here I put together a list of things that helped me finish my PhD smoothly, without compromising my mental health.

Find the right reasons

That’s quite a cliché and I am sure you have seen in elsewhere, but it is very true. If you see your PhD as a way to earn more money later, or you are lazy to look for a real job, these are not enough to motivate investing 3 or more years of your life in that. Personally, I used to work as a researcher before and it’s something that I really enjoyed that’s how I decided to go for it. Also, I was curious to combine engineering and data science to study cities, something that back in 2016 couldn’t find outside academia.

Now, having gone through the whole experience, I believe that the biggest benefit you are getting out of a PhD and a reason to pursue it is that you become a doer! I faced problems that me or anyone else had no idea how to approach them, and few months after I had solutions to them. Even with things that might be irrelevant to research; when I needed to build a website, I learnt how to build it, when I needed to write production level code, I learnt how to do it. This problem-solving, self-learning and persistence mentality has so much value and will help you in aspects of your life, beyond research.

Be consious that it’s gonna be hard

Hard in many aspects. The profound one is research itself; during a PhD you explore areas that no one has been before. On top of that, your work is frequently reviewed/criticized by people with years or decades of domain expertise. Every time you present something you need to know your thing and be ready to defend your arguments. It’s quite hard to bullshit them!

That’s one side of it. You also need to deal with the fact that for the next few years of your life you will be doing a job that worth lots more than what you are getting paid. Plus, your friends that chose the industry over academia will be living in a better house than yours, be able to travel more than you, and at the same time save more money than you do.

Embracing these hard aspects pretty soon made my day-to-day life much less stressful.

Get your choices right

Take into consideration all the factors that would make your life better for the next few years. Where do you want to study; big university with brand name or smaller one with family-style mentality? Where do you want to live; college town with few things to do so you don’t get distracted or big city to blow off some steam when you are done with work.

But most importantly, CHOOSE YOUR ADVISOR WISELY! If I had to give one advise to someone thinking about getting their PhD that would be it. This is the person that, to a great extent, decides whether your life is going to be stress-free or miserable. Some people argue of choosing a young faculty as advisor, since they are in the level of their career that are ambitious and can work closely with you. Others go with more senior faculty, that are experts in their field and well-connected with the industry (for internships, future jobs, etc.). Personally, I prefer the former, but what should you be looking for is to work with a good person that will help you grow as a researcher and be open to listen to your concerns.

What I did in my case? I interviewed my advisor, while he was interviewing me. Ask to talk with them as much as you can before making a decision; have a Skype call instead of emails. Try to see if you get a good vibe from them, ask them about things beyond research and see how they engage in a non-work-related conversation. Reach out to their current students and ask how a day of their life looks like. You might not hear a 100% true story, but you should be able to pick up any red flags. If possible, visit in person. See how your potential advisor interacts with their students, their fellow faculty, their superiors. If their behavior is consistent, that’s a good sign.

Quantify your progress

Try to have regular meetings with your advisor. Be the one to set milestones; in the end of the day you know your work better than anyone. If you miss a milestone be frank with yourself on why this happened.

Also, I found defining quantifiable metrics of success to be very helpful. In my case, it was publications. I considered a project done when I managed to publish at least one journal article out of it. This also boosted my confidence and helped tremendously when I defended my thesis. Some argue that publications may put a lot of pressure in researchers, and there is some merit to this. Find what works best for you and makes you more comfortable, but make sure you identify ways to measure progress.

Learn to deal with failure

Sooner or later you are going to fail! That’s how it is in research and you have to be aware. Sometimes it might be useful to zoom out a bit and try to find what might be wrong with your approach; maybe the experiment isn’t setup correctly, your code is buggy or there are effects that your models don’t capture. Having a fresh pair of eyes looking at your work always helps! If you have done everything right, then you just tried something and didn’t work. Trust me, even if “statistically non-significant” results don’t sound cool, they are still useful information for you and other researchers in your domain.

Don’t be afraid to quit

Your mental health and well-being are more important any degree and title. If you are feeling less happy, non-productive, or stressed, talk to your advisor and colleagues. If their response is not towards the direction of making you feel less stressed, don’t be afraid to look for another advisor, change your thesis topic or even pull the plug on the whole PhD idea.

Even if you quit, you are not on the loser side. You have acquired transferable skills that many companies out there are looking for! The only thing you are missing is a title next to your name.

See the bright side

People tend to highlight the negatives and often overlook the fun parts of PhD life. In most cases you don’t need to be at the office 9-5. You can customize your work schedule; in my case if I didn’t feel like working one day, I could just work (or not work) from home. You also get to travel for conferences and can explore new places for free or almost free. Most importantly, you are doing a job that excites you. Besides few hours a week that I spent grading papers or attending meetings, the rest of my time was fully devoted to solving problems that I was curious about.

Final thoughts

In general, getting a PhD should be a fun experience. Yes, it’s a period of your life that you might need to work a bit harder or be a bit more stressed than usual. But in the end of the day, it’s a job, and in my case, I didn’t let it define me. Try not to work on weekends, hang out with friends, date people, do things that you enjoy.

It worked for me, maybe it’s going to work for you too!