After years of schooling, I figured I knew how to manage academic stress. However, as I spent the last month preparing for candidacy, I encountered a new kind of stress: preparing for my prospectus defense.
For those not familiar, the prospectus is the transition from Ph.D. student to Ph.D. candidate. The exact requirements depend on program and university; for my candidacy, I wrote a paper outlining the work I've completed, the research I aim to do in my dissertation, and the timeline to complete the work. I presented this research plan in front of a 5-member committee and then answered any questions regarding my research or anything I have learned in graduate school coursework.
At this point in my research, I know what I don't know. While I prepared exhaustively, the perfectionist in me was never completely satisfied with my preparation. However, I did eventually figure out how to better take care of myself during this period in my life. I hope these methods will work for me again when I defend my dissertation in a few years and maybe for a few others who are learning to manage their own stress while in graduate school.
1. Make time for friends and family.
A few days before my defense, a friend I had not seen in years was visiting Baltimore. I drove 45 minutes in the snow to go see her. At the time, taking so much time out of my day from studying caused a little anxiety, but once we were hanging out, I'm so happy I made time. I am so thankful for all my friends and family who were so supportive during this time for me--from those who helped to edit and listen to my presentation to my family praying for me to do well. I am lucky to have such considerate and understanding people in my life. Find your cheerleaders and tell them how you feel! Many people who have not been to graduate school do not understand what you are going through, so share your story.
2. Adjust your schedule.
Normally, I go to the gym during lunch or after the workday. During the preparation for my prospectus defense, I found myself skipping the gym altogether. Exercise has been shown to relieve stress and boost endorphins, so I knew it was important to not completely forgo physical activity. Instead, I decided to go to 7:15 AM fitness classes (note: this is something I did twice throughout ~3.5 years of graduate school). While this is seemingly small, exercise has been the best way for me to manage my stress and anxiety and necessary for me. Figure out what you need to do to manage stress and make it a priority.
3. Believe in yourself.
Imposter syndrome is something many graduate students deal with, including me. No one knows your research better than you, so take ownership and pride in the work you have done! It is easy to be overly harsh with yourself, but think of where you were on day 1 of graduate school. While there are certainly things you may wish you did differently, the knowledge you gain from doing something wrong improves your knowledge and defines your journey. After all, we're all human and learning from our mistakes is the best way to improve.
In case you're interested, here are a few resources I came across:
Palmer, K. (July 2017) Is it still taboo to take a mental health sick day? BBC News.
Harrington, K. (May 2017). Being proactive about mental health during your PhD: a very short guide. NatureJobs Blog.