PhD candidate Geertje Slingerland found ways to deal with pressure without working extra hours or increasing work anxiety. She shares her way of working with her colleagues.
‘Doing other things really helps to take your mind off your research.’ (Photo: Perfecto Capucine/Unsplash)

PhD candidate Geertje Slingerland found ways to deal with pressure without working extra hours or increasing work anxiety. She shares her way of working with her colleagues.

Another little Tweet appears on my feed with a message I’ve seen more often than I like: academics suffering from work pressure, resulting in mental and physical problems. This time it is reported by PNN, the Dutch network for PhD candidates. PhD candidates report severe mental issues such as stress, anxiety and depression, and that they constantly work overtime. Having almost three years experience as a PhD candidate myself, this type of message always evokes two kinds of responses in me.

The first one, without downplaying these complaints and experiences, is the reflection that I never work more than 40 hours per week. Instead, I struggle to fill eight hours a day. Before I start to explain why I struggle with this, let me explain my situation as it might help contextualise my point. I realise I am in the very lucky, and unfortunately rare, position of having an excellent supervisory team and research group who are devoted to my research and try to have me spend as little time as possible on non-research related tasks (like admin or non-research related teaching). This means that I fill most of my hours every week on the actual research, such as reading, writing, and thinking. I have found that I am unable to spend all my 40 hours on these heavy cognitive tasks. Simply put: I cannot spend eight hours a day reading, writing, and thinking. My brain capacity is limited: after five or six hours of concentrated work (of course taking breaks in between), my energy level is low and I become inefficient when doing tasks which require me to think or take decisions while my frustration rises.

‘I too experience regular work pressure’

My second response, which is a kind of reaction to what I described above, is that I feel guilty if I do not work more hours and I worry about my competence as an academic because I am unable to regularly work more than eight hours a day. Of course, on rare occasions I do push myself, but I need to rest afterwards. I cannot do this for many days in a row without resting in between. Don’t get me wrong, I think it is normal and natural for your brain to need a rest after hard work. After I’ve done intensive physical exercise, I don’t expect my body to run a marathon the next day either. But reading the messages about work stress and working overtime, and hearing stories from my colleagues who work through the night to finish papers and who suffer from mental anxiety, makes me question my abilities as a researcher. While I am confident that I am making enough progress to finish my PhD within four years, seeing how some of my colleagues work all hours of the day and night to handle their required workload makes me doubt myself, my skills, and my abilities.

To be clear, I too experience regular work pressure. This is because we are passionate about what we do, we want to do it to the best of our abilities and we work in a highly individualised manner. However, I’ve found ways to deal with it that do not involve working overtime or feeling anxious. I want to share this way of working and mindset as it might benefit colleagues and I hope it brings another perspective to work pressure in academia. I feel that much of the stress comes from the pressure that we put on ourselves. While this might be controversial and, again, I don’t want to downplay people’s experiences, it also means it is within our power to release the pressure and enjoy our work more.

So, here are some of my tips:

  • 1. Stick to eight hours a day (or less). My working days start at 8:00 and ends at 16:30. I stop either at 16:30 or if I have become completely unproductive, even if I haven’t done what I wanted to do. Tomorrow is another day. Yes it gives me less of a ‘good’ feeling not finishing what I set out to do, but starting refreshed the next day usually rewards me with fresh ideas on the task and finishing it in less time.
  • 2. Stay away from work when you’re not working. It sounds very simple and it is when you make sure that you are not tempted to work during free time. For me this means I will not open my work laptop when I’m not working. I also do not receive any work notifications such as emails on my phone. I don’t work in the evening or in the weekends on principle. Of course there are sometimes exceptions, and the ‘right’ people (read: supervisors) know that they need to call or message me in emergencies as I do not read my email outside of working hours.

‘I like my research a lot, but not so much that I want to spend every hour of my life on it’

  • 3. Plan realistically. When I started my PhD, I received an interesting book about managing your PhD. One of the tips was to monitor your progress every month. It basically means that every month you take the time to reflect on (and write down!) your achievements of the previous month, and note down the most important goals for the next month. I’ve been doing this every month so far and it has given me a lot of insight into how much you can do in a month’s time (which is a lot less than you usually think). I now know how to set realistic goals and this reduces my work pressure.
  • 4. Don’t do it all by yourself. TU Delft offers many support systems, like the counselling services, mentoring systems, graduate school courses and peer groups. Use them! I’ve created a network of people around me, within and outside TU Delft, who I can ask for help or ask to act as a sounding board when I’m in doubt. This is not only for struggles in my PhD, but also to deal with issues in my private life, which may influence the progress I make on the research.
  • 5. The PhD is just a job. It is very important to consider the work we do as just a normal job with normal working hours. I like my research a lot, but not so much that I want to spend every hour of my life on it. Doing other things next to the PhD (it can be anything from sports, to arts, or just hanging out with friends), really helps to take your mind off your research and let your brain have a well-deserved rest.

I hope this article helps further open up the conversation about how PhD candidates and other academics deal with work pressure. I am very aware that some of my tips are more challenging for researchers who are in positions on which others rely such as professors who supervise students and researchers. Nonetheless, I am keen to find ways to also reduce the working hours and the resulting stress in these positions, and to create a healthy and enjoyable working environment at TU Delft.