Dealing with stress in postgraduate study

Postgraduate study can be exceptionally demanding. Fortunately, keeping just a few useful tips in mind can help reduce and manage stress.
Elliot DE
Elliot DE
Medical Doctor, Law Graduate & current PhD Student

Postgraduate students are at an even higher risk to stress and anxiety, compared to their undergraduate peers (who on their own have high levels of stress!). There are several factors that mean postgraduate students are more likely to be affected by stress, such as the fact that many postgraduates have to balance household finances, manage a high workload, figure out a career, and maybe even juggle a family – all at the same time!

Postgraduate students are generally where they are because they did well in their undergraduate degrees. They have high expectations of success at the postgraduate level, meaning that they tend to put pressure on themselves and become perfectionists, all of which contributes to an extreme amount of stress. This type of student will also encounter a different context in postgraduate education where concession benefits and government social support may be taken away, and finances may be more difficult than ever. Postgraduate students may have also entered a stage of their life when they have a family, or have taken time away from a potential, full-time paying job, and thus there is more of a financial consequence to doing well. Despite these unique challenges, postgraduate study is an opportunity that’s likely to be rewarding, intellectually challenging and transformative – if stress can be effectively managed! This article will look at these problems and offer some steps one can take in dealing with the plague of stress.

Studies have found that postgraduate students, and particularly postgraduate medical students (relevant to me as I was one!), are highly vulnerable to stress. A 2012 study in India demonstrated that stressed female postgraduate students typically experience headaches, high blood pressure, anxiety, back pain, neck pain, poor appetite and skin rashes, whilst their stressed male colleagues were more likely to have poor sleeping patterns, loss of hair, erratic moods, heart diseases and depression. This is obviously just one study demonstrating some potential symptoms of stress, and it is firstly important that you know the signs! Postgraduate students need to either take responsibility to ensure that they can detect the signs of stress or maintain close relationships with friends and family who will tell them if there is anything amiss!

There are many things that postgraduate students can do in order to tackle stress – as most of us know what our schedule may be like during the year (such as in master’s course work study), it is vital that you prepare yourself before diving in. This means looking at when those deadlines are going to hit and planning for them. But when I say scheduling, it’s not all work, work, work! It’s about short bursts of intensive concentration rather than long slogs in front of the computer. If you don’t take time out of your schedule for breaks, inevitably the more anxious you will get, the less motivated you become to work, and then you become highly counterproductive with no breaks, and lots of stress!

As mentioned, having a good support network is very important and can help when things get tough, and so it is worthwhile to do your best to engage in one of those enjoyable aspects about postgraduate degrees and build networks with like-minded people on campus. It is also highly beneficial to keep in touch with friends who are not in postgraduate study, as they are often the ones who can really ground you! The social side of postgraduate study can be something students find tough at first, however. You may have lost touch with the busy social life in undergraduate studies, and then find that you need to do lots of paid work alongside your postgraduate studies to keep afloat, which cuts down on free time! One very positive thing that you can do is to find a study buddy or get other students in your cohort together once a week or a month to chat about the course or degree. While this has undoubted academic benefits, it also provides the social pleasures of conversation among people with shared interests.

Finally, find out at the start of the year what services your university provides for postgraduates; there are likely to be counselling, mindfulness or meditation sessions. There are often workshops that give advice around managing finances, navigating the assessment system, or in the area of psycho-educational support. A more recent 2017 study from India has demonstrated that postgraduate students using dysfunctional coping strategies, such as drinking, isolating oneself, or using recreational drugs, had higher stress and psychological morbidity, whereas those using healthy emotion-focused coping strategies had lower stress levels and lower psychological morbidity. These kinds of studies reinforce how important it is to take the advice on board that you read here, to ensure you can function at your best, and happiest, in postgraduate life!

Elliot DE is a current PhD Candidate, Medical Doctor & Law Graduate. He is also a GAMSAT Humanities Tutor at GradReady GAMSAT Preparation Courses.