15 Tips on Surviving Your PhD Program

15 Tips and Advice on Making it Through a PhD

It can be extremely challenging to complete a PhD program while maintaining physical and emotional health. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that 50 percent of all doctoral students drop out of graduate school without completing their degree. Some schools report a 90 percent attrition rate. Common reasons for dropping out include academic shortcomings, students who change their career path, or those who lose interest in their pursuit. Some students have the ability to complete their degree but opt not to. One cause is the discovery of a poor job market for professors or private organizations in their fields. The Chronicle reports that math and science students leave in their third year. Some 25 percent of dropouts in Arts and Humanities occur after three years, potentially leaving candidates with high student debt and despair. This guide offers examples of concrete, accessible, and practical actions that can alleviate many problems that overwhelm doctoral students.

15 Tips on Surviving Your PhD

There is a legion of experts that offer advice on making it through the years of your PhD program. Many agree on the necessities of maintaining a balance of academic pursuits against routine personal outside activities that foster physical and emotional health. Here are 15 suggestions:

1. Establish a routine you can follow.

It’s crucial to stay on track. Your best option to do so and keep peace of mind is to create a schedule that you can follow – and commit to following it. Get up and do your work on schedule, just as you’d report for a job. Devote segments of your routine for research and reading pertinent literature in your field. Add time in your schedule to include sound sleep, good nutrition, exercise, socializing and recreation. Remember you’ll have other obligations such as attending lectures, symposia, commuting, parking, cleaning your living space, shopping for supplies, meeting with study groups and peer collaborators. At the same time, build a realistic schedule so you won’t work yourself into fear frenzy.

2. Start writing from day one.

Your writing practice and research methodology can put you ahead of schedule on your dissertation. That’s because learning to write comfortably in a scholarly fashion should become a second nature. To eliminate last-minute furies, organize your research times, round up and cite sources properly, and create a number of drafts. Writing at least 30 minutes daily can allow you to consolidate your notes and findings, and note discovery of areas that require additional research. Plus, much of what you write goes directly toward your understanding of your subject matter. Because of your other commitments to teaching, collaboration, and outside activities, keep a writing routine and stick to it. At the same time, read smarter, understanding how the literature fits to your purposes. In reading and writing, look for key points, not bulk.

3. Create a positive community.

Decide from the begging that you can’t afford to collaborate or socialize with friends or peers that exude negativity. Braggards or chronic complainers can sap your energy or even cause you to adopt negative thinking or comparisons with the progress of other PhD candidates. Lead your own research, but seek advisement from people that you can trust, who have your best interests at heart. Join groups involved in your major field of study with which you can share academic as well as social issues. A positive community can bring you out of isolation, and isolation can foster fear or despair.

4. Build effective networks.

Along with creating a positive community, get on with networking from the very beginning of your program. You’re going to spend four or five years at the university, giving you ample time to forge and grow partnerships with working professionals, educators, junior faculty, and peers that contribute to your evolving knowledge base. They can offer suggestions to explorer literature, research trends, and potential opportunities for publications, conferences, and workshops. Remember to investigate online tools and communities as part of your networking as a way to make yourself known as a colleague. Create your professional/research profile at places like LinkedIn or join a LinkedIn Discussion Group. Speak with presenters at seminars. Connect with authors you discover in your literature research and participate in career groups outside your usual sphere at the university. Finally, consider taking informational interviews as a means of understanding the workplace, getting your name out there, and connecting with potential employers.

5. Put money woes to rest.

Having ample money to get you through your program can be difficult, even excruciating. But just knowing solid funding resources can give you some comfort and save precious time. Have a financial plan and do the legwork vital to your economic survival. Don’t let finances overwhelm your primary purpose of discovering your interests, focusing on your expertise, and making progress. Financial aid options for doctoral students are available at the U.S. Department of Education. You may need to combine several opportunities to cover your total expenses, including grants, scholarships, loans, fellowships, housing costs, and securing teaching and research assistantships. Some grad students make money tutoring but you’ll have to consider the time against your routine and academic schedule. GoGrad provides detailed PhD cost estimates broken down by professional field, along with scholarship/grant/fellowship search tools.

6. Make sound nutrition your ally.

Rutgers University advises students to find other ways to palliate stress than by overeating – even healthy foods. Eat lots of fruit and vegetables and all your meals at the right portion sizes. Cut out junk food and sugary treats that create the craving to keep eating them. That goes for alcohol, too, which can contribute to a decline in your health and create another source of worry. Student and faculty events often include drinking, so proceed wisely, even if peers call you a wimp. Vary your meals and include a free day for eating what you want without guilt. WebMd suggests that students include berries, oats, milk or yogurt, salmon, dark green veggies, walnuts, beans, and dark chocolate. Coffee is okay in small doses (8 oz) and without lots of sugar. Latte and mocha drinks are satisfying but often contain large amounts of sugar. Green tea can wake you up, if you don’t want to overdo coffee, but eschew energy drinks or other stimulants that make you jittery.

7. Add exercise to your routine.

Exercise, even moderate, can do wonders for both your physical and emotional wellbeing. Among its benefits, regular exercise fights stress, improves memory retention, and boosts your mood (particularly in winter). Researchers at Colorado Tech report that exercise increases “the number of brain cells in the hippocampus, which controls the formation, retention and recall of memories – all essential for student success. In most adults, the hippocampus starts to shrink in the late twenties, leading to memory loss over time.” Exercise can also add to your social bandwidth if you have regular workout partners or participate in intramural team activities. Remember to stretch. Consider taking a yoga class or Pilates workout. Do some running, weight lifting, swimming, or join a rowing group. Hike with friends or colleagues. Get out the mountain bike. For best results, get in a 30-minute workout at least three times a week. Time Magazine reports that cardiovascular exercise can positively affect depression, anxiety and mood disorders. And you’ll sleep better, too.

8. Learn how to deal with rejection.

Rejection in an PhD program is a routine, unwanted emotional downer. But how you react to it is crucial. Unsolicited advice can feel abusive. Competition for internships, fellowships and publications can stress you out to the point of collapse. Coping tools include not taking rejection or undue criticism personally and chalking it up to experience. It can soften the blows as they come. Comparing yourself to other candidates can be toxic. As with athletics, there will always be someone better than you. But you’re not pursuing your colleagues’ goals, dissertations, or even the identical degree – you’re pursuing personalized knowledge and skills for your life after the doctorate. Barbara Robson, an Associate Editor for two academic journals, writes in Quora that most papers (80 percent or more) are rejected and that there’s an element of luck in getting published. If your paper is rejected by a journal, find another suitable place to submit it. If you’re passed over for a conference, don’t sent a hate letter or academic rebuttal. Move on.

9. Choose a qualified graduate advisor and mentor.

Finding the right mentor and dissertation advisor is pivotal to your academic success and survival. The Gradhacker Blog at Inside Higher Ed suggests that you choose an advisor that shares your research interests and career path. Ask about their success rate in graduating students that they mentor. Check out whether they walk the walk by viewing their list of publications, conference presentations, and other research accomplishments. Find out if they’re available for ongoing advising. Explore their aptitude as a mentor and the personal chemistry toward working together. Are they hard to communicate with, abusive or condescending? Are they unable to otherwise maintain a productive and respectful relationship during the time you’ll be in the program? Not all accomplished professors make for good advisors. Some may be too wrapped up in publishing or attending conferences to meet with you. You should leave advising sessions feeling more focused, energetic about your research and dissertation, and armed with strategies for accomplishment.

10. Build in time for family and friends.

There’s an old joke where a friend asks if you can hang out and you say, “I’m in a PhD program so ask me again in five years.” It’s vital to maintain relationships with family and friends. They can sustain you and keep you from deadly isolation. At the same time, they can be distracting. It’s useful to maintain balance by scheduling time with family and friends while sticking to the need to bear down on research and writing. The PhDStudent Forum says when possible to combine family or friend events around studying. For example, take study time for yourself during a longer visit to family to keep your academic momentum. Visit a coffeehouse where you can study along with family and friends that also like reading in public. Be sure to communicate clearly about your schedule and find ways to book in indispensable phone calls and visits. Join friends for exercise or recreation.

11. Set aside time to pursue non-academic interests.

Yeah right, when is that supposed to happen? It happens when you make it happen. To maintain a sane equilibrium, devote some time to routinely indulge in things you like doing. For example, work in the garden, take a massage class, learn photography, play live music, go kayaking, join a cooking class, volunteer in civic or advocacy activities or learn a foreign language. Build something with your hands. Play scrabble. Paint to indulge your playful or creative side. Take a dance class. Learn meditation or improve your ping pong game. Because it can be near impossible to turn off your PhD brain, relegate it to background noise. That way you might have breakthroughs or discoveries that emerge when you return to work.

12. Arrange and maintain a peaceful learning environment.

Living alone may create a peaceful learning atmosphere, but not if you have noisy neighbors above, next door, or below you. Yet you can develop a horrible sense of cabin fever if you isolate at home. Wherever you reside should be comfortable and workable. Clutter can be a source of stress. According to Inside Higher Ed, living with roommates can save on expenses, but comes along with its own set of challenges. Roommates can have other routines and schedules that introduce unwanted noise, emotional drama, unwanted guests, or social habits that can send you off the edge. Research potential housemates carefully, allowing a back-up plan for dealing with inevitable problems. Developing a friendly but direct communication strategy can help. Or, you can create a work zone in your bedroom that lends for privacy. If necessary, you can find a quiet study environment in a library carrel or small café. The same suggestions apply if you’re living with family.

13. Address your emotional health.

According to Inside Higher Ed, there is a mental health crisis in graduate education. Grad students are six times more susceptible to anxiety and depression than in the general population. The study found that “transgender and gender-nonconforming graduate students, along with women, were significantly more likely to experience anxiety and depression” than their straight or male counterparts. A poor work-life balance can be a powerful contributor to burnout and depression. The worst thing you can do when you experience mental health issues is to keep them to yourself or feel like a failure for having them. Seek out the campus counseling center (student health center) or a trusted outside mental health organization for personal counselling. Join their emotional support groups. The National Grad Crisis Line (877 472-3457) provides free intervention services, confidential telephone counseling, suicide prevention assistance, and referral services. Look into NAMI on Campus Clubs which are student-run mental health support organizations.

14. Deal with expectations

Who you are, ultimately, is not a PhD student. Your grad program is what you’re currently pursuing. The Indiana University guide to thriving in graduate school suggests that you shrink overwhelming expectations into bite-size challenges. It’s normal for doctoral students to think that they’re an imposter among experts. Johns Hopkins University found that striving to meet your expectations can cause low self-esteem, procrastination, guilt and depression. You may find yourself unable to meet your expectations for perfectionism, so modify your plans to hit deadlines with your best effort. The guide further advises to straighten out the expectations that others may have for you. This can be especially true with families and people who provide financial or emotional support.

15. Make conferences a part of life.

Opportunities to attend conferences and presentations are richly rewarding. First, you become part of the greater community in your research niche and you can build a lifetime network of colleagues. You can also gain a greater understanding of the professional options available to you. Even attending conferences out of your niche area can stimulate ideas and send you home refreshed. Participating in panels is a great way to network and demonstrate your expertise. Attending job fairs is another way to network while exploring the professional environment. By networking at conferences, you can set up additional meetings with experts by phone, virtually, or before the next conference. It doesn’t hurt to cite conferences and your own presentations on your CV.

From the Expert

Dr. David Hall
Dr. David Hall has worked as a consulting psychologist in organizational settings in Australia for over 20 years. With professional expertise in both psychology and law, David has significant experience in conducting workplace assessments and interventions at organizational, team and individual levels. He holds a PhD in Psychology and a JD.
What are PhD students afraid to talk about?

The number one thing that PhD students are afraid to talk about is the lack of progress that they are making on their PhD dissertation. This was certainly true in my case and also in the case of many of my classmates whom I spoke with. The dissertation is such a big project with different stages in it and requires such self-discipline over a sustained period of time. When I got past my embarrassment about it and started speaking to others about it helped a lot and I found a way forward.

Another thing that PhD students are afraid to discuss is their ambivalence about being in a doctoral program and whether they've done the right thing and whether they should continue. These are all important questions that such students need to be aware of and speak to others (counsellor, friends, etc.) about.

What was your greatest challenge and how did you succeed?

As mentioned, my greatest challenge in relation to completing my PhD was getting through the dissertation process. Two things really helped me get over the line (and came from speaking to friends and classmates). (1) Since my dissertation was quantitative, I hired a statistics advisor that I met with on a regular (weekly or fortnightly) basis and this helped me make good progress in that it served to provide much needed structure (and assistance with statistical analysis). (2) I fired my dissertation chair and found a new one that I had a much better working relationship with. My new chair was more knowledgeable about my dissertation subject area and also he was much more supportive. I made significant progress with him and thereafter completed my dissertation in a relatively short time frame.

What are good ways to alleviate stress and anxiety?

There are a number of ways that I think will help with stress while working on one's phd. The usual suspects are approaches such as regular exercise, good diet, fun activities (e.g. movies), counselling and/or talking to friends and/or family.

However, I think the best approach that one can take is to get steadily work through each aspect one-by-one of the PhD program towards completing it. A useful way to think about it (with both the dissertation and the PhD program itself), is to not get overwhelmed by the size of this enormous project but instead cut it up into separate pieces and focus on each piece at a time, complete it, and then move on to the next piece.

How did you handle the challenges of extreme competition?

My tip for students who are experiencing high levels of competition is to try put it all into perspective: Do your best to get the finest resources (internships, grades, etc) that you can but know that once you're out in the profession, some of those things might really matter that much in the bigger picture. So, one can be just a 'pass' in your doctoral program but then get out into their profession and make a big splash.

What can you recommend to keep interest or inertia up so you’ll finish the PhD/Dissertation?

‘Cut up the sausage' and focus on/work on it a piece at a time; Locate assistance or supportive individuals and meet with them regularly and ongoing throughout; Create 'deadlines' and milestones for yourself to work towards and have these other (helpful) individuals assist in keeping you accountable.

Find ways that work for you that help to bring structure into this enormous unstructured (or scantily structured) project called a PhD -- and especially its dissertation. At the end of the day, it's really about just getting through it and into the next (and bigger) stage of your profession. Just do your best while you're in it and don't get too caught up in the moment.

Additional Resources & Help for PhD Students

You should realize that you can’t do everything on your own. To do so is a recipe for financial despair, insurmountable academic challenges and poor overall wellbeing. At the same time, you may need to sift through the wealth of outside resources to find the one that addresses your concerns. The following links will connect you with financial options, bulletin boards in your field, and academic resources. Find tips for time management, exam preparation, and help with emotional issues that can and will arise:

  • GoGrad Guide to Paying for Your PhD: Students are currently paying upwards of $80,00 in tuition to complete their PhD. Use our guide to research your financial aid options.
  • PhinisheD: This free, comprehensive bulletin board is devoted to PhD students struggling with completing their degree. Find links for reference guides, financial aid, health and well-being tips, and writing guides.
  • National Grad Crisis Line: It’s for when the going gets rough. The National Grad Crisis Line at (877) 472-3457 was founded in 1988 to provide free mentoring, confidential counseling, and referral services.
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: The CDC offers a pithy, wide-ranging college resource for maintaining wellness through sound nutrition and exercise. It offers diet plans, activity guidelines, and stress-prevention tips.
  • U.S. Department of Education: Learn about financial aid for graduate or professional students including grants, loans and scholarships. The page links to government sites for applications and additional financial resources.
  • ThoughtCo: This site is packed with articles on graduate school written by experts. Topics include prepping for comprehensive exams, time-management skills, and dealing with procrastination.
  • Meetup: Student Meetups provide free, online listings for students to connect PhD candidates seeking peer support. Join an existing group or start one at your university.
  • GoGrad: Discover tips for PhD students who want to complete their degrees online. Featured affordable online doctoral fields include business, computer science, criminal justice, education, nursing and psychology.
  • The Grad Café: As host of graduate-school forums, the Grad Café operates a peer-run group that discusses the advantages and negative aspects of living alone or sharing housing.
  • PhDJobs: Register for free and post your VC. Search among 1,600 current listings for PhDs and sign up for job alerts or information about post-doc programs.