Stress Resistant PhD

This may just be a rant from a young female graduate student because an older male professor made a statement about who should be “qualified” to get a PhD.  You’ve been warned appropriately.


During a panel on the issues in graduate education, I believe the statement was along the lines of “The goal of a PhD is to teach students to be stress resistant. Students who excel in their programs can work 17-20 hours, and still keep going.”


If that’s the “goal” of a PhD program, then forget it.  I agreed with the other goals – problem-solving, critical thinking, learning how to communicate effectively.  But becoming “stress resistant?”

First of all, what does that even mean?  Should I stop being human while I’m at it?  Have no emotions whatsoever?  Handle everything that comes at me flawlessly?

Getting a PhD has predominantly been about failure for me (which I’m told is normal).  So yeah, I get stressed often.  I get emotional often, which may or may not have to do with the postpartum hormones (not to mention the depression and anxiety).  I’ve even sobbed in my advisor’s office for a good hour (before I was even pregnant, so I can’t even blame the hormones on that one).  So if I’m supposed to be learning how to be “stress resistant,” I missed that class.  Forget that many graduate students have some degree of mental health issues.  Perhaps we should support the students better rather than presume that only the ones capable of handling stress will survive.

Second, apparently, to excel in my PhD, I need have the energy to work 17-20 hours and keep going.  I should apparently be breathing and sleeping science.  And of course, I should be dreaming about my project ALL THE TIME.  Because no one has ever heard of having a life outside of graduate school, much less a family.

End of rant.

Now for some more positive points…

I don’t believe that this professor meant that students with mental health issues shouldn’t pursue a PhD.  But his comments echo the sentiment surrounding academia – the idea that if you are struggling emotionally you don’t have what it takes to be in this field.  Because to be in academia, you have to be hardcore and assertive.  You can’t be emotional and show your struggles.

And this is exactly why women are driven away from academia and science.  Not that men don’t have these issues as well, but I can only speak as a woman in the academic setting.  We, as women, are in tune with our emotions, and they spill into everything we do.    It’s hard for me to split what’s happening with me emotionally with the rigors and stress of the day-to-day.

The lack of mental health support is not surprising, but with the increase of graduate students that struggle with this, you would think that we would try to solve the problem (after all, we are scientists), rather than tell students they need to learn to be stress resistant.  Let’s give them some resources at least.

You definitely need some amount of thick skin to get through a PhD.  You are faced with criticism and failure constantly.  But claiming that the answer is to throw yourself into your research to the tune of 17-20 hours per day is counterproductive.  Taking care of myself first, my family second, then focusing on my research has made for a much more productive researcher.  The reason being that I have the mental space to focus on research when I know that I’ve given to myself and to my family.  I don’t spend my time at work worrying about my daughter or worrying about my constant hunger.  I spend my time focused on the task at hand.

So I don’t think I’ll come out of my PhD stress resistant.  But I’ll at least be confident that I’ve given the most important things in my life the time they deserve.



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