5 ways to soothe an anxious PhD student

As one of the more visible of members of RMIT staff, I often have conversations with students about how they are traveling. Oftentimes the topics are academic or administrative, but sometimes it strays over the edge into personal life. This is inevitable as the PhD process involves the whole person – and their significant others of course.

A few weeks ago I had an email conversation with Krystle, a student who is in the final stage of her degree study at RMIT. Krystle is struggling with a common relationship difficulty during PhD study, as she explained to me:

“I have been going through a bit of a rough time over the last couple weeks adjusting to the looming thesis deadline and the stress/anxiety/nervousness that it has induced. I am doing all of the ‘right things’ such as seeing someone at RMIT counselling service, eating well, getting exercise, rattling off positive affirmations, etc.
However I can see that when I start to break down my relationship tends to bear the bulk of my neurosis. One of issues I can see coming up time and time again is that, when I begin feeling overwhelmed, my natural reaction is to call my partner for comfort. But as he is not a PhD student (which I believe most students partners are not) he always seems to say the wrong thing… I have come to the conclusion that when it comes to thesis issues we just seem to not speak the same language. I can’t describe what I am going through, and he doesn’t understand. I am very lucky that I have a great support network of other students, or else I am not sure how I would get through my craziness sometimes!

 

Krystle later sent me some examples of repartee between Mr Krystle and herself. These little snippets of domestic conversation made me laugh because I think Mr Thesis Whisperer and I had a few similar ones while I was studying:

 

Krystle: “I got the extension I applied for”
Mr Krystle: “How long”
Krystle: “6 months”
Mr Krystle: “So how long do you have to submit?”
Krystle: “1 year”
Mr Krystle: “Oh my god, I soooo would hate to be you right now!”
Krystle: “I have got so much work to do, its really freaking me out”
Mr Krystle: “Do you need me to say the cereal comment again”
Krystle: “Nooooo, not the bloody cereal comment…this doesn’t help you know!”
Mr Krystle: “Krystle, its time for you to put some cement in your cereal tomorrow morning and harden up!” (Definitely his favourite)
Krystle: “You are so annoying”
(While relaxing over a nice meal and glass of wine)
Mr Krystle: “Shouldn’t you be studying right now? How are you ever going to finish your PhD if you keep boozing up”
Krystle: “Arrrrrrrggggggghhhhhh!”
Mr Krystle: “Is a PhD going to help you get a job?”
Krystle: “Probably not”
Mr Krystle: “More money?”
Krystle: “Nope”
Mr Krystle: “Why are you doing this again?”

 

While Krystle appreciates Mr Krystle has a dry sense of humour and doesn’t really mean to sound unsupportive, she points out that comments like “You just need to work harder”, “Put more hours in”, or “Just get over it” can easily lead to relationship friction. While such comments are technically true and realistic, they don’t really help you through a panic attack.

 

Krystle asked if I could write a list of appropriate, soothing and helpful responses for Mr Krystle which he could stick on the fridge and use whenever she freaked out.  Krystle reckoned such a list would be helpful for partners, parents or other significant others and worthy of a blog post. I agreed!

 

So here are 5 stock phrases, and some reasons why they work, for you to send to anyone who might need them:

 

“What can I do to help?”

 

You might think that you can help the PhD student by diagnosing the problems for them and offering some remedies. But this can come across as condescending to the PhD sufferer who has probably thought of all those things, but been unable to put them into action. By asking “what can I do to help” you offer the PhD sufferer the opportunity to tell you what they need right now. All they may need is for you to listen without judgement. If this listening is accompanied by a foot rub or similar, you are on the path to restoration of relationship harmony (and you might even get lucky :-).

 

“This too shall pass” (or other similar soothing sentiment)

 

Sometimes a reminder that the PhD is finite is surprisingly helpful. Light at the end of the tunnel and all that.

 

“What did you do last time you had a similar problem?”

 

By saying this you are prompting the PhD sufferer to see themselves as active and in control of the situation, not a passive victim. Let them talk around the problem for long enough and they might figure out the answer for themselves.

 

“I’m going to leave you alone for awhile so you can work – but I will be back later and we can do something nice together”

 

Mr Thesis Whisperer is a very smart man and quickly realised that freeing up study time to help me finish faster was going to be in his interest as well as mine. He and Thesis Whisperer Jnr attended many social functions without me, or simply made themselves scarce for a whole day on the weekend during crunch times. It was comforting to know they were absent out of love for me, not anger.

 

“This thesis is going to be so interesting / important /worthwhile. I believe in you!”

 

Let’s be frank, many people outside of academia don’t see the point of a thesis. I’m not saying all PhD theses are worthless, but there’s no point in denying that they are not read or used as often as they should be. But it doesn’t help a PhD sufferer to point out the pointlessness of it all. There is value in the activity of studying itself, even if the knowledge itself goes nowhere. If you, as a partner, privately think the topic is pointless, concentrate on the learning instead.

 

Krystle wrote to me today to tell me how the mere act of describing these problems to me has helped her get back her sense of humour. Last time Mr Krystle said something hilariously unhelpful she just cracked up laughing and told him that she was supplying the comments to me for my blog:

 

 “… we had a big laugh about it. Now we have this running joke about it, and the worse the comment, the funnier it is. So I guess this exercise has helped me turn a negative into a positive. I hope that it has the same effect for people that read your blog :)”

 

I hope so too! I wonder if anyone else who is suffering through a PhD has some advice for Mr Krystle and his army of long suffering spouses? What do you need to hear when you are freaking out?

 

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32 thoughts on “5 ways to soothe an anxious PhD student

  1. This is fabulous – and easily applies to all research project deadline freakouts. My partner was always very good at giving me space to freak out & be awfully anti-social (as in, shouldn’t be with ppl), and coming back to normalise our day. This was all pre-kids. I can’t imagine doing it all with kids!

  2. The most helpful thing is to nod nicely while I describe the things I have done today and solved, moved, rewritten. I know they don’t make sense, he knows they don’t make sense, but they have to be gotten through to move out of thesis-head. An occasional question which makes me feel like I know something is a treat. Usually at the end of the my speech I can put down my thesis-head and ask how they are and how things have gone with the littlies and return to being a normal person.

  3. Gha, really enjoyed this post very much. Although I don’t have a partner I do have parents and friends….and well its the same kind of situation with them as well. I have had long frustrating emotional conversations because people just don’t get the process of (as you call it) the suffering….which is not their fault and in the end they are in fact just trying to be supportive and help but questions like ‘when are you handing in’ or ‘I thought you were already done with that part’ or ‘are you sure your in control/going to finish in time’ just does not help the situation at all. I have had lots of your first suggestion – what can I do to help or I wish I could help – and this sometimes also makes me just more miserable, because in the end the thing you most likely are struggling with is probably thesis related and no one can help you get that part done. And sometimes I don’t think even I know what would be a good comment….

    I must say the most helpful comment I have heard from someone is much like your second one, someone once told me that the only way an ant can finish an elephant is by going piece by piece….so it sounds kinda dumb but that just helped me focus again on the task at hand and not staring at this big old elephant I still had to get to.

    Anyway, I enjoyed the post thanks, let met get back to that elephant now….;)

    s

  4. i am still figuring out what works for me (i just started my studies). my partner has a greatly calming energy about him, so his mere presence has been everything so far. he does, however, also remind me that one thing he finds so fascinating is that i always manage to land on my feet, no matter what. of course, sometimes i hear this & panic that i’m overdue for a faceplant, but it’s generally reassuring.

  5. I think part of my dedication sums this up……I thanked my then boyfriend at the time for knowing when I was about to lose it and physically or mentally removing me from the situation.
    Sure he did ALOT of what Mr Krystal appears to be doing, but at the same time (after about 3 years) he finally realised that doing that only made me more stressed.
    When I freak out I need to hear that its actually not the end of the world. That in the bigger scheme of things its only a blip on the radar.

  6. Thanks for the post. Very entertaining and sooooo relevant to my life now. Really thank God for a husband who is very supportive although he is very clueless on what I am doing. He does have ‘Mr Krystal’ moments though…. 🙂

    • OMGosh that is hilarious! I have a fear of Geese. Every time I have brhugot the little kids to the river to feed the ducks, the geese attack us. I can’t believe you have so many! Yours look nice though.

  7. I have been belly laughing reading all the posts on Krystle and Mr Krystle (note spelling please!!!!). I too tell myself

    THIS TOO WILL PASS!

    And EAT AN ELEPHANT ONE BITE AT A TIME….

    While I don’t have a partner I have very overdeveloped mind chatter which is exactly like Mr Krystle. Like Krystle, I too, use the RMIT counselling services which I have to say are great. I have decided to divorce my inner voice because the relationship just isn’t working. Does anyone know a good lawyer 🙂 LOL. Angela

  8. Trust me, even when the other person is also in PhD land you can still both end up saying the wrong things (hopefully less often). As the one who is finished (and took ages to get there) I sometimes feel like I convey worry that the other half is delaying, or is getting writers block or isn’t making enough progress and I want to fix it and offer advice, but then I worry it seems like I am nagging or trying to be an extra supervisor. I realised I have to step back and while I can help in some ways, sometimes the most helpful thing is to cook dinner and provide wine and talk about something completely different

  9. Oh also I think one of the most useful things said to me was by my mum, lots of times, she always said ‘every bit of work you do is a step forward, if you are working you aren’t going backwards.’ Reminded me that even unproductive days (weeks, months!) are part of the process.

  10. Every time I freak out and say “I can’t do this, I’m not smart enough, it’s too hard” my partner says “Of course it’s hard, it’s a PhD, if it was easy everyone would do it”. I think this is really sweet, as well as rational, and when accompanied with a hug helps me calm down and get back to it.

  11. i’m still waiting for chocolate…or wine…or offers to vacuum, bring home dinner, plan a weekend away based on work completed…
    what a great post though 🙂
    Left me smiling.

  12. Great post. I think one of the more difficult aspects of these exchanges is that often your partner lacks professional credibility with you. So for instance, if I am questioning the value of my research, it’s hard for my wife to convince me that it truly is valuable since she’s not an expert in the field and cannot really objectively say that. We have recognized this and one of the ways we handle that is by designating some issues that we talk about together, and other issues that I need to discuss with close friends in my research area who have the experience and credibility to objectively comment.

    On a related note, I also wrote a post awhile ago that explores several more things you should never say to a graduate student.

  13. Small spelling mistake I’ve notice: a while is TWO words, not one. I have noticed this and we’re all sticklers here, so I thought I’d mention it. 🙂

  14. Reading this post and all the comments makes me realise just how lucky I am. I started doing my PhD half way through my husband’s candidature so he is very understanding of the process. Although we have exceedingly different ways of dealing with stress, he always says the right thing, along the lines of – just do something that’s related, any little bit is still a bit.

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  17. i’ve just sent this to my boyfriend who doesn’t understand my way of thinking/behaving as i’m freaking out too writing my Master’s dissertation ‘only’ though

    • I am right there with you! I am so bad at what to say to soothe the boyfriend about grad school… I can’t wait until he starts going for his PhD(which will be very soon now)…I will probably not be helpful at all. I want to be helpful and reassuring, I just kinda suck at it when it comes to this topic.

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  19. Thank you for this post! Although I went through the PhD thesis experience 4 years ago, its difficult to remember how difficult and stressful it was now that I’m trying to soothe my thesis-writing husband. This is reinforcing my support strategy.

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