Just like the horse whisperer – but with more pages
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”
Mr Krystle: “Is a PhD going to help you get a job?”
Krystle: “Probably not”
Mr Krystle: “More money?”
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?