Stressed Out? How to Deal with Stress as a Postdoc

Do you have sleepless nights worrying about experiments not working and your contract finishing soon? Do you feel that tightening in the stomach because you have an unresolved conflict at work? Are you stressed out because there’s a grant deadline is looming and there is still so much to do? And how about that conference talk coming up: are you excited – but also anxious?

As a postdoc you are used to stress in a range of situations and the inherent insecurity of your position can often make seemingly minor hiccups seem more stressful. When extreme, this stress can lead to ‘overwhelm’, affect your performance and eventually damage both your physical and mental health.

On the other hand, stress of a kind felt before an important presentation can help you perform at your best. So, can you manage your stress so that it is good for you?

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal titled “Turn Bad Stress Into Good” canvasses some very good ideas. The author, Sue Shellenberger, says that “with the right mental approach (and boss) it’s possible to harness the energy of stress to further your goal”.

The holy grail is to harness the boost you get from stress for your performance but prevent it from tipping over into anxiety, where it is detrimental. One of the keys to shifting the balance to your advantage appears to be mindset. The way you view and approach stress shifts the way it affects you – to a point. Also essential are gaining control over job demands, doing something that is truly important to you and receiving support and encouragement from those around you.

The test suggested in the WSJ article is a handy indicator of where you currently are with your ‘good stress’ levels:

For each question assign a value: +2 (strongly agree); +1 (agree); -1 (disagree to some extent); -2 (strongly disagree).

  1. I have control over how and when I do my work
  2. I receive support and encouragement from my supervisor and colleagues
  3. My work lends meaning and purpose to my life
  4. Stress can help me learn and grow
  5. I often perform better under stress
  6. Stress can be healthy and energizing
  7. My supervisor doesn’t try to micromanage me or my work
  8. I’m treated fairly and without prejudice at work
  9. My job makes me feel hopeful about the future

Add up all your scores. A positive combined score indicates you are in good-stress territory and are likely to benefit from the stress at work.

How did you go? Does your current situation allow you to turn your stress into ‘good stress’? Let’s look at these questions in detail and what you could do about these stressors.

Mindset

If you disagreed with statements 4, 5 and 6 then you are likely to view stress itself as a negative. This may be perfectly understandable if you are still recovering from a recent stressful experience, such as a traumatic finish to your PhD, and really just want to sit under a palm tree for a month and catch your breath. If you find that your negative attitude to stress persists, however, you might want to consider stress management training or coaching to help you learn to harness the positive aspects. Finding out how others deal with stress also often helps us to develop our own strategies to manage it.

Work Environment

Having control over your own situation and a generally positive and supportive work environment is a large component of maintaining a ‘good stress’ environment. If you scored low in some or all of the questions 1, 2, 3, 7 or 8 then there are a few ways to help make stress more manageable.

  • Do people actually know you would like help or support? Many postdocs assume that asking for help or support may be interpreted as weakness. You may be surprised by the willingness of your supervisor and colleagues to support you once you ask for it.
  • Lack of control and feeling untrusted or micro-managed may be a temporary situation, for example if you have just changed your job and are entering a new field. Do your more established colleagues work independently and is the atmosphere in the group generally good and collegial? If this is the case you may just have to be a little patient until you have proved yourself.
  • Finally, there are work environments that are simply bad for you. If you score low in most of the questions on work environment you might have ended up in a group that does not work for you, is excessively competitive or ‘toxic’, as described in this article. If this is the case, your best opinion may well be to cut your losses and move on with your work and life before you sustain any lasting damage. 

Job Security

If you had a negative score for statement 9, ‘My job makes me feel hopeful about the future’ you are not alone! Job security (or lack of it) is the number one source of anxiety I hear from postdocs. But how do you deal with this stressor?

This is a complex area where your appetite for risk, personal situation (e.g. children, mortgage) and willingness to put up with insecurity means everyone deals with it differently.  This is where the ‘sleep at night’ factor becomes a good measure of how manageable this stressor is for you. If it is a worry that frequently keeps you awake, then you may want to start researching career options that provide more security. If lack of security does not affect you negatively, then continuing on your current path may be the right decision for you.

Above all, it is your life and your career, and taking steps to maintain ‘good stress’ levels is likely to help you excel at anything you decide to do.

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4 Responses to “Stressed Out? How to Deal with Stress as a Postdoc”

  1. Zoe June 20, 2013 at 7:05 pm #

    Dear Kirstin,

    It is a great pleasure to receive the article regarding stress and post doc career. I acknowledge that research has found many links between sleep disturbances and stress in work environment. Based on my research experience, I can comment that my stress levels were elevated when I first started writing up a manuscript which has now been submitted to a journal and awaiting comments. Based on my observation, my stress levels were reduced when I was halfway throughout the writing up. Finally, the stress levels were minimized as I completed the first draft.

    I am not working in academia (job profile should closed match to my research interest in work recovery) but it is very challenging to start and complete a manuscript as a newly researcher. Hopefully, I got help from my previous PhD supervisor and one more colleague and I am grateful to their cooperation.This is relevant to the WSJ question 2 ‘I RECEIVE SUPPORT AND ENCOURAGEMENT FROM MY SUPERVISOR. ‘

    I realize that the most improtant part of shifting the bad stress to good one is to work on the task. I was fully focused when I was working on my first manuscript and I invested time and effort. Importantly, I viewed the writeup as a meaningful task in my life. This is relevant to question 3 ‘MY WORK LENDS A MEANING AND PURPOSE IN MY LIFE’ . I have now started off writing up my second manuscript and I observe that I do not have the physiological responses to stress as I would previously record when writing up my first manuscript. In the second manuscript , my belielf reads ‘ do it now and move on’. I see the writeup as releavant to question 6.’ …is energizing’ . Althought the WSJ test includes questions related to stress, I am looking at the task completion from a perfromancewise perspective.

    I would strongly reccommend to email me Dr Crum article regarding the high elite professionals who were trained via video observation. My research area is based on unwinding from work , work interruptions and work beliefs and such research could ‘ HELP ME LEARN’. This question also refers to WSJ question 4, but again I view work performancewise.

    Moreover, I have not yet come accross any research study that examines the link between high elite professionals (athletes) and stress levels as the majority of studies focused on workers. Thus, I would appreciate if you show me how Dr Crum’s article shifts attention to good stress.

    I appreciate your effort to raise the issue of stress in a researcher’s life as I perceive the exchange of ideas as part of reflective practice.

    Best regards,

    Dr Zoe Zoupanou, Chartered Psychologist.

    • Kerstin June 21, 2013 at 3:41 pm #

      Dear Zoe

      Thanks you for your detailed reply and I’m glad my blog post helped with your research and your work. I don’t have Dr Crum’s original papers but if you would like to find out more about her work she can be contacted via her School’s website or via LinkedIn.

      Best regards, Kerstin

  2. Dr. Ronke Awopetu June 20, 2013 at 9:24 pm #

    Dear Kirstin,
    It is highly appreciated for intimating us with the current status of our stress level in our working environment. However, stress at times predisposes us to attain certain level of our career. This is because, if some tasks are not performed under duress one may never get there. An average human being is naturally lazy, not ready to work, looking for every opportunity to come cheap without putting little nor no effort at all. But if there are some tasks that are stressful and assuring us that we will get there, definitely one would device a means of managing the stress and perform the task.

    • Kerstin June 21, 2013 at 3:29 pm #

      Dear Ronke
      Thanks you for your kind comments. I agree, stress does have its good side as long as you find a good way to harness it. Best regards, Kerstin

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