Women In Academia

Women in Academia: Ah! Real Stress!

I talk about stress every so often and by that I mean that I talk about stress so very often, but I don’t see any other way around it: being in academia, whether you’re just starting out or well into your career, can be extremely stressful. Let’s take a moment to relax together.

You know that “to do” list you’ve got sitting on your desk or in your computer? Most of us have one and the ones of us who do not almost certainly have a “to do” list circulating through their mind. These lists are fantastic–they organize thoughts, prioritize deadlines, and keep track of what needs to be done. Maybe most importantly, they keep track of what has already been done, giving us a log that reflects where we’ve come from and how much we’ve accomplished. But there’s a good and bad way to deal with these lists, and I found it out the hard way.

Initially, when I made these lists, I’d plan out a series of things that needed to be accomplished each day. I planned out my week ahead of time and made adjustments as they came up. However, I soon let my laziness get the best of me: instead of prioritizing and separating out items across the week, I just lumped them all together, and moved what didn’t get done from one day to the next. This was a horrible, horrible idea.

Instead of giving myself an accomplishable goal for each day, thus giving myself something manageable to work towards and totally not overwhelming, I did the exact opposite. I spent the beginning of the week trying to finish everything all at once, and by the end, I was exhausted, overwhelmed, and disappointed in my lack of progress. Instead of taking things as they came, one at a time, I shoved them towards my brain-gullet all at once, inducing monster-movie levels of panic.

Given conversations that I’ve had with my friends, I know that I am not alone in feeling overwhelmed. I also know that it doesn’t have to be that way. I mean, it’s impossible for all stress to be eliminated, and some books I’ve read on the subject suggest that some low level of stress is actually pretty awesome. But there’s no reason to create more stress when there isn’t any. When all the work that has to be done in a week becomes overwhelming, take a step back and think about when exactly each one needs to be finished. Recognize that while you’re thinking simultaneously about all the things that need to be done, they don’t have to be done all at once.

And with each little bit of work you do, you’re one step closer to getting through that massive “to do” list. Each little step matters. Recognize them and appreciate the work that goes into it. Now take a deep breath–and back to work!

16 replies on “Women in Academia: Ah! Real Stress!”

Oh so timely. I’m actually reading this while taking a day at home after I absolutely lost it at Fiance last night over dinner out (which was a sort-of-Valentine’s date night since he had to work late on Tuesday). There is nothing worse than being stressed out, grouchy, hormonal, feeling like there are a million things crushing down on me, and trying really hard not the look like I’m starting to cry, while in a nice dress at a lovely restaurant. Fiance is ridiculously understanding.

So today is getting-shit-done day, more or less. I’ve been putting off mostly home-based stuff in order to work on genetic analysis, writing up a new article for journal submission, an abstract for a conference this summer, ordering lab supplies that mysteriously ran dangerously low before realizing that YES NOW is when they need to be reordered, and, oh yeah, all my PhD candidacy work. I’m in my pajamas, on my second cup of tea, but I’ve mended three pairs of pants (both mine and his) that have been sitting next to my sewing machine for many months, repaired Fiance’s slippers (also months overdue),  picked up my explosion of a closet/dresser, fed the chickens (well, that always happens- they stalk the porch if I don’t), and at least thought about doing my taxes (due before March for financial aid).

The list is still long (okay, the list if never-ending), but I’m taking care of some of the backlog and some of the stuff that makes our home better instead of just bearable. …then more homework.

Hello there! I’m new here since yesterday. I’m guessing I’m a bit older than most of the folks who post here. I’m an established academic at a UK university, and one of my roles is to mentor younger colleagues, postdocs and PhD students. I so recognise what everyone’s saying. I hope you don’t mind if chip in with some practical suggestions, based on my own 20+ years of experience, and what I see and hear from my amazing, marvellous mentees?

  1. Know that you are not alone in this. You know that already, or you wouldn’t be here. But the person in the office next door to you, or sitting opposite you in the cafe or library is probably feeling like this too. That’s not to belittle your feelings, but to normalise them: you’re not a freak, and you’re not a failure. This is what we all go through, just some of us hide it better than othrs.
  2. Yay to-do lists! I’m a big fan of the old-fashioned filofax, which I am never without. Massive geek as I am, I have never got the hang of handhelds and prefer the physicality of my diary/organiser. I like the actual writing of lists, the crossing them off, the tearing out of dead pages — and the flicking through and seeing all the completed things I have achieved. No reason why this should be your thing though: experiment and find what works best for you. Maybe your phone is your best friend in this.
  3. Once you’ve made your list, TRIAGE. How you triage will depend on whether it’s term-time/semester (if you’re teaching) or not. Decide:
    • What needs to be done today? For me, in term-time, student needs and admin chores come first; in vacations/semester break, it’s ME and MY WORK.
    • What has a real deadline? Mark it in your diary/whatever, not just on the due day but as a reminder several days in advance.
    • What really doesn’t matter? What will no-one miss if you don’t finish right now, or in the next few weeks? Book reviews (I am afraid) tend to go on this list, until the journal editor starts to nag…

    Revisit your list once a week, or during a dull seminar (bonus! it looks like you’re taking notes!), and have a major overhaul at significant transition times (end/start of semester, when you’ve submitted a big paper, etc.

  4. You may see things on that list you really don’t want to do, or don’t have time for, or you know you will be late for. In that case, take a deep breath, get on the phone or email, and say, “You’ve asked me to do X but unfortunately that’s not possible right now. Have you considered asking Dr Y instead, who would be really good at it/might really enjoy it?” Or “Could we negotiate a different deadline? Looking at my diary, date Z would be good for me. Does that work for you?”
  5. Make sure that every week you make time for yourself, both academically and non-academically. I try to keep a whole day clear in term time, and I am ruthless about leaving over-running meetings in order to go to the gym.* Write appointments with yourself into your diary: they are JUST as important as appointments with your supervisor or your dean.
  6. If your university runs a professional development programme, staff training courses, or similar, book yourself onto a time management and/or stress management and/or assertiveness (for the NO thing) course. It may feel like yet another thing to add to your to-do list in the short term, but it will almost certainly be worth the time and effort.

* Say politely at the start that you will have to leave at 5pm (or whenever) for another appointment. You do not have to say that it’s with your hairdresser or your best friend! At 4.45, give a gentle reminder: “I have to leave in 15 minutes, and I’d like to make sure we’ve discussed X before I go.” And then a polite 5-minute warning. And then, “OK, it’s time for my next appointment now. Thank you so much for your time”, etc. And off you go to do what YOU need to do.

Gosh, I hope that was more useful than bossy. But this is what works for me. Prioritise ruthlessly, learn how to politely say NO, and ALWAYS make time to be nice to yourself, or you will burn out. But get the hang of the multi-tasking thing, and you’re away…

Ha, I will totally leave the office/lab/meeting at the time specified for ending/the end of the work day. It is one of the few things I’m good about being assertive with coworkers (and they know it now, which I think has made meetings more efficient). And it’s usually right to the gym afterward, too…

Your list is wonderful, and while I know them all it’s something I need retelling every so often.

Ooh, thank you! Many centuries ago, when I was young and foolish(er), I worked for a department where NO-ONE said please or thank-you for ANYTHING. Oh what a happy place that was… But one of the lasting benefits of surviving that swamp of bile is that I still get a warm tingly glow at comments like this :)

Wow! Both this comment and the article are so timely/helpful! Thank you! Right now I’m struggling to study for comprehensive exams while tutoring and TAing at two different institutions, all the while waiting to hear back from doctoral programs for the fall (which is a separate kind of stress all of its own). Needless to say, life has been less-than-awesome lately, and positive messages about time management and stress relief in relation to academia are really what I need to hear. I find myself comparing my time management to those of my friends: they’re studying for comps, working, and are doing an amazing job of keeping on top of the schedule we’ve set for our study group… but really I need to quit beating up on myself and focus on the tasks at hand. …It’s tough not to paralyze yourself with guilt, though.

Yeah, I definitely need to get more organized to help me stay on-task. It’s hard because I feel I have to finish so much work for my thesis and then I get overwhelmed, which makes me want to procrastinate, and then it becomes one big cycle. I think the lists may help.

oh the stress is maddening


take today for instance, my lunch house was bombarded by 3 students with no appointment who NEEDED to beg and cry to me about grades, so no lunch for me, then after class again with the begging and demanding of time and then I miss a meeting because of it,



Yikes! You poor girl! I Students can be like ravenous chicks who want to be fed on demand… The way I handle this sort of situation, is to say something like this: OK guys, I can see you’re really stressed about this, and so I really think we should sit down and talk about this. But I can’t give you my full attention right now, so so why don’t you email me to fix an appointment/come and see me at X o’clock?  And then you spell out the time-limit from the beginning of the meeting.

As with all professional instances of saying NO, you don’t need to give your real/primary reason (I’m ravenous! I’m sick of the sight of you pesky kids!) but do (a) explain why they’ll be disadvantaged if you accede to their request on the spot (I’ll do a bad job! You might want to prepare for our discussion) and (b) firmly put forward an alternative (Dr X is better able to deal with this issue! Come back tomorrow when I’ll have 3 free micro-seconds for you!).

Try that and see how it goes…

“Instead of giving myself an accomplishable goal for each day, thus giving myself something manageable to work towards and totally not overwhelming, I did the exact opposite. I spent the beginning of the week trying to finish everything all at once, and by the end, I was exhausted, overwhelmed, and disappointed in my lack of progress. Instead of taking things as they came, one at a time, I shoved them towards my brain-gullet all at once, inducing monster-movie levels of panic.”

THIS. You just spoke to the whole of my experience thus far in graduate school. I have never been this stressed and sleep deprived in my life. I try to do lots of self-care activities when I can, but when I do, I sometimes guilt myself over it. lol.

So here is my question for you all, what does everyone do to help them through it?

I tend to fall back on exercise, treating myself to some ice cream (yum), making time for some meditation, and just becoming engrossed in a movie on Netflix when I need escape. I also have this habit of laughing my ass off at Bill Dance Bloopers on YouTube. lol And of course, spending quality time with family or friends can be the best medicine.

Oh man, I am feeling it right now.  I just feel like anytime I am relaxing (like now) is simply a small break between working.  Going to drop the husband off at school and then I am going to get back to it.

As far as lists go: the absolute best to-do-list strategy I have is to buy a small notebook (about 2 inches by 3.5), and keep a rotating to-do list in it.  I try to put anything in it that I feel like needs to be done but I need a reminder or have been putting it off – calling the doctor, copyediting a paper, grading student homework – and I try to make everything a manageable step.  Since it is a forever to-do list, it makes me feel much calmer when I look back and see the pages and pages of things I have managed without exploding, and I can only realistically keep my list at about 15 items at a time.  I try very hard to keep all of my current things on one page, which either means transferring a task from an earlier page (which then shows me I’m really not getting to it) or not letting things get too far behind.

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