How to eat an elephant: tips on dealing with PhD stress

by Eimear Morrissey

“Graduate School Barbie comes in two forms: Delusional Master’s Barbie™ and Ph.D. Masochist Barbie™. Graduate School Barbie™ is anatomically correct to teach kids about the exciting changes that come with pursuing a higher education. Removable panels on Barbie’s head and torso allow you to watch as her cerebellum fries to a crispy brown, her heart races 150 beats per minute, and her stomach lining gradually dissolves into nothing. Deluxe Barbie™ comes with specially designed eye ducts. Just add a little water, and watch Graduate School Barbie™ burst into tears at random intervals. Fun for the whole family!”

Source: Karen Zgoda at The Huffington Post


There is no denying that doing a PhD can be an extremely stressful experience. From imposter syndrome, looming deadlines, lecturing, funding applications, publications, future job uncertainty to trying to live on a very small income, it can be difficult to manage everything efficiently. The impact stress can have on health is enormous. However, it is not all bad news! Stress can be dealt with and the lovely postgrads here in the School of Psychology, NUIG, have come together to share some of our best (and worst) stress management techniques.

Sinead – 1st year part time PhD student in Psychology & Health

My name is Sinead. I’m a part time PhD research student. I manage stress by running. I enjoy training as much as I do participating in races. My running buddies and I share so much time together and support each other through thick and thin.


Cormac – 2nd year PhD student in Child & Youth studies

I’m Cormac. I’m in the second year of a PhD in Child & Youth Research, looking at the effects of social media on the wellbeing of young people. My advice for easing the stress of a day in college – Golf! It gets you out in the fresh air with friends, you get to wear really ugly clothing in public and you get to hit small things with big metal sticks. So, that’s exercise (tick), social support (tick), self-expression and creativity (tick) and stress reduction (tick). I also find it extremely difficult to concentrate on two things at once, so walking, breathing, chewing gum and golfing leaves very little room for PhD-ing.

At college, I like to do 9:00-ish to 5:00-ish, Monday to Friday. The “routine” helps me. I parcel the day into two hour chunks and then divide the work accordingly. I also make lists of what has to be done in the day and tick off each task when it is accomplished or at the end of the day. This is deeply satisfying, if a little obsessivy-compulsivey and you feel like you’ve accomplished something.

Emma  – 2nd year PhD student in Psychology & Health

Avoidance is my middle name.

I have a gift for somehow filling the day, for being very very busy and yet not actually doing what I’m supposed to be doing, ya know, my PhD (AKA the behemoth). This is how my stress manifests itself; avoidance of the thing causing the stress.  Which is unfortunate because the biggest PhD stress buster is, drum roll please, getting work done!

So, how do I get around this? Well I’m just at the start of my second year so I’m still learning. But I think what’s crucial for my stress management is what I do away from my desk. Eating healthily and getting regular exercise are key. But this can be hard to do and so I need specific plans/strategies to make it happen. Doing a weekly shop is essential to me eating well so I have a specific time/day that happens on. I love going for a walk/run by the sea but with the weather turning and evenings shortening I have to have an alternative (I do not love walking by the sea in gale-force wind, rain and darkness). So I’ve joined the gym and signed up for two classes a week. I do yoga at home a few times a week too to release the tension I collect in my shoulders. When I treat my body well I am much more able to take on the behemoth.



The beautiful Salthill

Doing nice things is really important too. Cooking a really fancy meal or going to a gig or buying flowers. When I treat my self well I am much more able to take on the behemoth.

And finally, talking to other PhD students. They can empathise like no one else and help put things in perspective.  Social support makes me much more able to take on the behemoth.


I should probably stop calling it a behemoth and start calling it a rabbit or something.

Ciara – 2nd year PhD student in Applied Behaviour Analysis

At Work

  1. To-do lists are my life BUT you have to get them right. Big long lists of everything 14455863_1410573632291679_852830935_oyou have to do between now and graduation are useful for long term planning and scheduling out tasks across the next 6 months/year etc. Day-to-day to-do lists need to be much more concise with measureable and achievable tasks – facing an incomplete list of tasks every evening and having to move tasks on to the next day is very punishing and disheartening! This is what works for me:
    • Colour code tasks according to subject/study/assignment etc.
    • Time yourself completing certain tasks so you know roughly how much time to allocate to them before they go on the list
    • BE REALISTIC (4pm on a Friday is generally not the time to schedule in a 3 hour task) Schedule breaks where you LEAVE the desk – go for a walk, get a coffee, have a chat with someone
  1. Timings (thanks ABA!): I’ve found this really useful for time and stress management for really large tasks e.g. screening articles for a systematic review. Set a time (I’d recommend between 20-40 minutes) to be on task (e.g. screening articles). When that time has elapsed AND you have stayed on task during all of it, take a break. And repeat! (If you’re a real nerd you can take data to monitor your progress and adjust the timings to optimise your productivity!).
  2. Talk things out: I can’t count the number of times this has helped me out of a problem that had been going around and around in my head. Sometimes your head can be like an echo chamber and once you describe the problem out loud and bounce it off someone else’s brain you can end up coming up with a solution or a totally different perspective.
  3. Piano music and covers: This one just really works for me when I need to plug in and focus for a while (I would highly recommend the music from The Lion King by Hans Zimmer).

At Home

  • Animals: I can actually feel my blood pressure dropping when I’m with my pets at home (trips to Petworld or volunteering for animal rescue charities are good substitutes if your accommodation doesn’t allow pets!).14513693_1410573622291680_1552623737_o
  • The sea: The ultimate therapy – walk by it, listen to it, swim in it, look at it…
  • Move yo’self: Yes to all of the health, energy and life-saving benefits of exercise but also, realistically, during an intense workout you’re concentrating so hard on not dying that you can’t be stressed about work!
  • Old reliables:
    • TV/movies/cinema –particularly love a teary movie if I’m stressed and need a cry (side note: Minstrels in just-made microwave popcorn make everything better)
    • Nights out – winning combination of social support, alcohol and dancing
    • Baking – focus on honing your skills to impress Mary Berry, forget about your skills to impress your GRC.

Hazel – 2nd year PhD student in Child & Youth Studies

I tend to break tasks down into smaller more manageable parts. I also divide work between home and university, depending on the type of work I’m doing and where I think I will focus better. This breaks the day up a bit and gives me a change of scenery.

Some less useful strategies include putting things off until tomorrow, and obsessing over hours spent working rather than focusing on quality or quantity of work.

1377280_539325439470191_1574274777_n Outside of work I garden with NUIG Organic Gardening Society – this is really relaxing, sociable, and gets me active outdoors and eating good food.  I love cooking and find it is a great way to relax at the end of the day. I find crafts are a great de-stresser and love sketching, painting, making cards, notebooks and anything involving pretty patterns!

Jessica – 2nd year PhD student in Psychology

To manage stress, I usually start by taking a break from my work and going for a short walk. I call a friend for a quick hello, or leave a voicemail. This makes me feel better because not only does it calm me down, but it also gives someone else a reminder that I’m thinking of them!

Yoga has really helped me manage stress. I regularly practice breathing and mindfulness, and one yoga class a week lets me check-in with myself before stress builds.

Milou – 3rd year PhD student in Psychology & Health

Feeling anxious seems to be part of the deal for me. Particularly within a PhD I find that the overall fear of letting myself and other people down can really get the best of you sometimes. Since this feeling seems to be something that is not short lived, dealing with it in a healthy way is really the only option. Over time I have developed several coping mechanisms to help me handle anxiety and stress. Some are beneficial and some are really not! Let me outline a few of both categories.

Complete and utter denial, the sticking my head in the sand approach

When I find myself in anxious situations or have a difficult task to do, I sometimes have a head-in-sandstrange way of dealing with this. I go in complete procrastination mode and basically pretend that the task doesn’t exist. I focus on everything except for the task I should really be focusing on. My laptop usually gets reorganised, my house gets cleaned and next year’s teaching activities all of a sudden should be done right now. This avoidant coping is pretty much the worst thing you can do. While it feels like you are removing the stress, you are really only postponing it. Furthermore, the anxiety gets stronger with every minute you haven’t started. I find that the best way to deal with this, is to just get started. Often when I actually get started, the task doesn’t seem so daunting anymore. Making small goals to achieve on a daily basis is key. When you can tick off a task on your ‘to do list’, you’ll find more motivation to do the next task.

Working all day, every day

When I am stressed I feel that I should be working all the time. Usually this means I am behind the computer 7 days a week from morning to evening. What this often leads to, is not being able to focus anymore, and me giving myself a hard time for not getting anything done. Procrastination usually leads to “negative self-talk”, which is completely counterproductive as it kills motivation. While I still struggle with this, taking breaks and taking time off is really important! When I take weekends off, I work more efficiently and I can focus better. Make sure to clear your head!


The NUIG psychology postgrad tag rugby team – “Freudian Slips”

Getting a hobby!


Me @ pinkpop festival in the Netherlands

During summer season, one of the things I love doing for stress relief is Tag Rugby. With my fellow psychology buddies, running up and down the field can really take my mind of the stress of daily life. Also I love music. Letting out my inner dancer while I am cooking or baking, makes me really happy. Also, music festivals seem to have an almost therapeutic effect on me. Every now and then, stepping out of your daily life, into a world where everything revolves around music and fun is the best remedy for anxiety.


While I love smart phones and how easy they make communication, they also cause you to never really be of the clock. I purposely don’t connect my NUIG email to my phone, just to make it a little easier to leave work at work. Also what I love doing is go up to Sligo and stay in a little house that has no Wi-Fi and no mobile internet. I find this enables me to switch of completely.


View from the kitchen in Sligo, now that is relaxing!

All and all I find dealing with stress hard and sometimes curling up in a ball and crying is very tempting. However I feel blessed with the incredibly supporting PhD students in NUI Galway. Talking to my fellow PhD buddies is my ultimate survival guide. Knowing that others are going through the same thing, can be really comforting.  People that understand you and assure you that everything will be fine is the best thing in the world.


Amanda – 3rd PhD student in Psychology

I’m Amanda Sesker, a 3rd Year PhD student in Psychology. While not all of my stress management strategies would be considered the best, (e.g., binge-watching an ENTIRE series in 1-2 days, cleaning the house), I like to make sure that I get my creative juices flowing when I feel burned out by weeks (usually just hours!) of writing.  Sometimes these activities will take the form of baking and cooking, reading everything under the sun from non-fiction to comic books, and playing goalkeeper for the NUIG Lacrosse team. I also do some part-time work for America Village Apothecary, where I’ll spend weekends out in Connemara picking local flowers, fruits and tubers and crafting small batch syrups, bitters and tinctures.

I’m also a bit of a foodie and craft beer connoisseur (having rated over 1,100), and can sometimes be found taking notes on local beers at The Salthouse or The Oslo.

I think it’s crucial to continue to develop and cultivate skills outside the PhD. This is why I’m also taking Monday evening classes to learn Irish, since I may not have an opportunity to do so again. I love to just learn things and figure stuff out!  Just be sure not to let them distract you too much from your work!


Teresa – 4th year PhD student in Psychology & Health

As someone who has suffered with anxiety for many years, I’ve found that the best things for me are finding balance, finding flexibility and finding flow . This includes learning to say “no” when I’ve too much on or if I need my own space (without guilt or excuses). Exercise is a great stress buster but unfortunately, I have lots of old injuries which means that sometimes I simply don’t have the option go for a run. This used to really frustrate me but now I’ve learned to channel my energy and get lost in other activities such as art… or sometimes just lighting a few candles, lying on my bed and enjoying doing nothing at all.

Chris – 4th year PhD student in Psychology

As most people will say, one of the best ways of reducing stress in a PhD is planning but what is often not said is that you should plan to do nice things which you care about, which are social and which get you active. For example, I always keep a couple of hours of every week aside to play 5-a-side football. As well as thinking about doing nice things week to week, its important to plan longer breaks.  I’ve always found one of the best ways to stay motivated is to plan really exciting events every few months so that I have something to look forward to. Planning trips to explore new places, catch up with friends and enjoy gigs and festivals has always helped with this (when funds allow!).


Annual  psychology student vs lecturers 5-a-side

Eimear – 3rd year PhD student in Psychology & Health

As for myself, I’m a 3rd year student on the structured PhD in Psychology & Health. As


Taking a ‘bottom-up’ approach to stress management

some of my fellow postgrads already mentioned, I try to do some activities that are completely unrelated to my PhD. I practise yoga which I love (it’s hard to think about a meta-analysis when you’re standing on your head), I’ve recently started learning Chinese, I knit little animals (I find the repetitive nature of knitting really soothing and you get a little animal at the end –win win!) and I try to go for a walk by the sea a few days a week. I also try to go home home for a day or two every couple of weeks. My family and friends there knew me long before I ever started a PhD, and really aren’t bothered about about my systematic review or qualitative quandaries. This, and my lovely dog, makes it the ideal place to switch off from PhD work.


2015-12-25 23.16.56.jpg

More stress = more knitted hedgehogs

The best stress management tools I have come across since I started though (and I’m sure all the other postgrads would agree) are my friends here in the department. I was particularly busy and stressed over the summer and my officemates were key in getting me through. From prying me from desk to eat, to listening to my undoubtedly nonsensical garblings about effect sizes and ignoring my increasingly frazzled and demented appearance, they kept me on the straight and narrow and ensured that I just about avoided complete meta-analysis meltdown.

Peer support really is crucial. Your fellow PhD students are the only ones who really understand what taking on this enormous piece of research is like. I would encourage anyone who feels like they are struggling with it to talk to your PhD pals and/or your supervisor. We all need help and support during our time here. Chances are one of them has gone through something similar in the past and can offer help. And if not, they can at least give you some stress management advice! Speaking of, I’ll leave you with my favourite contribution…

Donna – 3rd year PhD student in Psychology

A PhD is an incredibly intense on time: there are a lot of different things that demand focus. Constantly keeping up with developments in your area, trying to be creative in terms of future research ideas, most likely teaching, writing, presenting your research, one_bitecollaborating with colleagues… At the beginning, I suspected it would be pretty relentless. And indeed it can be. One of the things that helped me hugely at one particularly stressy point – and still does – is what one of my office buddies said to me: ‘How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.’ Any time I feel like crawling under my desk to hide from my to-do list I try to remember this, and then to select a piece of the PhD to chew on rather than taking on the imposing thing in its entirety. Why one would want to eat an elephant, sometimes I’m not sure, but I’m three quarters of the way through now…



Dinner parties help with elephant eating!

NUIG counselling service: and 091-492484

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1 Comment

  1. Bonus stress management!

    Kristin – 3rd year PhD student in Applied Behaviour Analysis

    When Eimear asked me to write about how I handle stress, my first thought was, “do I handle stress?” To be honest, I’m not sure I do…at least not well enough to be offering advice to anyone. Stress for me is like quicksand, once I’m in it, I just keep falling. You can give me all the breathing techniques and meditating you want, but unless someone is holding my hand through it, like a friend or a therapist, it’s probably not going to happen. So the best advice I can give for handling stress it to reach out to someone, and just do one thing at a time. Just one. Avoiding stress is a little different. I think I have a bit more of a handle on avoiding stress rather than handling stress itself. Prioritising, To me, that’s the recipe to avoiding stress, and the two key ingredients are saying “no,” and time management. Learning to say “no” without feeling guilty, or like you’re letting someone down, or like you’re missing out, is one of the most liberating skills you will ever learn. Time management is like a puzzle, it’s difficult to do at first, but as every piece falls into place, the picture becomes clearer, your motivation to complete it is fuelled. One last thing about priorities. My PhD is a priority, but it isn’t my only priority. “Me time,” is way up on the list. “Travel.” If I don’t get away every once in a while, even for a weekend, I feel that I would fall right into that feared quicksand trap. “Exercise,” certainly helps keep me balanced. “Nights out with friends,” of course. But the point isn’t about the “what” we do to handle or avoid stress, it’s about the “prioritising,” and actually doing it that matters, whatever the “it” may be!


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