Handling PhD Stress: Challenges of an Online PhD

Feb 28, 2018
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Students who earn online PhDs can reap many benefits -- such as increased skills, job opportunities and earning potential -- but they can also face many challenges, including concerns that are specific to the distance learning environment. While online students can save themselves the trouble and expense of a regular commute back and forth to campus, they still must be able to find an accredited school with a program that meets their career goals. They must also account for state requirements for job positions, especially for careers that require additional certification.

These are some of the more obvious challenges that doctoral students face. However, a more insidious challenge that can remain hidden for a long time is the stress associated with the rigors of a doctoral degree program. This page discusses that stress, and includes information to help determine if the pressure is too much to handle and to help alleviate that pressure before it causes too much harm.

Warning Signs of Excessive Stress

Whether they are enrolled in an online doctoral program or a traditional one, it's normal for students earning a PhD to feel stress from hefty workloads and demanding course content. However, if left unchecked, this stress may cross the threshold from normal to excessive, which can ultimately lead online doctoral students to get burned out. The following are some warning signs of extreme stress.

  • Concentration problems. Grad students are usually expected to take in a great deal of information throughout the course of their program. When they're dealing with excessive stress, however, they may have a hard time concentrating on their work and retaining the information they need to learn.
  • Weight fluctuations. It's common for people suffering from severe stress to change their eating habits. In order to cope with their feelings, online doctoral students may begin overeating or undereating and, as a result, can have drastic weight gain or weight loss.
  • Mood swings. Stress can make people irritable. When it builds up, students can have bursts of anger or hostility towards the people around them.
  • Isolation. Since online students usually do not need to head to campus on a regular basis, they tend to spend most of their time working alone. In addition, doctoral students often have so much work to do that they don't have time to spend with other people in their program, or with their friends and family. When people are under extreme stress, they often isolate themselves further by refusing to socialize even when they have openings in their schedule.
  • Decreased academic performance. When online PhD students are overwhelmed by the stress of their workload, their academic performance may begin to suffer. They may miss assignment deadlines, fail to attend lectures and stop studying for tests. If students stay in this cycle long enough, their class grades may drop, perhaps too far to recover from.

Consequences of the Stress of Being a PhD Student

It's normal for PhD students to feel stress from time to time, but if it's pervasive and not dealt with, there can be serious emotional, physical, psychological and educational consequences. The following are some of the things that can happen when online students leave their stress unchecked for a prolonged period of time.

  • Depression. The stress from a PhD program can cause students to develop depression and anxiety. In fact, according to a survey conducted by the University of California, Berkeley, 47 percent of graduate students at the school reported feeling depressed. Similarly, the American College Health Association-National College Health Assessment II found that 78.5 percent of grad students surveyed felt overwhelmed, while 40 percent felt hopeless. In extreme cases, these feelings can lead to suicidal ideation, as a survey by Emory University discovered. In this study, 34 percent of graduate students reported feeling depressed, 7.3 percent said they considered suicide and 2.3 percent admitted they were actively planning to kill themselves.
  • Relationship problems. Online graduate students may find that their interpersonal relationships suffer because of the stress they are experiencing. Whether they're avoiding loved ones or lashing out because of the pressure, students may find the strain of stress manifesting in their relationships with friends and family.
  • Muscle aches. When people feel stressed, their muscles tense up. If the stress continues for an extended period of time, their muscles may not get the opportunity to relax. This can cause back pain, headaches and other strains on the muscles.
  • Decreased immune functioning. Students may find themselves catching colds and flus more often than they normally would when they're under extreme stress. This is because chronic stress can weaken the immune system and make the body less effective at fighting against illnesses and recovering from injuries.
  • Dropping out of school. According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, 50 percent of PhD students abandon their programs. Many of these students leave because they decide they don't need a doctorate to accomplish their career goals or because the program just isn't for them. However, a lot of other students abandon their doctoral studies because of the stress and anxiety they experienced.

Strategies for Coping with Stress in Graduate School

Earning an online doctorate is a demanding proposition, but even though students are busy, they can still keep their stress under control and avoid burnout. The following are some strategies that might be able to help you cope with the stress of graduate studies.

  • Prioritize tasks. With so much work on their plate, it can seem insurmountable for PhD students to tackle everything that needs to be done. In order to make the work easier to handle, students should carefully prioritize based on due dates, task importance and other such factors. Making lists of daily tasks can help students keep their work on track and recognize milestones.
  • Avoid comparisons. It's easy for online students to look at what their peers are doing and use it as a yardstick for what they should be doing. This is rarely, if ever, productive, and can easily become obsessive or self-abusive. In order to reduce stress, doctoral students should avoid comparing themselves to others, especially if it results in putting themselves down.
  • Take breaks. It can be difficult for online PhD students to take time away from their studies, but to keep stress under control, they should make an effort to enjoy a respite whenever possible. They may be too busy to take an entire weekend off, but enjoying an afternoon or evening away from work can go a long way toward decreasing stress.
  • Stay social. Despite the challenges of juggling coursework with personal life, it's important for students in online doctoral programs to spend quality time with the people who are important to them. Also, making friends with other graduate students can help students feel like they are part of a larger community that understands what they're going through.
  • Visualize success. This may sound sentimental, but it's true: in many cases, much of the stress that graduate students experience is caused by fear of failure. By visualizing positive things like doing well on tests, getting good grades and successfully completing their dissertation, students can alleviate the stress and doubts they feel, as well as quiet down the negative thoughts they're experiencing. In addition, students should go out of their way to celebrate their successes during their graduate studies, patting themselves on the back for even daily accomplishments.

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