Whether you’ve just started university or grad school, are in the middle, or are towards the end, it’s completely normal to feel overwhelmed at uni. In fact, I’ve been feeling pretty overwhelmed this week.
I basically spent yesterday freaking out over whether or not I could actually grasp all the things I needed to for my PhD. Between trying to learn cryptography, new coding languages, and actually do my research, it’s definitely a lot. Nothing has ever intellectually challenged me so much in my entire life. But, hey, if it was easy, everyone would do it!
Here’s what you can do when you’re feeling overwhelmed at uni to get back on track.
A lot of these tips are focused on PhD and grad students (as that’s where I’m at!) but are equally applicable to undergrads.
1. Take a break.
This is the first thing. There’s a common misconception among PhD students that you need to be working all the time and that you’re never doing enough. But, it’s okay to take a few days, a day, or even an afternoon off. It’s really important to have enough downtime for your brain to absorb information and come up with solutions to your PhD problems.
2. Break it down into smaller chunks.
If you’re stuck on something in particular, break the problem down into smaller chunks. Then again. And again, until it feels manageable.
3. Talk to your colleagues about why exactly you’re feeling overwhelmed at uni (or even strangers on the internet!).
Chances are, others in your cohort are feeling the same way. Our group chat has been a great source of support. And, if you don’t have a cohort or anyone else to talk to who understands, feel free to reach out to me!
4. Focus on getting one thing done that you feel confident in.
Even if it’s just sending one email or watching a lecture online, just spend a few minutes working on it. It’ll get your confidence up and prepare you to handle the more difficult tasks later on.
5. Plan. Keep planning. Plan some more.
My type A personality thrives on planning and it always makes me feel better to plan things out. Whether it’s my plan for tackling one particular task or my general work plan for the next couple of weeks, planning always makes me feel like I’m more on top of things and able to take on the world. A side note on that, though, don’t feel like you have to be super rigid with your plans—my PhD plan has already changed loads since I first started.
6. Talk to your supervisor.
If you’re really struggling, don’t be afraid to reach out to your supervisor. Even though many supervisors are super busy themselves, they definitely want to know if you need help. Also, if you’re having a problem, as long as you’ve made an effort to solve it yourself, they’ll be more than happy to help. That’s what they’re there for, and they’ll probably be able to solve it super easily anyway. Or, at least validate your feelings that it’s an insurmountable challenge!
7. Be kind to yourself and make sure you’re taking care of yourself.
I often find myself feeling overwhelmed at uni when I’ve been working too much, haven’t been sleeping enough, or have been eating poorly. It’s these moments that remind me just how important self-care is. I know people glamorise working endlessly and pulling all-nighters in academia (well, in a lot of industries, actually), but, believe me, it’s far better to prioritise taking care of yourself. You’ll never get through your PhD if you’re running on empty!
8. Focus on the tasks you absolutely need to get done and forget about everything else for a day or two.
A lot of work tends to be going above and beyond the minimum—you wouldn’t be doing your PhD if you were just planning on scraping by. Because of that, often you’ll be working on side projects, taking additional modules, etc. So, unless you have a tight deadline that is absolutely immovable, it’s okay to take a few days and just do the bare minimum while you regroup.
9. Revamp your working style to match your needs.
One of the best things about doing a PhD is that a lot of your work is generally flexible as long as you deliver (note: I know this doesn’t apply in a laboratory environment or with some supervisors but bear with me). If going into the office isn’t working for you, work from home. Are you a night owl? Then, don’t force yourself to wake up every morning at 8am. You need to set yourself up for success in the PhD; this includes figuring out how to maximise your chances of actually succeeding.
10. Consciously focus on small wins.
Okay, I’ve saved the most important for last. And, it’s one that applies in all areas of life. It’s really easy to focus on your faults and deficiencies and what you haven’t managed to do yet, but it’s important to take time to reflect on what you have actually done. Chances are, you’ve learned things that you didn’t even know existed before you started, read loads of new papers, and produced some pretty exciting and novel research in your field already. And, if you’re just starting and haven’t hit any PhD milestones yet, focus on small wins. Did you understand a particularly tricky point in a lecture? Finish reading a difficult paper without your eyes glazing over? Make a new friend or connection? Focusing on the small wins will give you the momentum you need to keep going.
Did any of these tips work for you? What do you do when you’re feeling overwhelmed at uni?