You have put in the hours of research, thinking and writing, and now the final deadline is looming ever closer. Two months ago you thought you had plenty of time left, but time has swept by and two months may as well have been two days ago. The natural reaction to this is to start to panic, to get stressed. After all, what you’ve been working on is about to be assessed, and your ability quantified. It’s pressure, pressure, pressure. Whether it’s your viva deadline, thesis submission for a PhD, or exams and coursework for your masters, this article has got some actionable advice for dealing with the stresses you may encounter during your postgraduate degree.
Stress is not entirely bad though. It can be harnessed as a great motivator if you have been procrastinating too long, finding other menial things to do, or just simply putting off the task in hand. However, it is when stress starts to seep out of the academic part of your life and begins to deeply affect other areas that you need to get a grip on the situation. Here are five tips to help you deal with the stress of the impending deadline day.
Realising that you are suffering from stress is the first step. You can’t deal with a problem if you don’t know you have one. Serious stress that borders on depression does have a number of symptoms, including:
- Difficulty getting to sleep or difficulty waking up in the morning
- Constant tiredness
- Unexplained aches and pains
- Poor appetite
- Loss of interest in activities
- Increased anxiety and irritability
- Increased heart rate
- Blurred vision
Recognising that you are stressed in the first place can help to stave off these kinds of symptoms. That can be easier said than done as, unfortunately, that kind of knowledge mostly comes from hindsight. If you do recognise that you are suffering from stress, don’t live with it yourself. You should discuss your issues with someone you trust – this could be a partner, family member, coursemate, housemate or even your tutor/mentor at the university; sometimes just talking about your issues will relieve you of a lot of the stress, and where a simple conversation doesn’t fix things, at least there will be somebody who is understanding of your situation, and may be able to offer advice and support.
There is so much truth in the now clichéd maxim, ‘You are what you eat’. While working on mentally draining coursework do not be tempted to snack excessively on junk foods. Your body needs energy to operate, including your brain. The better quality and more nutritious the food, the better you function. Cut down on fatty, sugary, and salty foods. Whilst it’s tempting to head down to the nearest chippy or grab a bag of crisps because you’re running out of time, you’re actually doing yourself more harm than good. Instead, opt for fruit, vegetables, whole grain wheat, and lean protein. If your energy starts to lag, don’t reach for the pot of coffee, instead have a banana and a glass of water, both of which will stimulate your brain. And whilst we are on the subject of ‘brain food’, remember when your mum told you fish was food for the brain? She wasn’t lying. Oily fish is high in essential fatty acids such as omega 6, which boosts your brains productivity. Omega 6 can also be found in eggs, nuts and seeds. The effect of a good diet will reflect in your mood and productivity.
Exercise is another great way of both preventing and dealing with stress. When you start exercising, the body moves up a gear and will be pumping blood around your body. This in itself has a further stimulating effect. In the longer term, and in combination with a good diet, your body will be in a better condition. You will lose weight and gain self-esteem and consequently will be in a better position to deal with stress when deadline day looms.
Whilst you may be tempted to join the university gym, especially if it’s on campus and only just round the corner from your supervisors office or the library, you don’t need to. Save money and use your initiative; run up and down the stairs, running round the block or even doing some housework are free ways of exercising. They are all also far more convenient than going to the campus gym.
As your time gets more pressurised as you get closer to deadline day, you may be tempted to skip exercising but again, like skimping on the food, it is a mistake. If you create good organisational habits early, then you can easily create a balance of work, exercise and also time for relaxation.
Plan and organise your time well by following these four quick steps.
- Know what you have to do
- Estimate how long it will take (and be over generous)
- Know how long you have to do it in
- Know if there is anything non-coursework that you have to do, and factor in how much that will disturb your time.
Part of good planning and organisation is being able to sort out your priorities. Some people like to make timetables and schedules that include lectures, meetings, deadlines and revision periods. This can be a good idea, but don’t spend hours and hours making a schedule when you could actually be working. Be realistic with your time. If you realise that you have too much work and not enough time, then making a list of priorities can help you to focus your attention where it is needed most. It may also be helpful to speak to your tutors as they will be able to guide you on the areas of most importance and the likely trouble spots in the course so you can plan to accommodate them.
Postgraduate research programmes are often flexible, so even if you haven’t planned you can sometimes afford to miss a day in the week and go into the lab at a weekend. Of course, this isn’t necessarily a good route to take the week before deadline day, but if you plan for this ahead of time, you will be able to cope far better with unexpected meetings, alterations to your daily schedule, or even personal events such as birthdays or holidays.
The benefits of a good night’s sleep cannot be overstated. It is during sleep that the brain ‘processes’ all that has gone on during the day. It is its chance to rest and heal itself. It is recommended that you get 7 to 8 hours of sleep each night. With a good night’s sleep you will wake up refreshed and ready to work again. Postgraduate students are notorious for skimping on sleep, but in our experience, it’s the best remedy for the stress that you may run into when studying a masters or PhD programme.
If, in the end, stress becomes all too much, then seek some friendly medical advice. There are many people from whom you can get support and advice from within the University so never assume that you are on your own.