Feeling Stuck in Grad School


I was warned, even before I started grad school, that there will be at least one point during my five-year PhD where I would get stuck. It might be because a key experiment won’t work for weeks on end or the data I manage to get simply isn’t adding up—whatever it was it would be a very obnoxious rough patch and getting over it definitely wouldn’t be easy. In fact, I might find myself even tempted to quit.

But young, naïve little Krystal kind of just shrugged off the thought. That won’t happen to me, I assured myself. Besides, even if it does, I’ll get over it because I’m doing what I love! That’ll be enough to pull me through, right? I just have to keep the end goal in mind! Right?


To give past me some credit, I wasn’t aware of how much my anxiety issues would come into play during grad school. Hell, I didn’t even know I had an anxiety issue prior to grad school. Nevertheless, adding mental health problems to the equation just adds a whole other level of complexity. Suddenly everything in your life becomes a balancing act. You are forced to balance the large, high-stress workload that comes with grad school while also trying hard to fit in the rest of your life–hobbies, coping mechanisms and a healthy lifestyle–all in an attempt to keep your thoughts and brain chemistry in check. And I’m not going to sugar coat it. It’s hard. Clearly. The sheer fact that my website is mostly found by people googling “anxiety in grad school” and considering that a UC Berkeley survey found that half of all grad students report having an “emotional or stress-related problem”…well…let’s reiterate the fact mental illness does not help the situation.

But, regardless of if it’s because of my anxiety or just general grad school stress, I now have now found myself in the predicament that I thought would never happen to me: I am stuck.

Recently, I have found myself trudging through this pile of data with seemingly no end in sight and no conclusions to draw. I have found myself feeling like I’m taking one step forward and two steps back every time I try to read the literature because I just end up realizing how much I simply don’t know. And there are these especially annoying days I’ve been having where I have every intention of being productive, yet at the end of the day either nothing comes out of it or something comes up and ruins my whole plan leaving me feeling just so…defeated.

I think it makes it worse that there’s a looming deadline over my head. If you follow me on Tumblr, you may know that my candidacy exam is tentatively scheduled for February 22nd (which if you want to know what that entails by Caltech’s standards, click here). This means that very soon (waaay too soon) I need to have somethinganything–that will tell my committee members that I am a competent researcher, and independent scientist and I deserve to get this degree. And everything about that situation–the judgement, the vulnerability, the possibility of failure–makes me panic.

And yes, I know that I’m probably making this way worse than it actually is. And yes, I’ve been told countless time that most people pass candidacy and all that stress is not worth it. But that’s kind what anxiety does to you. Your brain just keeps replaying all these various, horrible scenarios of one particular event and even shouting “THAT’S NEVER GOING TO HAPPEN” doesn’t help. (Trust me, I’ve tried)

However, I’m not going to take this thing lying down and I’m trying really, really hard to become unstuck. And I feel I’ve made a good effort thus far. Everything is still a work in progress, but I’ve been talking to lots of people lately, asking for any advice they can provide and I’ve compiled some strategies that I’m slowly incorporating into my life. So, in an effort to not only share them with you all, but also keep myself accountable by writing them out, these are some tips and tricks that I am currently trying. Hopefully, even if they don’t work for me, they’ll at least work for you.

Guess we’ll find out.

Anyway, onto the tips & tricks of how to stop feeling stuck in grad school:

Plan out your day, everyday

I don’t know about you guys, but for me, schedule’s are kind of scary. Because sometimes it can feel really overwhelming to see all the tasks you need to get done in the day/week/etc. But scheduling out your day is probably going to be the single most important thing you do, especially when you’re in a particularly low point in your academic career. Because, when you’re feeling overwhelmed or your mental state could use some help, structure is the key to calming the chaos.

Now, I’ve tried an assortment of different ways of planning out my day and find that a to-do list on my laptop and Google Calendar seem to work out pretty well.  Sometimes, if I need a little more structure, I make a very lose schedule at the beginning of my workday and set time limits for how long I can work on a particular task. Another tip that I absolutely love and have been slowly incorporating into my organization technique is to categorize your to do list by hard scheduled items that cannot be moved, things that should get done that day but won’t kill you if they don’t and bigger, “floating” goals that you should work towards each day when you have time. An awesome Tumblr user puts it much more eloquently here, if you want to find out more.

But of course, what works for us may not necessarily work for you, so try out different things until you find something that helps.

Be flexible

However, as I said before, sometimes I had planned out a full day of work and suddenly get an email or an assignment or a pile of papers to grade that I either can’t put off or I know it’ll take up a huge chunk of my week, reducing the amount of my actual work that I can get done. It’s really frustrating because it can make you feel like you have no control over your life. But you do. Because instead of getting frustrated, you can instead be flexible. If something comes up, take a minute to reorganize your day and account for the new task that was handed to you. Or, if this was a cherry on top of a bad day, take a minute to get curse the world for hating you and maybe take a break or something before you get back to work. I mean, whatever you need to do, right? Either way, take a deep breath, reschedule your day around it and realize that this isn’t some vendetta against you. Life just happens sometime

Realize this will not be forever

In a particularly bad day, I found myself on the phone crying to my mom and with a snotty, tear-streaked face I exclaimed, “I’m just scared that this is going to be how the next four or five years is going to be!”

But, like the good mother she is, she reminded me even if things don’t return completely to normal, I am smart, I am adaptable and I can learn how to cope with whatever situation is thrown my way. Because even if things are still a little shitty down the line, it can only go up from here because at the very least I’ll be able to use this experience to know how to better handle myself and whatever new obstacle is thrown my way.

Ask for help

Maybe it’s just me, but I hate asking for help. I feel like I should be smart enough to pull myself out of this messy situation, pull some sort of conclusions out of my data and know the next steps of my research project and how to at the very least turn this into a kick-ass 30 page research report. After all, the point of grad school is teaching me to be an independent researcher, so shouldn’t I start by figuring this all out myself?

But, that’s just it. Grad school is teaching me. If I want to be honest with myself, I’m only a second year. At this point I’ve barely  scratched the surface of all the things I need to know to do my job well. So, asking my boss for help won’t result in him thinking I’m an idiot, despite what my brain might tell me. Asking for help is part of learning. Besides, you never know, you may just get the answer or idea you need to give you enough momentum to keep your research moving forward.

Some progress is still progress

Some days are spent in front of my computer screen reading paper after paper. Some days are spent troubleshooting an experiment or fixing my instrument. And somedays are spent playing with variable after variable of my data hoping that come correlation will just hit me in the face. And, individually, these days make it seem like I’m not progressing towards much of anything, but even a little progress is progress.

It’s all about perspective. Those papers I read are allowing me to learn new things about my field that I can then apply to my research. That experiment I troubleshooted or that instrument I fixed will allow me to not make the same mistake twice, or at least know how to fix the mistake faster if it happens again. And, as I was so graciously taught, if you’re doing science/research right, even negative results teach you something. So, even if a day of data work up ends up with nothing useful, I at least know what’s not correlated and can move on.

Forgive yourself

One thing that I’m still learning is that I’m not an unstoppable machine. That despite what they say I don’t have to silently endure an ungodly amount of hours to be successful at grad school. I’m a human being. A person who has feelings, who gets tired, who has a life and who can have good days and bad.  So, not every day is going to be the “most productive day ever” and some times you just need to take a day to take care of your mental and physical health. Because when it comes down to it, you’re important and all that good your planning on doing with your research will mean nothing if you burn yourself out.

Anyone out there have some tips or comments? Leave them below!


4 thoughts on “Feeling Stuck in Grad School”

  1. Thank you so much for this! Im struggling with asking for help because I don’t want my supervisor to think I’m stupid. But now I’m just going to woman-up and do what I have to do 🙂


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