Is Time Running Out? Time Anxiety in the PhD Student

Time is the most precious resource on Earth. It is non-renewable, uncontrollable, and equal for all living species. For those in a PhD program, time is even more valuable as the most programs usually comes with limited funding. Whether it’s a 3-year specialized PhD project or a 7-year masters and PhD program, every PhD student feels the pressure of time. It’s no wonder that time anxiety is a significant mental challenge for PhD students.

Time anxiety is tension, worry, or stress about the passage of time and/or how it is spent. Time anxiety manifests itself in a variety of ways during the PhD program.

Time Anxiety in the Early Years

Before beginning your studies, you might be overwhelmed with how long the PhD will take. The idea of investing 3-7 years of your life on a topic can seem daunting, especially if the topic has not developed yet. However, if you are sure that the program is for you, any PhD student will let you know how quickly these years will pass!

During the first years, time anxiety can mainly revolves around the fear of wasting time while you are finding your place. But, all PhD students need time to adjust to the new demands of the PhD program. Therefore, the time spent doing courses, meeting professors, going to conferences, and brainstorming will be valuable as you develop your research project.

Time Anxiety During Project Implementation

Once you have an idea about your PhD project, anxiety about idea development can shape-shift into time anxiety about implementation. You may feel the need to get started right away and you are losing valuable time.

Unfortunately, idea implementation is an iterative process. When I was creating a survey for my project on internet memes, it took me three version before I was able to collect the final dataset. With each version, I was learning what was working and what could be done better. So, even though this feels like a waste of time in the moment, the outcome of your efforts will be better in the long run by taking the time needed.

Time anxiety could be exacerbated for students that do not have available support from a mentor. A good advisor would help students in managing time in the long-term by checking in on their progress and helping realize students’ goals. However, since good advisors are hard to find, most students have to rely on an internal sense of time to judge their performance.

Since we are not reliable judges of our own progress and achievements, we have more anxiety about how we spend our time. If you struggle with time anxiety and don’t have an advisor you can lean on, talk to a trusted friend or colleague. They can remind you of all the progress you have made and relieve some of your tension around time.

Anxiety About Future Opportunities

Another version of time anxiety can be worrying about future opportunities. As a third-year PhD student (out of four years), I struggle a lot with this manifestation of time anxiety. I am over the hump of the PhD program but I feel like I am still waddling in the pool of my project. So, I feel if I keep continuing at my pace, I won’t realize all the of the opportunities I want during the PhD.

Time anxiety about future opportunities could mean worries about finding time for a visiting period, an internship, another project, a collaboration, or other possibilities. The unfortunate truth is that science and research take time. With all the usual setbacks and delays that occur during a PhD, it does mean other things are pushed back further.

The first thing to realize about time anxiety about the future is that you are not alone. Not only is it common for other PhD students, but it’s common for any sentient being with a sense of time. We need to remember that we are humans in a PhD program and our humanness will manifest itself in whatever situation we are in.

With this in mind, we can do our very best to manage the time we do have. This doesn’t need to include endless to-do lists and jam-packed calendars. Instead, it means learning to prioritize. To make room for future opportunities, the present has to be taken care of. The best motivation to keep moving forward is accomplishing a small goal today.

We must also learn when to stop. A popular saying among PhD students is “a good thesis is a done thesis.” We can apply this motto to other areas of our PhD as well. For example, instead of finding endless statistical analyses on your data, write it up and send it to a journal. If you are missing a critical piece, reviews will advise you on how to proceed. This is not an excuse to do the bare minimum, but the endless pursuit for perfection in a project or endeavor will eat up our precious time.

Healing Our Relationship with Time as PhD Students

Like it or not, time is woven into the fabric of our universe. So, it’s best to make peace with it than struggle (and fail) to control it. Healing our relationship with time starts by accepting the true nature of time and the PhD journey.

If time anxiety has been playing a role in your PhD experience, acknowledge the ways it’s been manifesting. Expectation is often at the root of disappointment and time anxiety. Try to see the bigger picture and all of the progress you have made with the time you have been given. If this is a difficult task to imagine, talk with your advisor or trusted friend for an external perspective. Seeking a licensed therapist or mental health expert can also be very beneficial in dealing with time anxiety and other PhD struggles.

Additionally, start looking for ways to change your time management. Learn how to get the most bang for your buck by prioritizing what needs to get done. Most importantly, learn to let go of non-important tasks that don’t serve your ultimate goal.

Worrying about time won’t slow its passing. But with the right tools and the right mindset, even PhD students can learn to live in harmony with time.

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