How to manage your academic stress

31 01 2022

Feeling like the stresses of academic life are getting to you? Here are some handy tips for managing your stress (modified excerpt from The Effective Scientist)

As professions go, being an research scientist probably doesn’t top the list for most stressful, although if you are drilling ice cores in Greenland, photographing deep-sea life from submersibles, setting up seismography equipment on the slopes of active volcanoes, diving with sharks, or scaling 75-metre trees in the Amazon rain forest to collect beetles, then stress is just part of the job. However, I am not going to discuss that kind of stress; rather, I am referring to the day-to-day stress of a demanding academic environment.

‘Relieving Stress’ © René Campbell

The stress of the career scientists is insidious and multifaceted. The cumulative stress of academia grows as one progresses from being a student, through postdoctoral life, to early-career lectureship, and all the way to tenured professorship. Will I be awarded that grant? Will the editors accept my manuscript? Will I be promoted? How long will I have a job? How do I make sure my lab members succeed? Will I be invited to that conference? Do my peers respect me? How do I recover from that critique of my research?

If you do not learn how to deal with these stresses along the way, you are likely setting yourself up for a big crisis somewhere down the track. I will provide some tips that my colleagues and I have found to be useful in that regard.


In the day-to-day routine of being a scientist, one activity in particular is simultaneous a blessing and a curse — e-mail. E-mail — rather, the messages delivered by it — can be an immense source of stress. There is the stress associated with pressure to respond quickly to urgent requests, the stress arising from e-mails that you really should have responded to weeks ago, but still haven’t yet, and stress from messages that are nasty, vindictive, or even libel received from angry colleagues or misinformed members of the public.

Hate mail aside, a good way to minimise stress associated with an overflowing and unanswered inbox is to choose your time for e-mailing carefully, and stick to prescribed times for this activity. Being constantly harassed by the ‘ping’ of a new message appearing in your inbox will only exacerbate your total stress load. Having dedicated times set aside to respond (e.g., first thing in the morning, during a coffee break or lunch, or just before leaving the office for the day) not only helps alleviate some of that stress, it makes your overall time management more efficient. And for sanity’s sake, set up an out-of-office automatic responder if you are travelling. You will be surprised just how few e-mails require an urgent response once the sender knows that you are likely to be temporarily out of reach.

Keep the stimulants/depressants to a minimum

But once you become stressed (and you will), how should you deal with it? One of the first positive moves you can make is to limit your drug use. I am not (necessarily) referring to the illegal kind, but even excessive alcohol and caffeine can be bad for maintaining a healthy psychological state in academia. Most scientists I know are not teetotallers; in fact, they are quite the opposite and therefore not opposed to quaffing far too many beverages during the week. I cannot recall how many times I have figuratively limped home after a five-day conference comprising relentless pub sessions and swear off the grog for a month. Copious coffee and caffeinated fizzy drinks are also mainstays of the scientist who stays up far too late most evenings trying to finish grant applications, reviews, or revisions of their own manuscripts. This is not a book about finding a pathway to good health, but eating well and taking stimulants and depressants sparingly is a good start. Good eating habits are also conducive to good mental performance, so avoid subsisting on junk food and a lack of vegetables.


Similarly, a good exercise routine is a must. There is copious evidence to support the link between improved physical fitness and higher cognitive function, not to mention the benefits of physical activity on mental health. Unfortunately, a busy academic life often dictates that certain extra-curricular activities must be sacrificed, and a regimented exercise routine is too often the victim of the academic lifestyle. From personal experience, I know that even a brisk, fifteen-minute walk can help me to solve a momentarily frustrating analytical problem, or allow me to figure out why a particular line of code is not working. While you might be an active, young scientist now with plenty of exercise built into your daily life or even field work, as you age and the demands of academia become heavier, you will discover that exercise opportunities begin to dwindle. My advice is to find a physical activity you enjoy that can fit into your schedule and do it regularly throughout the week. Weekend-only exercise is insufficient.


I love sleeping, but I am not terribly well disciplined at starting the process; I am what you might call a ‘night person’. Many of my close colleagues are precisely the opposite and like to wake before the sun has graced the horizon to get a start on their daily duties. Whatever type of person you are, try to avoid the habit you might have developed as a student of going days on end with insufficient sleep — like with a lack of physical exercise, you will operate at a higher cognitive capacity if your body gets enough sleep. Of course, there will be times when sleep is not forthcoming, but do your best to catch up as soon as possible. 

You might be thinking to yourself that these are rather intuitive recommendations that everyone ought to know already, and I concur. It does alarm me though just how otherwise extremely intelligent people often neglect themselves and behave in a manner that treats the body as a rubbish tip rather than a temple. The next time you attend a conference, have a good look around you at the attendees and you will understand what I mean. By all means, have fun and be sociable, but neglecting your health is not the best path to follow in becoming an effective scientist. But there is so much more to academic stress management than just living healthily, and had I appreciated them earlier in my career, I could have saved myself much grief and possibly extended my lifespan.


Meditation, or ‘mindfulness’, is essentially the practice of clearing your head of distracting thoughts and giving your brain time to settle. The practice can be surprisingly effective method to alleviate stress and all the bad things it causes. Meditation does not (necessarily) require that you sit in a circle with other people with crossed legs while chanting ‘ohm’; in fact, it is best practiced alone. Nor does it require much time — you can get away with ten minutes of mediation per day and still reap some of its rewards. How does one mediate? I learned by following a few smartphone apps designed for the busy professional, although there are many courses, books, and online resources available. It also takes a lot of practice to quiet a mind, even for a few minutes, so doing it often and regularly is a good idea. 

Another suggestion is to take up yoga. Had I discovered what yoga was capable of doing to my mind when I was younger, I would have been practicing it since my undergraduate days at least. There are many forms of yoga, for example from the more physically active Ashtanga, to the more meditative Iyengar, but all forms essentially help you to keep your mind in shape while you do good things for your body. You can also kill two evil birds with one stone by making yoga your principal physical activity if time does not permit you to do more than one non-academic activity.

Make office life pleasant

It’s a good idea to make sure that your office environment is conducive to peace and harmony. Good lighting, climate control, ergonomic office furniture, some semblance of privacy, easy access to kitchen facilities (for hot drinks, heating your lunch, etc.), and comfortable meeting areas are all elements of a good working environment to promote efficiency, good time management, and a general feeling of belonging. If you do not enjoy going into the office each day, then there is something wrong with where and in what conditions you do your day-to-day scientific activities. Work out what the problems are, and attempt to fix them. The stress of foreboding before you even sit down at your desk is not the best way to start your day.

CJA Bradshaw



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