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PhD-candidate position stress

  1. Aug 19, 2016 #1


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    It is one more weekend before I get an official answer for my PhD request... I am totally broken (mentally) and stressed as I am the worst-case-scenario person... In the past, this trait of mine made me reach a point where I said "screw it, if it happens it happens"... unfortunately this time it didn't work that way...
    How did you guys/girls feel when you went through that moment? How did you deal with that stress?
    If you didn't, what was that that made you stop at MSc? if it's not too personal and you want to share... so, no offence - I just don't want to rule out people from participating here.
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 19, 2016 #2
    Hi. I'm just graduating and will be doing a Master's next year, but as far as I know (which isn't too far), there are always a lot of options for a PhD out there, specially if you have worked with someone who can recommend you. I'm Spanish, so perhaps it's a bit different somewhere else.

    Either way, just try to keep calm. Not that physicists can give you much advice about that. Typical recommendation is to do things that keep you active or focused on something else, and perhaps leave you viewing your life on a positive fashion. For me, that would be going to a concert! Getting eventually rejected doesn't seem such a bad thing when you have your favorite band in front of you. Maybe exercising, watching a movie if you are at home...

    Good luck!
    Last edited: Aug 19, 2016
  4. Aug 19, 2016 #3


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    Hi, I wish you the best of luck with your Master's... I don't know but for me it was an amazing trip, since I did it in Germany (coming from Greece), and which closed with the best possible thing (the thesis research). Are you planning to do yours in Spain?
    In my case, the request was given to my supervisor. So, being rejected by someone who "knows" me can be harsh... if it happens then probably I'll have to search somewhere else but it will be awkward to ask for references.

    For the moment, I keep coding so that I will leave behind a nice code for whoever is going to take over... this is good as long as I can be at the university though. Concert huh?

    Thank you, for you too!
  5. Aug 19, 2016 #4


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    There can be a lot of stress involved with a PhD. Admission is just the beginning. Then you have to worry about committee meetings, exams that can pass or fail you right out of the program, getting along productively with a group of people most incoming students don't have much of an opportunity to work with before hand, not to mention publishing research that by its nature is uncertain, and live off of very little financial support, while you see other friends begin much more well-paying careers, buy houses, etc.... definitely stressful.

    In moments of great uncertainty like this, where you've done all you can, and all you can do is wait for the dice to fall, there are a few things you can do to help deal with the stress.
    1. Contingency planning. A lot of the real great fears we have come from uncertainty. So if this doesn't work out the way you'd like it, what's the worst case scenario and how will you deal with that? If this PhD doesn't work out, the worst case scenario is probably that you'll have to wait another year to try again. If that happens you might want to think about how you could improve your chances for next time (course revision, extra course work, more research, etc.) As a 1.b. you could also think about how to make the best of it. Having a gap year could give you the opportunity to travel or earn some money so that life as a student isn't so bad when you return to it.
    2. Plan for moving forward. If you get in, then what? Have you thought about how you can best set yourself up for success? Have you looked at where you would live, or thought about opportunities that the school that you might want to take advantage of?
    3. Stress is mitigated by exercise, rest and general good health. Exercise doesn't have to be intense, especially if you're main focus is to relieve stress. Go for a hike. Ride your bike some place new. Shoot some hoops at the schoolyard. Do as much as you can to get good sleep (avoid caffeine, stick to a rigid sleep schedule, etc.) And eat healthy.
    4. Dig into a good book.
    5. Spend some one one one time with a good friend - not FaceTime, not texting, but just hang out. Once you start a PhD, you may not have so may opportunities to do that.
    6. Treat yourself. Go check out a movie. Eat out. Shop. If you can afford it, go for a massage. If you can't maybe talk your partner into one.
    7. Speaking of partners, there's other things you can do with them too.
    8. Hobbies. Outside of school, what do you like to do to relax? Write novels? Play guitar? Draw? This is a great time to pick up a project that can occupy your mind doing something that you enjoy.
  6. Aug 19, 2016 #5
    My first option was to do it abroad as well, maybe the UK or Germany, too. I'm glad yours was great. I'm kind of assuming that coming from Greece, which is one of the PIGS just like Spain... the university was much better at Germany; am I right? I did an Erasmus year in Nottingham University and it was way better than mine. However, I'm planning to do my Master's degree at my university, because this particular program is a new one made by some good and friendly professors, and probably gets me working with good research groups. It's focused on condensed matter and nanoscience. What was yours about?

    @Choppy has made good points. Exercise and sleeping are a must. I wouldn't want a book when I'm worried and stressed, because it requires some calmed down focusing; I'd prefer something that takes upon me, thus the concert. But hey, whatever floats your boat.
  7. Aug 19, 2016 #6


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    the University was really cool... although easy-going...

    experimental particle physics / data analysis [associated with LHC]

    comittee meetings?

    Hmmm I didn't know of such a procedure. How does it work? Do you have to take exams per period to renew your contract?

    I guess I understand that one, but (luckily) I have been with this group for 1.5 year already (half year for an internship, in which I had to learn how things work, and one year for my master thesis analysis and development)... Being rejected by the group I've worked so long with can be very bad for multiple reasons, but it's a possibility as long as fundings are concerned.
    I don't know, is there any case where groups have "clashes" due to incompatible characters or slackers?

    what do you mean by uncertain? Is it possible to work on something for let's say 1 year and be denied a publication?

    For the finance part I think that is OK for someone who does not have a family to support or doesn't have a dream of a constant residence... one of the reason I pursued to continue as a PhD is exactly because of the opportunities to travel (more than if I had a fixed-time job) and also the fact that it is not fixed time at all... you can work on weekends, nights, holidays etc, something impossible if you are an employee in some company.
  8. Aug 20, 2016 #7


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    Just FYI my experience is Canadian...

    PhD students report to a supervisory committee. Usually the supervisor is the chair of the committee, but there will be about three or four other professors in the department or at arm's length from it. Once every six months or so, the student will formally report to the committee with an update on his or her progress and intended goals. This keeps the supervisor from having too much power, and allows for a diversity of feedback on the project. It also helps to keep the student focussed. Though there is no pass or fail component to them, they can range in feeling anywhere from a semi-formal chat to a formal oral exam.

    Most departments will have a comprehensive examination. This is typically written over the first year or so of the program and essentially covers core topics in physics at the senior undergraduate or graduate level. The point is usually that it covers multiple topics. Often you only get two attempts to pass it and it must be passed for you to carry on in the program. I've seen cases where students do nothing else for the six months leading up to it, but study for it.

    After that there is a candidacy examination. (In some places this is combined with or in place of the comprehensive examination.) Usually this is done after the majority of graduate coursework is complete and the student has initiated some work on their PhD project. It can take various forms, but typically it will involve submission of a research proposal and an oral examination of the student's background in their area of study. This can be very stressful because it's also a pass or fail exam.

    Finally there is the thesis defence at the conclusion of the project. In some cases this ends up being something of a formality because if the PhD has gone well, most of the research has been published or accepted for publication in a peer-reviewed journal, which is clear evidence that the student has produced acceptable results. But this is not always the case. In some cases students will defend their work without having published it for a number of reasons - not all of which are under their control. In some fields, for example, the research is part of a major collaboration and publication takes a long time.

    Unfortunately this happens more frequently than people would generally want to believe. It sounds like you're in a good situation. Often, a student will choose a project and supervisor based exclusively on interest in the work itself. And while this *should* be all that a student needs to worry about, in practice people can have conflicting personalities and styles that strain the experience. For example, some supervisors are micro-managers and don't give their students much opportunity to explore their own ideas. Other supervisor are rarely available and the students need to work independently on their project. Both extremes can turn out just fine with the right combination of student and supervisor, but if they don't fit the result can be a disaster.

    Unfortunately, yes. In most cases if the system is working properly, this won't happen. Your supervisor and committee should have a good idea of what projects are worth pursuing and guiding you on how to proceed through obstacles, But there can always be cases where you overlook something or make a wrong decision in the beginning that can invalidate your data. Or in the years that it takes you to do the work, five other groups could publish on the same issue, making it difficult to claim any original result. Or you could run into a referee that does't understand the work. And despite living in a world where most data should be backed up into a "cloud" you don't have to look far for stories of people that lose everything through a series of unfortunate hard drive crashes.
  9. Aug 20, 2016 #8


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    Hmmm, I guess that this is a cultural difference then... it sounds like a PhD is seen as a student rather than a researcher. Do they have to participate in classes?
    This sounds like some stories I heard from US students too... as if the master's courses didn't provide the necessary skills for a research work.

    The only "exam" thing I heard of is the final thesis defence. Where you have to do a presentation of your work in front of the referees and the public, and then you are having a private "chat"/oral-exam with the referees (1 of which is not even a physicist). I don't know what happens behind those closed doors...

    uh huh, that can be sad. But yes, the communication with the supervisor is important, I misunderstood the meaning of "group" containing the supervisor in it.
    I had such an experience while I was searching for a thesis supervisor too... that's one reason why I tried to get an internship with my "prefered" supervisors before starting the thesis. I tried 2 (unofficial) internships, and only the last worked nicely, due to the 1st supervisor being incompatible with me.

    I don't know, does the PhD have to pursue the publishing of his work alone?
    I know (from a previous post#3 https://www.physicsforums.com/threads/rejected-papers-that-won-the-nobel-prize.881489/) that referees are sometimes trying to be harsh just to show that they do work and this can be frustrating for most of the people being reviewed.

    That's one cool thing to know, thanks... especially as far as my bad luck goes... that would be a disaster.
  10. Aug 20, 2016 #9


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    Yes, PhD students are considered students, although informally they are (or at least should be) treated as junior research colleagues. In Canada you typically start with and MSc and progress to the PhD. In the US, my understanding is that it's a lot more typical to start straight in with the PhD program. Either way there is a certain amount of required coursework.

    Not at all. At minimum the supervisor should be involved in the process. In my experience the supervisor should be playing a more "hands on" role the first time around and then as the student advances, the supervisor takes a back seat. By the end of the PhD the student should be operating nearly independently and the relationship between student and supervisor turns into one of junior and senior colleague from student and mentor.

    Some referees are thorough. Some are unnecessarily harsh. Some are reasonable. Some will make comments that make you wonder if they've even read the paper, or question your ability to communicate your ideas. In general a supervisor should be able to guide the student through this process. But even decent papers can be rejected - sometimes for very trivial reasons. And of course you can re-submit elsewhere, but that all takes time. In my field there's typically a lag of 4 to 6 months between initial submission and acceptance.
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