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How to Beat the Third-Year Slump

tired woman with her head on her desk

After their qualifying exams are over and most of their required coursework is completed, graduate students disperse back to their labs for the long haul. Most classes and exams occur in the first year or two of a Ph.D. program; afterward, students focus full-time on their independent studies and dedicate their time to pursuing their thesis work. As exciting as this time is, it’s also the most difficult. Distractions are few and far between, so students are consumed with the sometimes confusing and disheartening task of exploring uncharted territory. Trouble with experiments, academic advisors or other requirements can lead to a loss of self-confidence and decreased motivation.

This period is commonly referred to as the “third-year slump.” And it’s not uncommon. A study at UC Berkeley found that almost half of Ph.D. students in science and engineering are depressed. Another study, which surveyed over 3,500 Belgian students, found that over half had experienced at least two symptoms of poor mental health in the past few weeks, while about a third were at risk for a mental health disorder, such as depression.

You might be experiencing the third-year slump if you have any of the following symptoms:

  • Feeling as if you are under constant strain
  • Unhappiness or feelings of despair
  • Loss of sleep
  • Loss of self-confidence
  • Feelings of uselessness or futility in the lab
  • Poor concentration
  • An inability to make decisions

Recognizing the problem is just the first step. The next step is reaching out for help. Try some of the following tips:

  • Talk to your advisor. Their role during your Ph.D. is to guide you. If you feel you need more support or direction, sit down with your advisor.
  • If your advisor has been causing some of your stress, try reaching out to another faculty member. Remember, your thesis committee members can help, too! These faculty members are familiar with your work and your advisor, so they might be able to help coordinate changes or modifications that can be made to your thesis goals or your work environment.
  • Take time to have fun with friends and family. An important part of a healthy work-life balance is maintaining your relationships outside of the lab. It’s also helpful to have someone with whom you can vent your frustrations.
  • Don’t forget to maintain healthy habits, like getting enough sleep, exercising or eating fruits and vegetables. Being tired or hungry might exacerbate your other worries. Taking time to take care of yourself will pay off in increased productivity and fewer mistakes in the lab.
  • Try talking to other graduate students. Johns Hopkins Graduate Student Association holds monthly meetings and can match you up with a senior graduate student. Beer and snacks are provided as an added bonus!
  • Lastly, if you think you may be experiencing depression or another psychiatric disorder, contact a professional. The Johns Hopkins Student Assistance Program has counseling, support and life coaching services, and the physicians at University Health Services can direct you to a specialist if needed.

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