When Life Stress and Thesis Stress Conspire Against You

For the past few years, I have had two main kinds of stress.

Thesis Stress (TS), I’m sure, is familiar to anyone reading this. That’s when your research demands too many hours, or you’ve got writers’ block, or there are multiple deadlines piling up on you, or you just can’t get the results you’re looking for and time / funding is running out.

Life Stress (LS) is all the other inevitable stuff that throws you for a loop. You can’t afford your rent, or you have a massive fight with your spouse, or your day job starts getting crazy-busy.

During the last two months of my thesis-writing, TS and LS ganged up on me. I was pregnant, working full-time, moving house, and on a tight deadline to submit my thesis before the baby came. Just to add to that rosy picture, I was throwing up daily, had a legal dispute to deal with, and my washing machine broke down. All the while, the days were ticking down until my submission deadline, and I couldn’t extend without facing the prospect of finishing my thesis with an infant attached to my hip.

So: TS and LS overload.


I’d love to report that I handled it all with grace and panache, but that wouldn’t be completely accurate. I stress-cried more than once, and collapsed into bed at 8pm for about a month straight.

But there were a few things I found useful, and hopefully you will too if TS and LS ever gang up on you.

Something’s gotta give – so figure out what. I simply could not keep it all together during that multiple-stress time. There were big things that I couldn’t ignore, so I made a conscious decision to ignore the little things instead. I did zero chores. My house was disgusting, honestly. My clothes went unironed, and I wore them anyway. I may have eaten off paper plates for a bit (sorry, planet). That’s just the way it had to be.

Find someone to lean on. Be it a spouse, a neighbour, a family member, a friend, or a counsellor – you need to vent to somebody at the very least. If you’re lucky, you might be able to recruit someone to help out in practical ways too. If there are good people in your life and they know what you’re going through, they are likely to be amenable to running the odd errand for you, or cooking you a hot meal. You’ve just got to ask.

Forgive yourself. When multiple sources of stress combine, you’re not going to be at your best. During my LS/TS bonanza, I didn’t always meet my own standards for how to work, interact with others, or present myself in public. I had to forgive myself for the times when I was grumpy, dishevelled, and ineffective. I had to ask others to forgive me sometimes, too.

Remember: a thesis is either perfect or finished, never both. There is one chapter in my thesis that I’m not very happy with. It just never came together right; it didn’t feel like it had the compelling ‘hook’ that the other chapters had. I couldn’t think clearly through my LS to get it right.* I considered extending to keep working on it, but decided in the end that even though it wasn’t perfect, but it was good enough. The prospect of submitting something that was just okay was kind of liberating, actually. Hooray for adequacy!


*Incidentally, the chapter I didn’t like was the one my examiners liked best! In retrospect, I’m glad I didn’t mess with it.

About Anaise Irvine

Dr Anaise Irvine is the Editor of Thesislink and leads the Researcher Education and Development team at Auckland University of Technology. Her PhD research analysed how contemporary films and novels represent genetic engineering as a social justice issue. These days she works with researchers at all levels to improve their research skills, and the most obscure of her own research skills is being able to turn novels into phylogenetic trees!

2 thoughts on “When Life Stress and Thesis Stress Conspire Against You

  1. Thank you for sharing this! As a mother of three, the youngest being only six months, I needed to come across this story!

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