The worst day of my PhD

The worst day of my PhD

The worst day of my PhD was a Thursday; the 1st of November to be exact. Usually the first of a month is a productive day for me as it renews my motivation. With that in mind I headed to the lab to get a jump on the day, pipetting away, when an odd feeling started in the left side of my chest.

I jokingly turned to a lab mate, told him of the pain and said ‘I’ve always said that bacon would be the death of me’. The feeling subsided a little and I carried on loading my 96 well plate with samples.

While I was climbing the stairs to the equipment room, the odd feeling returned - this time a little sharper. I shrugged it off as not being particularly fit, having not exercised in some time. After setting the machine running, I returned to the lab and asked a different lab mate if it’s normal to have a stabbing pain in your chest. A worried look from her told me no.

At this point I decided I should probably sit down, so I retired to my office. Dr Google told me the pain could be a number of things but that I should seek medical attention. I spiralled. The stabbing pain intensified with each breath. Sheepishly I announced to the office that something wasn’t right.  I was immediately surrounded by friends making plans for me to be taken to A&E. Having never been to A&E before, naturally I was terrified.

Five hours and a series of tests later, the hospital concluded that I was medically fine, and was released to go home without an explanation of what had happened that morning.

This is where I tell you that I have anxiety. I’ve had panic attacks before and this event certainly didn’t feel like one – I honestly thought there was a small chance I was having a heart attack. Dr Google (later confirmed by my real Doctor – always trust medical professionals over the internet) informed me that people with anxiety can suffer from attacks like the one I did in times of stress. Being relatively new to understanding my own particular brand of anxiety, I just had no idea.

That week I had scheduled (*cough* over-scheduled) lots of experiments and longer work days in an attempt to wrap up the last of my labs before moving home to write up my thesis. I was also due to pack up and move my belongings out of my flat for that weekend. So I guess you could say I was stressed.

I begrudgingly set back a self-imposed deadline that I was pushing myself hard to meet, in order to give myself time to move out and then recharge. At first the break felt like defeat, but a couple of weeks later and I have never been so thankful for allowing myself time to rest.   

So why am I telling you this?

In short, I don’t want anybody else to experience this. In reality I know that this is impossible, but without fear mongering too much I would like to act as a cautionary tale for what can happen when you don’t manage stress well.

My advice?

  • Set realistic goals with your time. Whilst self-imposed deadlines can be helpful for trying to keep on track with work, they can also be a source of stress if you have over-committed yourself.  

  • Reach out to others. I cannot overstate the importance of having somebody to vent to; be that in person, through text, the internet – whatever. If you are feeling overwhelmed with the amount of work you have, it might be worth speaking to your supervisor or other people for help.

  • Listen to your body. If you need a break, even if it is midweek, just take the time off. As a PGR student you’re allowed holidays  and you can use them whenever you see fit. Don’t just wait until you have plans to book time off. Needing a break does not mean that you are weak (contrary to what my brain likes to tell me sometimes).

There are literally hundreds of posts about stress and PGR students across the internet with brilliant advice about how to bust it. So read up and rest up.


If you suffer with anxiety or think that you may be experiencing it in some way, here are some sources of information that I have found helpful:

 Book cover of ‘How to Survive the End of the World (When it’s in Your Own Head): An Anxiety Survival Guide by Aaron Gillies.

Book cover of ‘How to Survive the End of the World (When it’s in Your Own Head): An Anxiety Survival Guide by Aaron Gillies.

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