Annual Review: Dealing with the anxiety

I walked out of the room with my supervisor. I had dressed up a bit for the occasion, tweed jacket, waist coat, the academic uniform essentially. As we walked out into the surprisingly beautiful Scottish weather my supervisor was chatting a bit, something about me doing well. I was in my own world though and I must have noticeably slumped a bit from the exhaustion of carrying the weight that event for so long. He looked at me a little surprised and concerned not realising I had been that stressed about my first annual review.


Everyone told me my annual review was nothing to worry about, my supervisor included, but I felt lost and unprepared. It didn’t feel like I had done nearly enough and didn’t feel like I knew what was actually required of me. I had filled out the forms, but had I gone to enough workshops? The right kind of workshops? Had I written enough or well enough? Was this going to be the moment I would be discovered for the impostor I was? At the very least I hoped my ‘gift of gab’ would give me a fighting chance.


I wish I had believed them because in honesty it was almost a bit of a cordial non-event. I got some good general feedback and encouragement. It helped me feel like I was on the right track. But I was also kicking myself for not listening to my peers and trusting my supervisor because I lost nearly a month stressing out about what I could likely have done in a week.


What I’ve found since is that everyone is anxious about their first annual review, which has helped me stop kicking myself a bit. It causes anxiety because it is a further step into the unknown that carries with it possible consequences. In the past we have all been assessed through our writing, exams, and presentations, but an annual review sounds odd, unfamiliar, and a wee bit ominous; like getting called down to HR or the principal’s office. In many ways it’s the very definition of anxiety; the fear of an unknown and uncertain future that you don’t feel like you have control over.


Now I’m not suggesting you blow off your first annual review or to not take it seriously, but to try and not get overwhelmed by the anxiety and see it as an opportunity for feedback. I personally wish I had put more stock in the reassurances of my peers that were already in their second year and my supervisor’s confidence. In many ways he expressed this confidence through a lack reassurance. I hadn’t disclosed my own anxiety (I was trying hard to hide it) and he wasn’t concerned with me passing, so why offer seemingly unnecessary encouragement? I think many supervisors would fit into this train of thought and if I could go back and do it again I would certainly have told him how I was feeling.


At the very least, if you’re anxiously preparing for your annual review know you’re not the only one. Your anxiety doesn’t mean you’re behind, you won’t make it, or you’re not cut out for this. It just means that you’re taking another step down the unknown road of a PhD. It means you care about what you’re doing; that you want to see it through; that you’ve invested a lot of yourself and a lot of hard work into this already, which are all good things that will carry you through a PhD. At least that’s what I tell myself when my mind starts racing with possible dystopian visions of my future and myself. Often it works.


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