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Managing your mental health as a PhD student

As PhD students, you are under a lot of pressure. Many of you move to a new city, or even a new country, to study. Some of you have caring responsibilities, and many of you have paid work commitments. You have to learn new research skills and put them into practice, make new professional connections, present at seminars and conferences, and publish in academic journals. Alongside all that, you have to write and defend your thesis.

You’ve got a lot to do, but you don’t always have the support you need. Some supervisors are fantastic, while other students have difficult relationships with their supervisors. You may be a long way from friends and family, and it takes time to build new support networks. It’s no surprise that anxiety and depression are common among PhD students.

While there’s no magic bullet, there are things you can do to help look after your mental health, like taking breaks, not putting too much pressure on yourself, communicating with others, exercising and eating healthily.

How can you cope with pressure?

It’s inevitable that you will be under some pressure. It’s important to be able to talk about it, and about your feelings. Being anxious or depressed is common, and nothing to be ashamed of. Find someone you trust, a friend or family member, and talk to them about how you feel. If you’re struggling, and you are concerned it might affect your work, talk to your department. If you feel able to talk to your supervisor, that’s great, but if not, find someone else – perhaps your department has someone who leads on postgraduate research matters?

While being a PhD student brings some new pressures, all students can struggle with their mental health, and your institution is likely to have some support networks, perhaps organised through the student union. Even if they aren’t specifically aimed at PhD students, they can be helpful in providing opportunities to discuss how you feel, and possible ways forward.

It’s also worth thinking about where the pressure is coming from. Are you taking on too much and, if so, what can you drop, or take a break from? Perhaps you don’t need to submit to a journal right now, or attend another conference. If the problem is impending deadlines, what can you renegotiate, or drop entirely? While nobody wants to disappoint their supervisor by missing a deadline, it’s more important to look after your mental health, and they may be surprisingly understanding – after all, they were once a PhD student themselves.

When did you last take a week off? It can seem like a luxury when you’ve got so much on, but a week away from your work, perhaps with a change of scenery, or a chance to spend time with friends or family, can be reinvigorating. If you can’t manage a whole week, how about spending an hour taking a walk or popping into your favourite local café? Regular exercise can also boost your mood and reduce anxiety and depression, so it’s got to be worth a try.

How can you cope with failure?

Failure is something everyone experiences, but with your research being such a big part of your life, things going wrong on your PhD can feel overwhelming and unmanageable. Experiments going wrong, research leads which prove to be a waste of time, conference applications and journal submissions being rejected, or just negative feedback from your supervisors are all extremely common.

Again, talking to people is really helpful, and can help put your failures into perspective. Your supervisor will have experience to share of being rejected by journals. Your fellow students will have had their experiments go wrong. It’s not just you!

Even if lots of things seem to be going wrong, try to think about your successes. After all, you got accepted as a PhD student, and that’s a big achievement in itself. A wasted month on an approach which doesn’t work is frustrating, but it doesn’t negate other work you’ve done, and you might well be able to get part of a chapter out of discussing why the approach was a failure.

Another useful approach to coping with failures is simply to try again. Had your article rejected by a journal? Use the feedback to improve it, and submit it somewhere else. Research trip didn’t turn up any useful sources? Find another archive, and book a visit there.

If you’re yet not ready to try again, do something else instead. It can be really satisfying to tick off even a small improvement to your thesis. Or take part in an activity you enjoy, maybe bake a cake, knit a jumper or play a sport.

How can you become part of a community?

One of the best ways to protect your mental health is to be part of a community, with friends to speak to about your struggles and successes. When moving to a new city for study, you often start off not knowing anybody, and while it’s great to keep in touch with old friends and family, it’s also valuable to see people in person, who are in a similar position.

Most institutions know that students want to make friends and become part of a community, and so they provide some great opportunities to do so. You might not feel like attending a load of social events with strangers, but it’s easier when they’re in the same position as you, and it really helps make those connections. Start off by going along to both departmental events and university-wide ones, to maximise your new connections, and talk to people. Topics like the city you’re in, people’s background and research plans, or the induction process are often easy conversation starters. You can then connect with people on social media, and perhaps arrange a coffee or meeting at a future event. These kinds of connections don’t have to be limited to your first couple of months, either; you can start attending events and meeting people at any time.

If you’ve got a pre-existing interest, a sport or hobby, have a look to see whether it takes place at your institution, or the city you’re in. It’s a great way to meet like-minded people, and even if most of your new friends aren’t doing a PhD, they can still form a valuable community.

How can you cope with moving to a new country?

If moving city is tough, moving to a new country is all the harder. Unfamiliar customs, different accents, and difficulties in navigating everyday activities can all be a struggle. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself; it will take time to adjust and become comfortable with your new environment. If there’s a community of people from your home country, or with whom you share a language, getting involved can be a great way to make friends and get tips on settling in. But do try to talk and make connections with other students, too, particularly those from the country you’re now in, as speaking with them can really help your language skills, and familiarity with local customs.

Take advantage of activities organised by your institution, whether they are aimed at international students or at all students, as they can be a great way to make connections and settle in. If you’re not sure how to do something, whether it’s a concern about offending local customs, or a practical matter like how the local postal system works, a lot of the answers can be found online, but once you’ve become part of a community, it gets easier to just ask a friend.

Where can you get help with your mental health?

An article like this can only skim the surface of the huge topic of mental health. If you would like further help, start by finding out what your institution offers. Some universities have great support available, without the cost or waiting periods that can be associated with national mental health support. There are also online support networks and helplines. There’s a great summary of what’s available in the UK here, or have a search online for what’s available in your country.

Summary

You will experience stresses and difficulties as you work on your PhDs, and these can seem overwhelming. Try simple steps like becoming part of a community, not putting too much pressure on yourself, taking breaks and getting regular exercise. If you can, do these things before you struggle with anxiety or depression, as they’re easier to implement when you’re doing well, though the same things can really help you get through any mental health difficulties. If you want further help, it is out there. While stress and periods of failure are part of every PhD, struggles with mental health can be avoided or overcome.

 

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