Building good mental health while doing a PhD

Studying for a PhD can be demanding, challenging, sometimes exhilarating and sometimes deeply stressful.  Starting out on a PhD is like no other academic study you will have done before.  On the one hand you seem to have a long time ahead of you to get things done, and on the other milestones, deadlines and sometimes competing demands create pressures that you never faced as an undergraduate, on a Masters programme or even in an outside working environment. 

Doing a PhD can be very isolating – your work is specific and focused - almost by its very nature the whole process makes you look inwardly on yourself and your own resources (and therefore often question them). Focused attention - especially on the outcome of the research - is often accompanied by stress and tension - all part of a natural fight or flight response. Doing a PhD is less often an outwardly looking process that fosters connectedness to others and the world. And even if you are part of larger team of researchers you can still feel on your own in trying to resolve recurring or one-off problems.  And the nature of research is that it rarely goes smoothly and according to plan.

In research intensive universities, where securing a PhD place (and funding) is highly competitive, many of those who manage to get to work on a PhD are already likely to be high achievers and people who place high expectations on themselves (or have those expectations imposed upon them, e.g. by those supporting them or by funders), creating added pressure.

And then you have your supervisor to deal with and people’s experiences are as diverse as you can imagine – some have fantastic supervisors who are engaged in your work, give you time, listen, encourage, support you through the process.  And then there are some who, unfortunately, do none of those things – they are often absent, difficult to contact, more interested in whether your work will enhance their publication profile, and leave you effectively to sink or swim. After all, as far as they are concerned, they never had much support when they did their PhD, so why should you be any different? But poor supervision is not acceptable and you should not assume it is normal. You and your fellow PhD students have more leverage than you might think, you just need to know how to use it. If you are getting poor supervision then so will others with the same supervisor - and your supervisor, however high-flying they might be, is not beyond reproach by the Department or University. Tolerating poor behaviour by supervisors simply maintains that poor behaviour.

For many, what happens after a PhD is also quite unclear - there’s a common tendency for many PhD students to assume thinking about a career can be postponed for three years while studying. And for some the reason for doing a PhD was never really very clear either. And while a PhD is academic training in research, you may not have realised how few people doing a PhD will actually go on to a long-term academic career. How does your PhD fit in with your own personal values, for example - what’s actually important to you in life?

So, as a consequence of the particular experiences and context of doing a PhD, research students can find themselves having to cope with high levels of stress, anxiety, low self-worth, depression, poor health and insomnia, while often feeling they should be able to cope, but instead can end up feeling overwhelmed and lacking any sense of real control over their PhD.

But it is your PhD and you should enjoy your research - research should be about discovery, exploration, excitement, maybe even wonder, and forging networks of contacts, friends and colleagues. That requires a mindful approach to learning and research - being in the present moment, rather than ruminating over events or mistakes of the past or worrying about the future. A range of therapeutic techniques can be used to help you build greater self-efficacy and long-term resilience against what life - and the PhD - may throw at you. Seek help - don’t pretend all is well when it isn’t. There are support mechanisms in place even if your supervisor is the cause of your problems - you can change supervisor, for example and your department should help you do so if that is the problem.

And therapy can really help build your own self-worth and sense of control over your own life and help provide a more helpful perspective on the PhD. Cognitive behavioural hypnotherapy (CBH), for example, offers a range of practical skills and techniques that can help you help yourself.

Don’t suffer in silence or alone - seek help, and take control of your own PhD.

Bill Sheate, 25 November 2018