Tips to stay mentally healthy as a PhD-student

In October last year, I published a blog post with tips for staying mentally healthy as a PhD-student. You can find the original here. I wrote it for the blog Pubs and Publications, a great resource for PhD-students, by PhD-students.

“The mental health of PhD-students is an increasing cause for concern. A recent study conducted in Belgium found that one third of PhD-students was at risk of developing a common psychiatric disorder like depression. Unfortunately, this does not surprise me. The rise of mental health problems among PhD-student populations has been attributed to increasing job insecurity, pressure to deliver results before the PhD is finished, and the isolation that comes with having to produce a dissertation by oneself. While I cannot present easy, clear-cut solutions to these problems, there are ways to decrease your risk of developing mental health problems, and to ensure that you seek help in time. I, for one, wish I had known these things when I started my PhD!

Taking Breaks

First, what can you do to help prevent mental health problems? One of the most important things is to set boundaries around your work, and take regular breaks. I mean real, guilt-free breaks. If that means you are watching funny cat videos on Youtube the entire night, then this is fine! Although you should also spend some time with the people you care about, virtually if you have to. Remember, a real break does not mean checking work email or academic listservs!

Why are breaks so important? Research has shown that without regular breaks, our brains do not get a chance to process information, we run a higher risk of burnout, we feel emotionally exhausted; in short, we significantly increase our exposure to mental health risks. Despite this, I have noticed that many PhD-students are reluctant to take breaks. This is often related to the lack of boundaries around academic work. Especially in the humanities, most of the time available to PhD-students is unstructured. At my department, we did not really have any regular tasks to do and could come and go as we pleased. No one told us what to do or when to do it. As a result, I felt like I should always be working, and my brain was always “on”. Predictably, this did not end well, and somewhere halfway my program I spent months curled up on the couch unable to do anything, out of sheer mental exhaustion.

Therefore, structure your days and be strict about taking real breaks and separating work from the rest of your life. Don’t think that because you have all this time available for your PhD, that you should spend all your waking hours on it. It can help to meet up with others and work together during preset times. I began my own “Shut up and Write”-group that met weekly, which provided some structure and support. Try to work outside your home at least a few days, and if you have an office, leave your work there. If you can, walk home to mark the transition from “work” to “break” mode. Setting up a structure, limits, and boundaries around your work, and taking real breaks, can go a long way to prevent mental health problems.

Getting Perspective

Of course, this is not a surefire way to remain mentally OK during your PhD, as the process usually brings out our worst insecurities. I was a stellar, straight-A-student with a healthy confidence in my academic abilities. The PhD-process completely shattered this confidence, and I am still recovering from it. Suddenly, I felt like everyone was smarter than me, and my writing was subject to all kinds of criticisms. I felt like I knew too little to have anything to say. Because of the long-term nature of the PhD-project and my perfectionist tendencies, I did not dare to really think and write anything substantial, out of fear of looking stupid.

Don’t give in to these kinds of feelings. Remember that everyone’s first thoughts are undeveloped and everyone’s first draft looks terrible. When we read academic papers, we see the end-result of a writing process that has taken months or even years! You are not an impostor if your writing does not come out like a perfectly polished, publishable academic article. Moreover, you are not alone in feeling like an impostor. What helped me tremendously was to join virtual communities of support and comic relief, whether on Twitter (#PhDlife) or Facebook (PhD Comics, From PhD to Life, or WIASN if you’re a woman) and read blogs such as The Thesis Whisperer.

If you feel like your mental health is taking a turn for the worse, use your university’s counseling services. Even if you’re a distant student, you might be able to benefit from some of these services. If your supervisor undermines your confidence (unfortunately, this is very common, especially for women), don’t waste your energy trying to please them. Instead, look for other professors who can help you. Nothing can destroy your confidence and motivation more than bad supervision. Save yourself, and find other people who can read and comment on your work. You can always invite them to be a co-supervisor, and if that does not work, perhaps they can be part of your doctoral committee or jury.

Remember: you are not alone if you are suffering during your PhD, support is available, and fun, guilt-free breaks are essential!”

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