Monday 4 June 2018

Looking after your mental health during your PhD

Eloise explores the struggles that accompany postgraduate studies, sharing her ways to look after yourself and your mental well-being whilst making the most of your degree.
- Eloise Stark

Studying for a PhD is seen as the pinnacle of education. Over three or four years you become the world’s leading expert in your particular “niche”. Yes, not many people might be interested in knowing which can jump higher: the dog flea or the cat flea, whether woodpeckers get headaches, or the cultural significance of Lady Gaga. But if they ever need an expert on Women’s Hour, you would be their number one choice.

This academic prowess does not come without its costs, however. According to research, 32% of PhD students are at risk of having or developing a psychiatric disorder such as depression. This may even be a conservative estimate, as a 2014 UC Berkeley report found that 43-46% of graduate students in the biosciences reported that they were depressed. Doctoral students face considerable stress, whether internally or externally generated, and this can lead to depression, eating disorders, chronic insomnia, and even suicidal thoughts.

My own experience of graduate study corroborates this. Being hugely ambitious, I pushed myself to breaking point, and subsequently had to take a two-year break to focus on my mental health and wellbeing. I learnt the hard way, but by sharing my experience, I hope that you will not become one of those statistics.


Given that you will probably be studying something so niche that it takes you half an hour to explain it properly at dinner parties, it is easy to feel isolated. The start of a PhD often involves a comprehensive literature search, culminating in a flawless understanding of your area and any preceding research. This can be a lonely pursuit, reading dozens of articles a day and making meticulous notes.

I am lucky to be studying a scientific subject, so my research group has our own office, that we endearingly call “the lab.” On weekdays, we can treat our studies like a job, turning up from 9 to 5 and furnishing our desks with motivational postcards and our most trusty academic tomes. My humanities friends, however, do not often get dedicated desk space and the support of a group. Libraries tend to become their main working environment, which can quickly become oppressive when spending your day sitting in silence surrounded by strangers.

My advice would therefore be to try and create a community – ask people on your course or from your department if they want to work together in the library, take shared lunch breaks and coffee runs. There are even workspaces which you can hire to simulate an office environment. Try to socialise at least once per day so that you don’t spend your whole day in silence. There are bound to be lots of people just like you who crave company and solidarity. Scientists: make use of your academic community, suggest joint lunch breaks, a daily midday walk, or Friday evening drinks.


The key to a happy PhD is a good supervisor. To some extent you are taking a risk when you sign up to do your doctorate with a certain academic, so it makes sense to scope them out beforehand, and if possible contact existing PhD students under their supervision for their opinions. Having co-supervisors has been really helpful for me, as they offer different perspectives (one is a Neuroscientist, the other a Psychiatrist).

Supervisors often have many, many plates spinning at one time, so it can be difficult to regularly secure their attention. Try to make an agreement about how often you will meet, and set interim goals between meetings. Be accountable for your own progress, and be assertive if you’re not getting what you need. Supervisors are often exceptional academics, but they are not mind readers. Tell them what you need – they will be grateful.

“Publish or Perish”

The maxim “publish or perish” is a mainstay of academic pressures. During your PhD, but usually more towards the end, you will be under pressure to produce papers that demonstrate your academic prowess. Academia is a bit like a funnel – the higher you get the more competitive it is and the fewer the opportunities. If you choose to stay in academia and pursue a sought-after postdoctoral position, your publications will undoubtedly count towards your job prospects. If you take this into account early enough, you can forward plan to prepare chapters for your thesis, but also mould them into publishable contributions to a journal. However, keep in mind that quality always trumps quantity. Rejections are common, so don’t take it to heart. Do your best – no one can be perfect and I like to think that we naturally find our own way in the end.

Public engagement is a growing element of all careers in research, so getting involved with local initiatives is a really good idea (we have a public event called “Brain Week” in Oxford including talks, hands-on stands, and museum exhibitions). You can also write for student newspapers or magazines, or for The Conversation, perhaps distilling your own work in a public-oriented catchy way, or summarising recent research in your field. This sort of activity can do a lot for your “reputation” as a good researcher, and should hopefully be enjoyable too.

Strategies for staying well

Before my break from study, I was a perfectionist who demanded top-quality work on all occasions. Since taking time out, I have adjusted my expectations considerably, and implemented several strategies to stay happy but also be productive.

Goal setting is incredibly important. For me, a timeline is helpful – giving each experimental chapter I need for my thesis dedicated time for prior research, data collection, data analysis, and the manuscript write-up. Seeing the whole time you have to finish your PhD spread out, with manageable targets for each sub-project, can reassure you that you’re on track.

I also deviate slightly from my chosen research topic every now and then, to keep my interest piqued in adjoining fields. For instance, my PhD involves the neuroscience of face perception in parent-infant interaction, but I have just published a book chapter on music and wellbeing. I also keep abreast of the recent research in a number of fields that are not directly related to my PhD, by setting up Google Scholar alerts (if you don’t know what this is – it sets up regular emails with the most recent papers published for specific keywords that you input). Lastly, I try to attend a couple of lectures every week on topics that are new to me, or at least unrelated to my area. It is so refreshing to hear and can boost your academic enthusiasm considerably.

Having a support network is invaluable. This will be different for each person, but may include family, friends from home and uni, peer supporters, Junior Deans, your supervisor, your GP, or the local mental health team. Joining a society based on a common interest (I am a proud member of the Oxford Origami Society) can give you a great community of friends and opportunities to socialise. I have been a part of the rowing team since starting my undergraduate degree and have made lifelong friends who I can count on for a cup of tea if I need to vent.

And lastly, if things do go wrong or you are not happy, don’t panic. I have yet to meet a PhD student who has had a smooth ride. The most important thing is to not suffer in silence. Talk to everyone you can. Problem solve and explore options. A PhD is supposed to be challenging but it is not supposed to make you miserable.

“You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.”
― Maya Angelou

Hi, my name is Eloise and I am a second year PhD student at Oxford University, studying at the intersection between Neuroscience and Psychiatry. I am passionate about mental health, reducing stigma and increasing empathy for people experiencing distress.

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