Looking after number 1: Positive mental health and the PhD


Hi gang! Happy Friday! This has been a big week for me and I wanted to end it by talking about something a bit more positive. When I published my first ever blog post on Monday (was it only Monday?), I was completely unprepared for the massive levels of support I would receive from within the academic community and beyond. I have had literally hundreds of messages of support through retweets, emails and blog comments. I am totally astounded by how amazing you have all been. I hope that some of you have been able to start some difficult conversations with your colleagues and supervisors about mental health and I’d love to hear about them.

Be kind to yourself. I wanted to spend some time talking about some things that we can all do to promote positive mental health in ourselves and each other. Doing a PhD is tough, I think we can all agree on that, and the more we can do to support one another through the experience, the better. We can often get so wrapped up in our research that we can neglect the single most important person in our PhDs. No it’s not your external examiner, it’s you! While it may not seem like it at the time, when you’re stressed and on a deadline, taking some time out from your PhD to look after yourself can make you feel much better and save you a whole heap of trouble in the long run. Doing nice things for yourself if especially difficult when you are experiencing depression or mental health issues as you may feel like you don’t deserve joy or pleasure; that you are worth so little that you have no right to enjoyment. Try to do it anyway, even if you feel like you are only going through the motions, or enlist a friend who will force you to have fun against your own will. I’m totally serious.

Top tips for positive mental health. Over the last few days, I have been collecting your suggestions for the best ways of looking after yourself while doing your PhD. I’ll try and fit them all in here. If I forget to credit you, many apologies. It’s been a crazy week. Just give me a shout and I’ll squeeze you in there! I’ve had responses from PhD students, people who have completed their PhDs and ever a few famous people! I’ll mention a couple of people who have written about their own experiences of doing the PhD:

Writer/broadcaster/cool person who gets to talk about genetics Kat Arney talks here about her PhD experiences: http://sciencecareers.sciencemag.org/career_magazine/previous_issues/articles/2004_04_02/nodoi.12787756205663620112

and science writer for the Guardian Pete Etchells talks about how he survived writing up his PhD: http://www.scilogs.com/counterbalanced/surviving-the-phd-write-up/

Both are definitely worth a read.

I get by with a little help from my friends. Many many of you emphasized the importance of spending time with your friends, both from inside and outside academia.


(I met my amazing PhD twin for breakfast yesterday and this is what I had. Yes, it’s basically cake but it was breakfast cake, which makes it acceptable.)

Make friends with the other PhD students in your department. If there aren’t many of you, look for friendship opportunities further afield. Does your university have a post-graduate club?  Could you organise a student social for the PhD students in your college? Talk to people at training sessions and force them to become your friend. It can be difficult to talk to friends outside academia about the inescapable and insurmountable pressures of doing a PhD, but other students will understand. Some of them might not be the people that you would pick out of the “Let’s be friends catalogue” but go with it. You might find yourself doing battle yoga in a hotel room at 3am. Who knows? Don’t feel selfish about dragging other students out to coffee so you can complain about your supervisor for the 3rd time this week. Chances are that next week your friend will be the one struggling and need to drag you out for coffee.

I have been spectacularly lucky to be doing my PhD in one of the most fantastic and supportive PhD student communities I have ever encountered. You know who you are and you’re all amazing. I’ll post another time on how we can foster these kind of communities so for now I’ll just say this: BE NOSY. Noticed someone has stopped coming into the office so much? Pin them down and ask them how they’re getting on. Noticed that someone is struggling? Ask them what you can do to help. Talk openly about how you’re feeling and maybe they will too.

The world of academia can become very insular. Don’t forget about your outside friends. They might give you a helpful new perspective on your problems. They might tell you to shut up and stop complaining. You might need that. A number of my non-PhD student friends are teachers and I love talking to them because, no matter how bad PhD life gets, I will never be faced with the horror of being in sole control of thirty six year olds. Shudder.

(Thanks @aloraine205, @ChristophLyon and @AlessiaW)

Check out student counselling. Your university probably has a dedicated student psychological services department. It’s there to be used. Find out about it and use it. Make sure everyone else knows about it too. These services are not just for people struggling with their mental health but can give you great advice on coping with stress, dealing with negative feedback and being assertive. Don’t wait until there is a problem before seeking help. By being proactive about your mental health, and talking to other people about your experiences, you can make it easier for other people to get help. Getting help is strong and cool, guys. Don’t hide it, be proud that you’re doing such a great job of looking after yourself!

(Thanks @Vitaenwhub and someone else whose tweet I can’t find)

Sweat it out. Loads and loads of you said that exercise was a great way of dealing with stress. Those of you who know me must be surprised that I have got this far without talking about yoga!

Image(I love yoga quite a lot, I love yoga on a rock, I love yoga on the floor, I love yoga near a door, I love yoga on a chair, I love yoga ANYWHERE!)

It’s true, I am a massive fan of yoga and I think it has helped my hugely over the past year. Taking that hour out for myself, stepping out of my brain to concentrate on my body and what it can do has been really beneficial. I have seen myself become stronger, both physically and emotionally but it has also really helped me to understand that I will never and can never be perfect. Sometimes I can’t get a pose because I’m not strong enough yet. Sometimes I can’t talk about my epistemology because I’m not knowledgeable enough yet but, with practice and persistence, I will be. My incredible teacher has helped me so much more than she knows (Thanks Laura!).

But maybe yoga isn’t your thing. (It should be, go and try it out!) I also love to run. It’s a great way of getting out of your head because you can’t worry about your deadline if you are seriously concerned that you are going to throw up your lungs. Your sport might be something else. Some of my PhD friends enjoy karate, football, badminton, swimming, cycling, hill walking and other things I can’t remember right now. Get out there, drag a friend with you, laugh at yourself, fall over, get muddy, laugh some more, remember what it’s like to be truly hopeless at something.

(Thanks to @IHStreet, @drkiki, @planetchampion and @alrightPET)

If after all of that, you are still feeling down, watch this truly bonkers music video. It will brighten up even the worst of days.

Well that’s about it for now. Step away from the PhD this weekend and do something that is just for you. Send me a picture and maybe I’ll do a follow up. Look after yourselves and each other. I’m off for a run…to yoga! 


6 responses to “Looking after number 1: Positive mental health and the PhD

  1. Thank you so much for blogging about this – talking about these issues is so important because PhD students everywhere need to know that it is normal to be this stressed out and that they are not alone!

  2. Thank you thank you so much for existing!
    I’m currently writing up a Masters in Public Health, and I have ‘psychosis’ / ‘severe and enduring mental illness’ / ‘Wonky head sometimes’.

    I did part of my undergrad and all of my Masters part time, and I am really facing a lot of barriers trying to find somewhere which will let me do a funded part-time PhD – I can’t work alongside studying to support myself. I’d really like to hear from anyone who has managed this.

    My top tip would be cuddles from my boyfriend, and making sure we have time to see each other 🙂

    • Hi Ceri! Oh my goodness, that sounds so difficult. I wonder what it is about Public Health that attracts all us crazies? I haven’t heard much about part time study myself. I know a lot of PhD studentship applications specify that they are not available part time, which seems pretty discriminatory to me. I’ve got my fingers crossed for you! I would absolutely agree with your top tip. I’m absolutely convinced that my husband has saved my life in so many ways.

      All the best,

  3. Really great start to your blogging career – hope it keeps going like this. I’ve talked about your blog and particularly the “Having ‘the chat’ …” post on our postgrad careers blog (http://manunicareersblog.com/2013/10/21/monday-blues).

    The start of the academic year is the time when we tend to get postgrads “wobbling” about whether they should continue with their degree. Hopefully, your blog will help some postgrads realise they’re not alone in facing mental health challenges alongside the pressures of completing a postgrad degree, and there might be ways to get through both of them.

    Look forward to reading whatever you decided to post next – and best of luck with the PhD!

    • Hi Elizabeth! Oh my goodness, thank you so much for all the lovely things that you said about me on your blog! I really hope that this will help students to be able to talk about the mental health problems they may be facing. I have just published a post about dealing with criticism, something that I struggle with a lot. Hopefully this will resonate with many PhD students, whether they are experiencing mental health problems or not.

      I’m really glad that the students Manchester have you to look out for them.


  4. Pingback: A year of attempts to exercise | On the Border of Biology and Bioinformatics·

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