Good day PhD pals! Today I am beyond delighted to host this fantastic guest post from Louise Walker. I find it really encouraging to hear from readers who have experienced mental health problems during their PhD and who have gone on to complete. It helps me believe that it is possible for all of us to get through! I’m really grateful to Louise for sharing with us the wisdom that she has gleaned from her PhD experience.
I have recently finished a PhD, and it is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I suffer from mild anxiety and low mood and found the entire PhD process to be an uphill struggle. But on the other hand – I managed to complete it, and I think without too much major damage. Upon reflection, I wish there were a few things I had known about doing a PhD, so I thought I’d write a survival guide for people who are considering doing a PhD but are worried about the impact on their mental health, or for people who are currently stranded in the middle of the storm.
Make sure you’re doing a PhD for the right reasons
I think this was my biggest mistake. I graduated with a good degree in a terrible year for employment. I read the headlines about how graduates were facing a jobs crisis and panicked. Because I got a good degree, I was being encouraged by my university to apply for a PhD. I had my reservations – I didn’t really enjoy doing lab work as an undergraduate and worried that the constant experimental failures may make my anxiety worse. In the end, I decided to do it because I couldn’t think of anything else and at least it was guaranteed employment for three years. I can’t say this was the wrong decision, because I don’t know what I would have ended up doing otherwise, but I do wish I’d taken more time to consider the options.
Therefore my advice would be this – if you really, really love the subject and genuinely want to spend the next three to four years of your life studying it, then doing a PhD will be good for you. Likewise, if you’re planning on doing a lab project and you love doing lab work, then doing a PhD will suit you. However, if you’re doing it because you don’t know what else to do, sit back and really, really consider what your options are and the possible impact your decision may have on your mental (and physical) health. I felt rushed by my university to make a decision – actually there’s more time than you think and new projects get added throughout the year. Do not do a PhD simply because you can’t think what else to do.
Go at your own pace
I found during my PhD that a lot of the time, people would boast/complain about the unreasonable hours they had to work “Oh, I was in until 2 am last night, and in again at 8 this morning! Crazy!” This had a surprising effect on my mental health – guilt that I wasn’t working hard enough. I mostly did a 9-5/6 day because I could fit my experiments into that timeframe and I am useless at thinking after 6 pm. But I was plagued by constant guilt that I wasn’t working as hard as my peers, who were all talking constantly about the ridiculous hours they were putting in. A lot of people do feel under pressure from their supervisors or peers to work unreasonable hours and this can have a very negative impact on their health.
The best thing to do is to go at a pace that you feel comfortable with. If you work best at 9-5, then do those hours and don’t worry about what everyone else is doing. It may be that the nature of your work means you have no choice but to do unreasonable hours. If this is the case, make sure you have restful days where you can so you don’t overwork yourself.
One of the advantages of a PhD is that the majority of the time you can run your own project; make sure you remain in control. If you’re feeling a lot of pressure from your supervisor to work harder, try to explain that getting a well-done result in two days would be better than getting a badly-done result tomorrow. If that doesn’t work and you still feel under pressure, see point 3.
If you need help, ask for it
Here’s the thing about doing a PhD – most, if not all, PhD students will feel overwhelmed and stressed at some point. Many feel like that throughout their entire course. This means that there are systems in place to help. If you can’t make headway with your supervisor, there are other people you can talk to. You should have been assigned an advisor or co-supervisor – I found my advisor was very helpful when I needed her. Otherwise you can talk to your head of section or even a postdoc or fellow PhD student in your group.
Another source is counselling. If you’re doing your PhD at a university, a lot of them have counselling facilities which are free for students. These counsellors will have seen hundreds of over-stressed PhD students come through their doors. Even if your situation doesn’t improve, talking about it with someone neutral can really help.
Don’t let your PhD rule your life
It’s easy to get bogged down in PhD work and let it consume your every waking moment. Try not to let it, especially if it’s negatively affecting you. Even the hardest working supervisors usually have an outside hobby. Make sure you keep something in your life that you enjoy, whether it’s going to a class at the gym, meeting friends, learning how to knit or some other activity. Schedule it in and keep to that schedule. Your research can wait an hour whilst you add another patch to your quilt or do some body pump.
I would also strongly advise anyone to get involved in career-building activities which are outside of their PhD. This is especially important if you’re not sure you want to stay in academia. If you try to switch careers, you’ll end up against the dreaded “experience circle”, where you can’t get a job because you have no experience so can’t get the experience to get a job etc. Take advantage of the generally fluid nature of PhD work and get involved in something else, whether it’s writing a blog or getting involved in policy, business (such as EnterpriseYES) or event organisation. Try to get involved in the first couple of years when the PhD workload is generally more manageable. Some PhD grants now involve doing something completely different for a few months – embrace this and use it to explore other options (if nothing else, enjoy the break). Most universities are cottoning on to the fact that not all PhD students want to enter academia and actively encourage students to get involved in other aspects of life surrounding academia. If the university encourages it then you should be able to convince your supervisor that it is a good idea.
Quitting something that is negatively affecting you is not failing
Ah, the dreaded F word (ok, not that one – I mean Failure). I think a lot of people stay in PhDs which are making them miserable because they’re scared of “failing”. But it’s not failing to leave something which is making you unhappy. In fact it’s very brave to actively make that decision rather than sticking with what you know.
If you’re struggling with your project or supervisor, you can switch. This happens rarely and universities don’t seem to really let you know the option is there but it does happen. I know, because I did it. I told my advisor that I was struggling – she replied with “if you’re unhappy then you need to change your situation”, which is the best advice I was given during my PhD. If your advisor isn’t as helpful as mine then there should be other avenues you can go down, for example try your head of section.
If your problems run deeper than a bad project or supervisor, then quitting is always an option. It may sound like a scary thing to do but if you look at doing a PhD as having a job rather than studying, it doesn’t seem so bad. If you started a new job and realised a few months in that it wasn’t for you, you’d likely leave and try your hand at something else. It happens all the time, and is not considered a failure; why should a PhD be any different?
PhD work is hard by design – if they were something that everybody could do then everybody would do one. The work only suits certain personality types, if it doesn’t suit yours that does not make you a failure. There is no point in constantly negatively affecting your mental health just through fear of being thought of as a failure, by yourself or anyone else.
If there is only one point I want you to take away from this article it is this: You are not alone
I do not know a single PhD student who didn’t struggle at least at some point. Many of them considered quitting, some of them did (and I think most of them are happier for it). You may feel like it’s just you that feels overwhelmed and stranded and struggling against a sea of failure or a huge workload; every PhD student has been there. It may look like the people around you are loving every second and don’t need to ask for help; maybe they are, but maybe they’re just good at hiding their frustration.
I considered quitting several times (especially during my transfer) but didn’t. I made it to the end and I’m proud of myself for doing so. But I didn’t do it alone – I got help from the university, my boyfriend, friends and colleagues. Don’t struggle alone and don’t make yourself ill – nothing is worth that.
If Louise has inspired you to share your own story, find out how you can get involved here. Hope you’re all having a lovely sunny Monday!