Towards a Healthy PhD

5 minute read


PhDs are notorious for a poor work-life balance, and the scale of the mental health and wellbeing issues of PhD students is extremely concerning. During the past year of my PhD I’ve experienced my fair share of doubts, stress and anxiety issues. While we must continue to fight against the many problems of the academic system, we must also be realistic and positive where possible. I fear that our negativity about the PhD process can be a somewhat self-fulfilling prophecy. This blog post makes a series of points and a plea to my fellow PhD students and academics based on what I have absorbed during a year of PhD study.

It’s not that bad

This may be a provocative point, but people do like to complain, and I suspect that we as PhD students have become rather good at it. Many of the complaints I hear from PhD students, about long hours, stress, feeble pay, poor or harsh supervision, and uncertainty, are remarkably similar to the problems I see people facing in the working world. Perhaps this isn’t a particularly constructive point to make, and I am not trying to belittle these serious issues, but it is important to put our problems in perspective. Most importantly, PhD students further down the line need to stop plying 1st years with negativity and scare stories when they start, it’s setting people up to fail!

Remember the positives

Working where we want, when we want; going to conferences in incredible places; still getting student discount; getting “paid to think”; opportunities to direct our own work and to initiate change. It is easy to dwell on the problems and negatives of PhD life, but don’t forget the positives. Not in any other career path are you granted such freedom and flexibility to follow your curiosity, acquire new skills and experiences, and learn. A PhD is about so much more than a thesis - it is a time of intense personal development and can be great fun. We should get better at embracing and celebrating the positives.

It’s a project management task, and we are the project

I was told right at the start of the PhD that it is first and foremost a project management task. I completely agree, but what makes this project so difficult is that we have to project manage ourselves. While, on the one hand, this means that we must tell yourself it’s time to get some work done, we also have to recognise when it is time to take a break and pace ourselves. When we’re really enthused by our research it can feel weird to force ourselves to stop and take a day-off, but it’s so so important to recognise the signs of an upcoming burn-out and take that well-earned break. Unlike the reputation, it is (mostly!) possible to do a PhD without working weekends.

It’s ok not to feel ok

Despite some of the points I’ve made earlier, the PhD is substantial challenge, and there are always times when it will seem lonely, like there’s so much to do, and it all gets too much. We can also feel a high degree of ownership and responsibility for the project, which is great, but can also lead us taking problems, failures and challenges to heart. Like any long and difficult project, it will go wrong sometimes and there’s nothing we can do to stop that. We are not solely responsible for the PhD, we share that with our supervisors, institutions and collaborators. At times we’re going to hate it and find it boring, and this can be scary because we’re all told how much we should love our topic. But this is perfectly normal. This is why maintaining a work-life balance is so important. Having other interests and passions gives us something to throw ourselves into when the going gets tough. We have to see the PhD as just one part of life, and not let it define us. Remember that there is so much more to you than this one project, fascinating though it may be. Spotted: A happy and healthy PhD student

Get a support network

The most important thing I achieved in the first year of my PhD had nothing to do with my PhD, it was establishing a support network of people and things that made me happy and feel safe. I would say this is the most important initial task. The PhD is a marathon not a sprint, or so the saying goes, and working flat-out for the first few months doesn’t really get you anywhere (trust me, I know!). So say yes to that pub trip, or that hiking weekend, or to a chat over coffee. You’ll establish links and mutual support networks which will be invaluable later in the process.

There are my thoughts. I confess that I am myself very bad at practicing what I preach here, and this blog is a plea to myself as much as anyone else. I also appreciate that I am still relatively early in the process, and the hardest bits are likely still to come. I’d love to hear your thoughts, whether you’ve done/are doing a PhD or not - there must be many synergies with the working world. Do you agree/disagree with me? Have I missed anything? Most importantly of all, good luck, whatever stage you are at, and look out for each-other - solidarity and peer-support are the way forward.