PhD Survival Guide: PhD & Mental Health
*I originally wrote this post in the last year of my PhD*
I have had notes for this blog post for a few months now, I just couldn’t work out how to write it in a way that would do the topic justice. I wanted to write about this topic when I was in an (semi) objective frame of mind, rather than in the middle of a stressful day. I wanted to write it in a way that does not seem as though I am just ragging on a PhD, because that is not my intention. Did I achieve any of this? I guess you can be the judge of that.
PhD and Mental Health. Where do I even begin? I have been a person who luckily enough throughout my childhood and undergraduate university degree did not suffer from anxiety or depression, I know that is not the case for many others. I had panic attacks when I was young, but I learnt to control them. I wanted to start with that prefix to provide some context. Now I am a 25-year-old (almost) PhDone student who is under more stress than I ever comprehended would be the case.
If you have followed along my blog for a few years now, you would know that personal situations outside of my PhD have occurred and that these have contributed to many changes in my life and mental health. However, although I know that you cannot compartmentalise your life, that is not the stressors I am talking about in this post.
I am talking about the PhD. The fact that it is hard, tiring, exhausting, overwhelmingly, and at times down-right horrible. You hear statements like ‘well of course a PhD is hard, that’s the point, if it was easy everyone would do it’, or ‘at the end of a PhD you will at least have a Dr. title and resilience’. Why do we just accept these statements? Why do we just accept that it is okay to feel (completely) overwhelmed because every other PhD student does too? Why is it normal to read comments on the PhD Instagram community like ‘when I graduated, I just felt relief, not pride or happiness’.
I occasionally get asked if I regret doing a PhD, and although I currently do not have a definitive answer to that question, I can say definitively that some days I do. I want to make it clear that these feelings are not directed towards the institute where I am doing my PhD, they are just to the PhD process generally. Although I love my PhD topic, and I love the opportunities it has afforded me, and I love the people who I have met along the way, I don’t love how it makes me feel a lot of the time. Like I barely have my head above water. Like I am in the middle of the week before exam period, but that instead of a week of stress, it is 4+ years.
The main reason I wrote this piece was for me, so that I could finally attempt to put my feelings into words. Because I have been feeling overwhelmed, stressed, and anxious for a long time now and as I have said before, writing blog posts like this is an outlet for that. The second reason is for you, I wrote it in the hopes that if you too are a PhD student feeling like this, you can know that you are not alone. I usually like to write blog posts about advice or tips that I have, but I currently don’t have a solution for this one. It is something I want to research more and see changes happen- so that future PhD students feel a little (actually I hope for a lot) less overwhelmed.
So, although I do not have specific tips or advice, I do have a few suggestions- get a psychologists or counsellor early in the PhD process, it is something I genuinely wish that I did. Lean on the village of people you have around you, you will need to. Consider doing a PhD part time while working in an area outside of academia, to give yourself an outlet. And finally, connect with other PhD students whether that be in-person or through the Instagram community, we need to talk to each other and help each other however we can. We need to support each other as nothing, and particularly not a PhD, is worth feeling uncontrollably out of depth and overwhelmed over.