Being proactive about mental health during your PhD: a very short guide

Psychologist Karra Harrington shares some tips for Mental Health Awareness week.

When I started out in my PhD I was excited about the challenges I would face. Two and a half years later I’m still excited about my research, but, like most PhD projects, it‘s not all been smooth sailing. Rather than let how I was feeling derail my progress, I decided to use my training as a psychologist to develop ways to be proactive about managing mental health during the course of a PhD.

Recognise how you’re feeling

Checking in with yourself regularly and being really honest about where you’re at is an important first step. It’s unrealistic to expect that you’re going to be feeling fantastic all of the time. A PhD is hard: it is normal to feel stressed, worried, or overwhelmed sometimes. The key is to recognise how you’re feeling early and start taking active steps, before it progresses into something more serious.

Invest in support networks

Be active in your social network and invest in your relationships. It can be easy to lose touch with people when you’re busy focusing on your research. Making a little effort when your work is going well can pay off when challenges arise later. Friends and family are a valuable resource for emotional support, down time from a PhD, and providing a reality check when things go wrong.

Seek out peer and mentor relationships outside of your immediate research group, or even outside of your field. Having a broad and varied network to turn to is useful to gain practical guidance and support when problems arise. It might seem difficult to establish this type of network when starting out in your PhD, but there are often so many opportunities to create connections once you start looking for them.

Developing perspective

Celebrate the small milestones along the way. Learning a new technique in the lab or developing a system for cleaning your data can be just as important in your PhD journey as the papers you publish. Even during those weeks where it seems like you can’t tick much off your to-do list, you can usually still find something good that happened. Take some time to reflect on and acknowledge these.

Stay Involved

There will be times when things don’t go well with your PhD. Staying involved in other activities can keep you feeling fulfilled during the tough times. Join a dance group, practice yoga or meditation, volunteer for a charity, read a novel, play a musical instrument, learn a new language, or play a video game with your friends. It doesn’t matter what it is, as long as you enjoy it and it is meaningful to you.

Small tasks make large progress

Your thesis is a huge task, and it’s often difficult to gauge your progression. Creating a system to keep track of your progress and monitor your productivity can help keep you motivated and manage feelings of stress and anxiety. There are many different ways to do this (to-do lists, bullet journal, Gantt chart, Pomodoro apps, etc.). There is no one right way, find a system that works for you and use it.

Ask for help, and ask early

The most important thing that you can do is to ask for help if you need it. Find out what resources are available to you and develop a plan about how to access them if needed. Be prepared to use this plan and to ask for help early. It is often much easier to solve a problem early on rather than letting it grow into a larger problem.

Taking steps to keep mentally healthy during your PhD can help you stay on track with reaching your goals, maintain your motivation, and maybe even enjoy the process a little more along the way. Be prepared for setbacks and most importantly don’t be afraid to ask for help.