I was fortunate the other day to spend 90 minutes with some relatively new PhD students talking about mental health.
I must have enjoyed it because I went on so many tangents that I didn’t get through about 40% of what I had prepared.
With that in mind, I thought I’d try and condense down some of my points to a manageable list.
Whilst I am not a huge fan of the ‘top 5 things…’ or ‘10 things you should do….’ format for blog posts – because I think it tends to oversimplify the topic being discussed – I do want to challenge myself to write in formats that I don’t necessarily feel comfortable with (much like the challenge of writing a PhD).
So here we go.
1. Your mental health is a critical piece of the PhD picture
In some ways this isn’t really a piece of PhD specific advice. I would give this advice to anyone. But because a PhD is a big mental challenge, it is worth highlighting.
Your mental health is the lens through which you experience everything. It is the colour of your consciousness, the health of your nervous system. It isn’t an optional extra. How well you confront the challenges of the PhD will be a function of the health of you mind.
So invest in your mind. If you don’t know what such investments look like, take a read of one of our documents:
Self-care mega guide – https://blogs.flinders.edu.au/student-health-and-well-being/2021/04/06/self-care-mega-guide/
Mental fitness protocol – https://blogs.flinders.edu.au/student-health-and-well-being/2021/04/16/introduction-to-mental-fitness/
2. Fill your life with balancing activities
PhDs are emotional rollercoasters and constitute a constant challenge to your sense of competence and capacity. Some days you’ll feel great and in control. Other days you’ll feel like a hopelessly outnumbered amateur 🎢
With that in mind, it is good to fill your life with what I call ‘balancing activities’.⚖ These are activities that are more predictable in terms of the emotional and psychological returns they provide, that is, activities that reliably make you feel good and feel competent and in control. They help balance out the more chaotic reward schedule of a PhD.
This might be the company of a specific person or persons. It might be an activity that is gentle and refreshing (e.g. gardening). It might be the thrill of a sport or competition. Just something that provides you with positive feelings and a sense of competence.
3. Be honest in your self-appraisal of skills and knowledge ✅
In an undergraduate degree, you are basically told what you need to learn through lectures, assignments and exams.
With a PhD, much of the responsibility for what you need to learn and what skills you need to develop is handed to you.
Be brutally honest with yourself about where your knowledge and skill gaps exist. If you know your writing isn’t quite up to scratch, then invest more time writing. If you need to hone your statistical skills, do some courses or get some direct tutoring.
Don’t let any skill or knowledge gaps go unattended, because they will rear their heads at the end of your PhD and cause unnecessary stress.
4. Think about what your supervisor needs 🗣
Having a good working relationship with your supervisor is a great predictor of PhD completion and satisfaction.
As students we tend to get hooked on what we need, given that we are the learners and the supervisor is the teacher. We’re constantly assessing whether we are getting from our supervisor what we need from them.
But good working relationships are built on mutual satisfaction of goals/needs. If you only ever consider what your supervisor can provide you, you risk making the exchange lopsided.
So, what does your supervisor need? I don’t really want to speak for other supervisors but I know when I’ve supervised people I want:
- Basic courtesy – show up for meetings, be prepared, keep me informed of changes
- I want to see you develop and become independent and move from needing my assistance to becoming more self-capable over time
- I want to see you tackle problems head-on (try a few different things) before coming to me for advice
- I want you to provide me with work that has gone through a few iterations before reaching me (i.e., not some half-arsed dot point list) – I apologise to my supervisor for giving her lots of half-arsed work during the 4 years of PhD
Another thing that I would be cautious of is bringing too much of your personal life to the supervisor relationship.
Because it is a close working relationship, it can sometimes feel like a good space in which to work out some of our personal issues, leading to some overstepped boundaries. Supervisors aren’t necessarily counsellors or coaches. They don’t necessarily have the tools to help you with problems outside of your PhD.
This doesn’t mean keeping your supervisor in the dark if you are going through some stuff. Most supervisors I know want to know and want to help. But be cautious and conservative in sharing that information with them.
It might mean you need to develop some other supportive relationships outside of the supervisor one. Talking to a counsellor, or getting a mentor who is willing to talk about issues beyond the PhD.
To be clear, you may strike it lucky in getting a supervisor who can provide sophisticated emotional support alongside the PhD, but don’t count on that.
5. Setbacks are inevitable ❌
Just assume that things will go wrong and you will make some mistakes. With that settled, what should you do about it?
The term ‘mindset’ is used a lot in education settings nowadays. It is basically another word for attitude. The attitude we bring to setbacks is one of the most powerful tools we have for coping with them.
What mindsets or attitudes should you try to develop?
- Growth – the view that effort and persistence are as important as talent (maybe more)
- Self-compassion – the realisation that we repair and fix things better when we are kind to ourselves, rather than excessively critical or demeaning
- Patience – the willingness to show up everyday and put the work in, knowing that patient persistence will yield positive results
- Curiosity – the constant reminder that in your PhD you are trying to answer a question (or multiple questions), so remain curious and open to what emerges
- Acceptance – knowing that some lines of inquiry or ideas you had will not pan out and that is OK
- Problem-solving – the determination to spend less time lamenting that a problem exists and more time trying to solve it
6. Have a contemplative practice 🧘♂️
I’ve been somewhat reluctant to make a base level recommendation that students should develop some kind of contemplative practice such as meditation or journaling, but given the centrality of these in modern mental health treatments, it seems remiss of me to not at least recommend trialling them.
They aren’t for everyone, but for many they provide multiple benefits: stress management, self-discovery, emotional regulation, insights and creativity.
In essence, contemplative practices require us to be still and quiet and look inwards to better understand ourselves and our experiences.
There are different ways to do this but journaling and meditation are two common ones.
For journaling – maybe something like https://www.intelligentchange.com/products/the-five-minute-journal .
For meditation, explore some of the meditations on Insight Timer to find ones you like – https://insighttimer.com/en-au
To be clear, I am not dictating you have a contemplative practice, but I am suggesting it is worth trialling to see if it provides benefits.
7. Time management is both a wellbeing and productivity intervention ⏲
A recent review came out that identified time management as having both productivity and wellbeing impacts. In fact the wellbeing impacts were more pronounced than the productivity ones – https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0245066 . Thus the constant talk about time management as a central skill seems appropriate.
I’ve written about time management previously – https://blogs.flinders.edu.au/student-health-and-well-being/2020/11/20/principles-of-time-management/ and there is no shortage of time management advice on the internet.
Keep in mind that there doesn’t appear to be a single magical time management technique. Rather it is a trial and error process for each individual to find what strategies/tools help them maximise their output for the time they have.
8. Create a personal mission statement
When a new company or organisation forms, it is common for them to develop a mission statement – “We’re going to build the best damn widget that has ever been built” or something like that. A goal that unites all of those in the company.
I think we as individuals should create our own mission statements. Mine is “to learn and teach as much as I can about the topic of mental health and to try to be a living example of what it is I teach”. That mission statement helps keep me focused on what is most important in my work.
It is ok for your mission statement to change over time, but having a current mission statement is like having a clearly defined compass point. It reminds you of the direction you are headed. It is especially useful during setbacks and failures when the distress we experience can make us lose sight of what it is we were working towards before the setback.
To be clear, your mission statement doesn’t necessarily have to be PhD related. For example, it might be a mission to which the PhD is tangentially or indirectly related such as
“I want to provide a better life for my family” where the PhD is more of a step towards that (PhD → better job → higher income → providing for family)
9. Common stumbling blocks
When I asked supervisors about some of the common stumbling blocks for PhD students, a couple kept coming up.
The first was when students attempt some kind of big life transition during the latter stages of a PhD (e.g. take on a job, move home). This commonly leads to difficulties re-engaging with the PhD and taking it to completion. Basically it is very hard to manage a large life transition alongside the completion of a PhD. The advice therefore is to avoid this if possible.
The second is that some students get hit with big or multiple life events during a PhD (e.g. breakups, losses, health problems) and this naturally impacts on their work (as it does with anyone). This is a difficult one to provide advice around, as each persons’ situation is unique. Broadly speaking though, this is where a strong social support network becomes really important. The advice therefore is to not neglect your friendships and family relationships during the PhD, so that if you need these people for some reason, those relationships are still strong.
10. Read the guide (ok, this one is a bit lazy of me) 📚
A lot more of my thoughts and findings from the literature on successful PhD completion and satisfaction can be found in our Self-Care Guide for PhD Students – https://blogs.flinders.edu.au/student-health-and-well-being/2021/04/22/self-care-guide-for-phd-students/
Grab a copy and keep it nearby. Peruse every now and then and pick one idea or suggestion in there to try to see if you can enhance your PhD experience.
There’s lots more I could share, but this captures some of the big ticket items from the presentation I gave (and the bits I didn’t get to).
Try to embrace the PhD as much as possible. Inhabit the identity of being a ‘researcher’.
Connect with other PhD students, not just local but perhaps nationally and internationally as well through social media.
Read the thesis whisperer – https://thesiswhisperer.com/
Attend professional development events. Embrace learning not just in your area of emerging expertise, but also more broadly about juggling wellbeing and productivity – https://www.ithinkwell.com.au/index.php?route=common/home
Tweet researchers in your field with questions or positive comments about their work. Start dialogues with organisations in your field.
If you get opportunities to present, take them. If you get a chance to sit on committees at relevant organisations, do it.
Basically, use your PhD as a time to practice what it is like to be a full-time researcher. Whether or not that is where you end up doesn’t matter. The skillset arising from the combination of these activities will serve you well, regardless of where you end up.