Schools Training

How to stay sane through a PhD: get survival tips from fellow students

20 MAR 2014

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You might have chosen to take a look at this blog because you are currently feeling overwhelmed by your PhD, or perhaps you just know of someone who is. Why is it, you might be asking yourself, that very bright, talented individuals clutching phenomenal CVs and apparently facing a world of opportunities, are suffering constant self-doubt, depression, anxiety and burnout?

From what I’ve seen, it doesn’t matter much what discipline you belong to or which university you go to when it comes to developing chronic unhappiness. Over almost three years spent at one of UK’s most prestigious universities, I have travelled to conferences, participated in summer schools and attended lectures at other institutions, and I’ve seen the same thing again and again: diversely talented young people, allegedly doing exactly what they want, among equally motivated peers, who are not enjoying the freedom and fulfilment that a PhD should bring with it.

Why? And what can we do about it?

Why PhD students are sad

There are many factors that drive PhD students into unhappiness: from ill-defined topics and incomplete data sets to supervisors who do not seem to care about their students, or provide feedback that is so vague or unconstructive that it kills all motivation and creativity. Financial difficulties and self-absorbed colleagues don’t help, either. And finally there is the over-arching question of whether all that time and effort will ever “pay off”.

But should these problems lead PhD students to identify themselves as failures or frauds? Why are they affecting their physical and mental health? (If you don’t believe me, just ask any PhD student whether they actually believe they “ought to be” where they are with their project, or when was the last time they enjoyed a weekend without that little voice inside their head telling them that actually they should be working.)

I don’t want to paint a completely black picture or focus only on the difficulties here. There are students who manage to enjoy writing a PhD, and not only in retrospect once they’re completing the acknowledgements. So what do they do differently?

Though I believe universities do have an important role to play in this and should help their PhD students in many more ways than they do, it is, in the end, up to students themselves to find a way out of their situation. I’m convinced that we can learn from each other and don’t have to constantly reinvent the PhD wheel of wisdom.


Read full article: The Guardian