Doctoral School

Wellbeing

Taking care of your mental health and wellbeing during your PhD is essential.


It’s very easy to become completely focused on your research, to the detriment of your physical and emotional wellbeing. Doctoral studies involve highs and lows but if you are experiencing difficulties, please do seek help immediately. There’s lots of support available and your first point of contact is the Student Life Centre. You could also explore the Buddy Scheme to help build yourself a support network, and the Meeting House for a friendly ear.

If you’re an overseas researcher, take a look at International Student Support.

Those of you combining studies with parenthood can find out more about childcare.

Watch highlights from The PhD Survival Video by Angel Productions (Sussex login required)

In the following video, researchers and staff talk about the importance of wellbeing:

                                             Read the transcript ]

Mental Health and Wellbeing during your doctorate

In 2018, the Doctoral School was one of 17 UK universities awarded funding by the Office for Students and Research England to deliver a project around supporting the mental health of postgraduate researchers. The Understanding the Mental Health of Doctoral Researchers (U-DOC) team undertook a mixed-methods investigation of the factors that influence and are influenced by doctoral researcher mental health. A systematic review, focus groups with Sussex doctoral researchers, and an ongoing national survey have highlighted that there is a pressing need to support doctoral researcher mental health in light of the unique challenges associated with doctoral study.

There are lots of different things that could potentially affect your mental health and wellbeing during your time at Sussex. There are lots of really positive aspects of doing a PhD that can be beneficial in terms of your mental health and wellbeing - both now and in the future, for example:

  • Learning about yourself and your values, goals, skills, and strengths
  • Increasing your confidence, independence and autonomy
  • Doing something which is personally meaningful
  • Developing your resilience
  • Experiencing a sense of growth and self-transformation
  • Increasing your knowledge and developing many specific and transferable skills

 But there are aspects of doing a PhD that can be more challenging in terms of mental health and wellbeing:

  • Academic challenges, busyness and long working hours
  • Social isolation both within and outside university
  • Difficulty in managing conflicting demands on your time and attention within and outside of university
  • Challenges in relationships both within and outside of university
  • Periods of time spent away from the university or on fieldwork
  • Financial challenges
  • Career uncertainty

 There will of course be plenty of periods during your doctorate where things are going smoothly, and you're enjoying getting to grips with your research area and the opportunities studying for a PhD can bring, but there are also likely to be times when things feel difficult; perhaps you'll hit a roadblock with your research, or you'll have a disagreement with your supervisor. Major life events, changes in personal circumstances, and periods of illness are also likely to crop up over the 3 - 6 years you'll be studying.

Why is self-care important?

Practising self-care is a really important part of both improving and maintaining mental health and wellbeing for everyone. We think it’s especially important for doctoral researchers because a PhD is a challenging thing to do. Self-care techniques can also be really helpful coping strategies for people who have experienced mental health problems before or during the PhD. However, our research has indicated that many doctoral researchers find it difficult to make time for and prioritise self-care in the context of the PhD. No two PhD journeys are the same, but by taking steps to make self-care a part of your PhD we hope that you will find yourself more prepared to tackle any difficulties that do arise during the course of your doctorate.

The Oxford Dictionary defines self-care as the practice of taking an active role in protecting one's own well-being and happiness, in particular during periods of stress.

It sounds fairly straight-forward, but sometimes the term ‘self-care’ can make us feel a little uncomfortable. Sometimes it can be hard for us to justify to ourselves that we should take time out when we have busy lives or caring responsibilities. But it is important to remember that a PhD is a marathon and not a sprint. Just like a marathon, a PhD is challenging technically, practically and emotionally. PhDs can also be a lonely experience. You need to look after yourself in order to have the personal resources to succeed and to enjoy the experience along the way. Perhaps you could try approaching self-care in the same way you would if you were responsible for taking care of someone else?

Self-care strategies adapted to doctoral researchers (poster to print)

The following list of self-care strategies have been adapted for PhD students from an inventory produced by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), an organization based in the USA. Not all of the strategies will be relevant or useful to everyone (and maybe just a few will be relevant to you), but we hope they give you some practical ideas to help you start thinking about how you can look after yourself whilst studying for your doctorate. Try and test out some ideas to find activities and practices that are personally meaningful to you; this will help you to feel motivated to continue these activities over the long-term. You can print out this poster of self-care strategies and keep it on the wall near your working space for instance to remind yourself about your wellbeing. 

 List of self-care strategies in three categories: professional, psychiosocial, and physical self-care.

Seeking additional support for mental health and wellbeing

As well as taking the time to look after yourself, you might find it helpful to get a bit of support from someone outside of your personal or work circles. Taking that first step in seeking support can be challenging, especially for doctoral researchers. The doctoral researchers we talked to described several barriers to seeking support:

  • feeling that their problems are not ‘serious’ enough
  • finding it hard to make sense of what is a potential “problem” in mental health or wellbeing versus what are “normal” stresses and strains of daily life
  • thinking that mental health or wellbeing problems can be solved by working harder or longer hours
  • feeling worried about talking about their experiences or what these experiences might mean
  • feeling worried about what other people might think about them seeking help or support for mental health or wellbeing

Although these concerns are common amongst doctoral researchers, they are not facts. Seeking support is not an admission of weakness or failure – instead it is a sign that you are you are self-aware and are acknowledging that something doesn’t feel right. Just like your self-care strategies, seeking support is another tool that you can use to look after your mental health and wellbeing. Research evidence shows that the earlier you seek help when beginning to experience problems (whether you have had them before or not), the quicker and easier it is to get back to doing the things you want to be doing.

Campus support services are open to all doctoral researchers irrespective of the types of problems you are experiencing – they should not turn you away and say your problems are not serious enough. If you prefer to seek help and support off-campus or outside of the university, for example through the NHS, your GP is the best first source of information about what potential services might be available and appropriate for you.

Everyone experiences ups and downs, but it is when those experiences become pervasive, overwhelming, and/or negatively impact your life that we would especially encourage you to seek support. The doctoral researchers we spoke to reported the following experiences as being the things they noticed which lead them to seek support:  

  • other people are telling you that they are worried about you
  • having any thoughts or experiences that make you feel uncomfortable or unsafe
  • feeling distressed, tearful or down
  • experiencing panic, breathlessness or heart palpitations
  • having frequent headaches, muscle aches or fatigue
  • feeling unable to attend university or attempt to do academic work
  • noticing that you are sleeping or eating much less or much more than usual
  • struggling to look after yourself physically (e.g. washing and dressing)
  • feeling uninterested or unable to enjoy things you used to care about
  • feeling hopeless or that everything is pointless or meaningless
  • experiencing racing thoughts, confusion or disorientation
  • behaving in ways which might be physically, sexually, or financially risky 
  • feeling that it would be better if you were no longer around, thinking about harming yourself or ending your life

Ultimately though, there are no right or wrong answers about seeking support for your mental health and wellbeing. It is your decision whether to seek support or not, but we would encourage you to challenge any worries that might be preventing you from doing this. We want you to enjoy your PhD and for you to do research that you are proud of – for this to be possible, you need to feel supported. There are lots of support services available to you at Sussex and in the wider community, so please do not hesitate to reach out for assistance.

Useful Links

Support services at Sussex for doctoral researchers: http://www.sussex.ac.uk/internal/doctoralschool/wellbeing

 More about the Understanding the Mental Health of Doctoral Researchers project: http://www.sussex.ac.uk/internal/doctoralschool/wellbeing/mentalhealth

 A-Z of mental health (Mind): https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/a-z-mental-health/

 

Doctoral School

E: doctoralschool@sussex.ac.uk
T: 00 44 (0)1273 87 7767