Advice and tips, My Experiences, The PhD process

Dear PhD Student – Why the doctoral research process may be hurting your mental well-being

This post is aimed at any PhD students; perspective, current or graduated. I was reading an article the other day which states that 1 in 2 students will experience some kind of psychological distress during the PhD process (although from my own observations I’m surprised this isn’t higher).

But feeling mentally drained and unwell isn’t your own fault. In my opinion, the current PhD process is full of different factors that can contribute towards poor mental well-being. Below I outline the reasons I believe the PhD process to have such a negative impact on mental well-being, based upon my own experiences and observations.

Under pressure

First of all there’s pressure, lots of pressure. Throughout the PhD journey you are expected to cope with pressures that would be overwhelming for anyone. When you aren’t working on that conference paper, you are running yourself into the ground to meet the internal stage deadlines set by your supervisor. The pressure of having to deliver results can dominate your life, leading to a loss of sleep and self care time. When I was completing my research it was just accepted that PhD students are put under significant pressure and this is simply the way it is. The current ‘accepted norm’ of a constant three years of pressure can definitely contribute to bad mental well-being, especially when paired with any of the other factors mentioned below. 

Imposter syndrome and social comparison

I spent most of my PhD journey feeling like an imposter. I felt like I didn’t fit in and I just wasn’t good enough to get a PhD (spoiler: I was good enough and I did get one in the end). Feelings of imposter syndrome seem to be common and I talked to many other students who felt the same way that I did. Talking to others actually made me start to question if anyone ever truly ‘fits in’. Whilst struggling at times during my PhD, I would look around at others who appear to be breezing through the process. As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, comparison is the thief of happiness. Social comparison is a completely natural and sometimes unavoidable thing to do but it can lead to negative effects on your mental well-being. 

Looking back after completing my PhD, there are a couple of reasons why comparing myself to others was never going to be beneficial. Firstly, I was comparing myself to my own perceptions of my fellow research students. To me they appeared to be doing fine, but I would find out later on that they weren’t doing as well as I thought they were. They struggled too at times the same way I did. From my own observations, I feel that there’s a stigma around admitting you are struggling as a PhD student. Some feel that to talk about struggling is like admitting weakness and this stops research students sharing these worries with each other. Secondly, each PhD journey is a deeply personal thing to each student and it can vary depending on their research area, supervisor and environment. Because of this, it was never useful to compare myself to others. It would be like comparing the process of training to be a teacher and training to be a vet; similar in some aspects, but so very different in others. 


Getting a PhD can feel like a lonely process, and for me it did most of the time. These feelings of loneliness can definitely affect your mental well-being. Although I worked in an office some days with about eight other people, at times I couldn’t have felt more lonely. Alongside this loneliness, some students may feel a lack of support available to them, which can have a further negative impact on their mental well-being. Some may feel that talking to their supervisor about mental well-being is a no go area; I myself only talked to my supervisor when I absolutely had to. I think this circles back around to feelings of not wanting to appear weak. Your supervisors are amazing at conducting research and analysing results, but they may not be trained in how to support you with the mental aspects of the process. Because of this it may appear tough to find support within the academic environment when you are struggling.

Fear of failure

Finally, during a PhD you are highly likely to experience some type of failure and rejection (unless you are super super lucky). For some it can happen on a daily basis, maybe you had a conference paper rejected or you didn’t get the study results you were expecting. This failure and rejection can definitely have a negative effect on your mental well-being, especially in the cases where multiple rejections happen at the same time (believe me, I had a few days of this throughout my PhD journey).

I hope that this post isn’t disheartening, there’s no doubt that the PhD process is a tough one. I guess in a way I’m writing what I wish I had heard a few years ago. I just wanted to highlight some of the issues I found with the process to ensure any PhD researchers out there that you are doing a great job, and if your mental well-being is struggling at times then it is totally understandable given the circumstances.

If you are struggling, I would suggest talking to someone you can trust about how you are feeling and working through things together; whether this be a personal friend or a trained professional. As a follow up to this post I will be sharing some tips and advice based on my own PhD experience which I hope may help some of you out there.

Are there any other elements of the PhD process which you feel can impact mental well-being? Feel free to share below

Advice and tips

Looking after your mental health during university

Last week, thousands of young people received their A-level results. For some, they may have chosen to further their studies by completing a university degree. For me, going to university as an undergraduate student was the most life changing period of my life (to date). In addition to the knowledge I gained from the course, I personally learnt a lot more about myself and how I tick. This sounds weird, but up to this point I had never took the time to think about me, I had been focused on the schooling system and spent most of my time with my head in a book. The freedom that occurred at this stage in my life was liberating but also suffocating. I was free to do what I wanted with my future, but the struggles I was having with my own mental health limited what I felt I could achieve.

As many say, hindsight is a beautiful thing. As a fresh-faced university student, I never gave two thoughts to my mental health. Recent research has shown that over 15,000 first-year university students struggle with their mental health every year (Source here). I didn’t even consider that mental health was something that a person could struggle with. It’s only when I reflect upon it now, with the mental health knowledge I’ve gained, that I realise how much I struggled at that time.

I thought in this post I thought I could offer some advice that I would’ve given to my eighteen year old self, in the hope that it may be useful to others. This is simply my own opinions and advice based upon my own experiences as a student. I have included a list of useful sources for students and their mental health provided by charities at the end of this post.

Whatever you do, don’t ignore it.

I am guilty of this, although in my case it was due to my own naivety. When I was an undergraduate I knew my mental health was taking a hit but I chose to ignore it in the hope that it would fix itself in time. This may work for some, but it definitely wasn’t the case for me. I always ponder what I may have done differently if I had addressed and cared for my mental health a little better than I did. Be proactive, try to learn about mental health and keep an eye on your own.

Look into what facilities there are at your university.

It’s no secret that facilities to help with mental health are few and far between within university environments. I could write a whole other post about this, but this article sums it up. But although facilities are stretched, they are available. In my undergraduate degree I wasn’t even aware what help was available and it wasn’t widely advertised. 

Make sure to check out what help is available at your university because you may be surprised. A little further down the line whilst completing my PhD studies I found out that my university offered free counselling sessions for students. I am forever grateful for finding this resource and the sessions helped my mental health through a really tough point. 

Don’t be so hard on yourself

The transition from school to university student is a tough one, so you should cut yourself some slack. For those struggling with their mental health it can be even more challenging, so be sure to focus on all the things you accomplish each day. It may sound like nothing, but you should feel proud of the things you achieve. Went to a lecture? Amazing. Washed all your washing without the colours running? Even better. 

There will be challenges during your university journey and you may sometimes experience knock backs, both academically and non-academically. If knock backs happen, take time out to analyse the situation and be kind to yourself. Hate to include a clique but ‘Talk to yourself like you would someone you love’. For example telling yourself that you are a loser and you’re rubbish at getting up in time for those 9am lectures probably won’t have a benefit on your mental health.

It’s okay to take a break

Taking a breather is not failing. Recognising when you need to stop is a good and brave thing to do. In my undergraduate I never did this and eventually I burnt out. Whatever you do, don’t feel guilty for putting life on hold for a little while so you can work on yourself. Your own mental health needs to come first. If you have good mental health, the other parts of your life may also start to fall into place a little easier.

Also, you may meet people who don’t regard mental health issues as actual real life problems and may act towards you in a negative way.  Ignore these people. In response to my own issues I’ve been told to ‘man up’ and ‘have a hot beverage to calm myself down’ before now. Surprisingly, neither of these words of wisdom helped me at all. But now I do wonder what would happen if I had a manly hot beverage? 

It’s not you, it’s them 

People act the way they do for their own reasons that you may never understand. Everyone has their own struggles in life and we all have bad days. If a person acts in a harsh or nasty manner to you, try not to take it personally. Don’t let the nasty manners and behaviours of others have a negative effect on your mental health. Try to develop methods of responding to these types of behaviour in a way that is best for you and your mental health.

Focus on being the best version of yourself 

To me, this is probably the advice I most wish I’d taken. When I say the best version of yourself, I don’t mean pushing yourself to get washboard abs or studying day and night to get 100% on a test. I think what I mean is try to be the most ‘peaceful’ version of yourself. This can refer to many aspects of your life, such as relationships, health or academically. Reflecting upon when I was an undergrad, I didn’t surround myself with people that made me feel happy within myself and I believe this didn’t help me mentally. The university culture of drinking and partying can also take a toll on your mental health. I didn’t care for or look after my body, I wish I had been a little more active and had partied a little less (although you still need to have fun, but I was excessive in my approach).

My main advice is if you don’t feel okay, remember that you are not alone and there are people you can talk to. It is okay not to feel okay, nobody is okay one hundred percent of the time no matter how they may appear. 

I hope this post hasn’t made university appear in a negative light to any of you. Going to university is such a life-changing period of an individual’s life and you should go out and enjoy every minute of it. Just remember to check in with your mental health every so often 🙂

I did finish my undergraduate degree in the end, I’m in there somewhere….

Just to finish, here is a list of really good student mental health resources I found if anyone requires them: – A useful guide to student mental health provided by the charity ‘Mind’ – information regarding many aspects of student life from the charity ‘Student Mind’. There is also a wide range of useful information I wish I had access to when I was eighteen on their website. – Article on student mental health