Doing a PhD is hard. In fact, it may be one of the hardest things you do in your life. But should it compromise your mental health? No. Unfortunately, many graduate students struggle with mental health issues due to a culture that some say puts a sometimes unbearable-seeming amount of pressure on scholars. The good news? Recent research and news has shined a light on the phenomenon. Here’s a closer look at the problem, why it’s happening, and what can be done to reverse it. 

Shining Light on the Problem

A growing body of evidence points to the existence of a mental health crisis in graduate education. Perhaps Nature sums it up best in declaring, “There is a problem among young scientists. Too many have mental-health difficulties, and too many say that the demands of the role are partly to blame. Neither issue gets the attention it deserves.” 

Just how pervasive is the problem? According to data published in the academic journal Research Policy, half of PhD students in Belgium experience psychological distress, while a third are at risk of a common psychiatric disorder. The conclusion? “The prevalence of mental health problems is higher in PhD students than in the highly educated general population, highly educated employees and higher education students.” The data backs up Nature’s assertion that the environment is a major factor. “Work and organizational context are significant predictors of PhD students’ mental health,” say researchers. 

The problem is far from specific to Belgium, however. The plight of the PhD student is widespread. It can also be attributed to a number of factors.

Making Sense of the Phenomenon

Experts have proposed a number of reasons why PhD candidates are susceptible to mental health issues. For starters, there’s the question of whether they knew what they were getting into when they decided to enroll in a PhD program in the first place. 

Daniel K. Sokol PhD, an honorary senior lecturer in medical ethics and director of Alpha Academic Appeals, asserts in The Guardian, “Too often, however, starry-eyed students rush into a PhD program with scant knowledge of what it entails or how useful it will be in the future. The drop-out rate would be reduced, and much misery avoided, if prospective students possessed a more balanced view of the challenges, as well as the joys, of the PhD. The implication? Managing expectations at the onset would also, potentially, be a preventative measure against mental health issues.  

Addressing the Issue

The first step in fixing the problem is acknowledging it -- both on a cultural level and on a personal level. As evidence about the problem has continued to grow, it is incumbent on universities and PhD programs to step up their efforts to support students. A few potential strategies proposed by Scientific American include multiple advisors weighing in on degree timelines to avoid exploitation by a single professor; streamlined graduation criteria across departments to ensure reasonable workloads and transparent degree requirements; and increased funding for graduate student mental health services and subsidized housing. 

But PhD students can also take steps to safeguard their mental health by embracing wellness strategies, including the following:

  • Build downtime into your calendar.

From classes to advisor meetings, certain things are scheduled firmly into the typical PhD student’s calendar. However, many PhD students forget to schedule in a critical self-care activity: downtime. No one can live life always on the go. Scheduling time off for a hobby, exercise, or coffee date with a friend -- perhaps where you restrict the amount of time you “talk shop” -- can go a long way toward mitigating PhD pressure.

  • Touch base with family and friends.

Personal support networks are essential to our health and happiness. Making time to talk to loved ones is important. Plus, when you’re caught up in the PhD grind and surrounded by other PhD students in the same situation, family and friends may offer an outside perspective that helps you find balance. 

  • Practice mindfulness.

When was the last time you paused and thought about how you feel? Have you experienced any changes in mood or energy levels? Are you getting enough sleep? Have you become withdrawn from usual activities? Small symptoms can indicate future problems. Journaling, meditation, and guided breath exercises are a few ways to check in with yourself -- and feel better in the process. Gaelle Desbordes, a neuroscientist at Harvard who studies mindfulness, practiced the process during her last year of graduate school, when her relationship with her PhD adviser was strained. She says, “It taught me to have a little bit better control over my thought process. There’s a sense of peace when we find that.” 

  • Prioritize physical health as well as mental health.

How you feel physically directly impacts how you feel mentally and emotionally. Taking care of your physical health by getting enough sleep, eating right, avoiding drugs and limiting alcohol intake, and getting regular exercise can help you stay healthy.

  • Seek help when you need it. 

Gone are the days when the issue of asking for help was seen as a sign of weakness. No one can do everything alone; nor should they. Whether you ask for help with school or you take advantage of your school’s counseling resources, seeking help is the only way to get help. 

One last thing to keep in mind if your feeling stressed while in graduate school? No PhD program last forever. Nor is it supposed to be sustainable. Reminding yourself that what you’re enduring is, temporary by nature can help you maintain a healthy perspective. PhD Dora Farkas writes of her decision to persevere despite the challenges, “In the end, I did stay in grad school and get my PhD degree, and I’ve never regretted it. In fact, of the countless people I’ve spoken to, no one has regretted completing their PhD” 

The takeaway? While everyone has doubts and regrets at some point along the way, the degree turns out to be a worthwhile undertaking for most. And now that the topic of PhD mental health is finally out in the open, you can look forward to more support along the way.