Managing Your Mental Health During Your PhD — A Survival Guide

Copy of the book Managing your Mental Health During Your PhD - A Survival Guide by Dr Zoë J Ayres, placed at an angle on a wooden surface.

Content warning: mental health, anxiety, 
depression

I have just finished reading "Managing Your Mental Health During Your PhD — A Survival Guide" by Dr. Zoë J. Ayres, which is an important resource for PhD students and supervisors.  It is definitely a book that I wish was available when I did my own PhD and I am writing this review to help highlight why it is a useful addition to the resources we use in supporting PhD students.

Completing a doctoral research project, writing up and defending a thesis with the goal of being awarded a PhD can be a challenging undertaking and it is not unusual for a students to experience some downs (and ups) in their mental health. This was certainly my experience, where my mental health went through all of the following at different stages of the process: 

  • disorientation as I moved from industry to academia;
  • a sense of accomplishment when I presented my first paper at a workshop;
  • anxiety as I felt unsure of whether my work was good enough; 
  • confidence when my supervisors and senior academics in the field showed interest in my work and provided constructive feedback to help improve it; and
  • depression as I struggled to write up my thesis.
Even after successfully defending my thesis and being awarded my PhD, the rollercoaster of emotions continued as I was unsuccessful in my job hunt at first, before being appointed a lecturer. I was going through all this as 2nd generation graduate (although neither of my parents had PhDs), being a relatively mature student (I worked in industry for a few years), having some financial security (with sufficient savings and parental support to buy a flat to live in during my PhD), having very supportive supervisors (whose standing in my field of research gave me access to a rich international network of collaborators), and family support (I will always be grateful to my mother, who spent 2 months cooking and feeding me as I overcame my depression and finished my write up). These privileges were immensely helpful and instrumental in allowing me to get a secure job within a year of completing my PhD.  I share this to highlight that mental health difficulties can affect everyone, and also to acknowledge that not having support can greatly exacerbate the impacts on the mental health of PhD students.  

When I experienced poor mental health, one of the biggest challenges was that I didn't feel there was any help available to me - I didn't want to share my difficulties with my supervisors (partly a negative consequence of my industry experience where this would have been seen as unprofessional), I didn't seek professional help due to the stigma associated with mental illness in the Sri Lankan socio-cultural context I grew up in, and I didn't feel my family support network could help me because they didn't understand what was involved in doing research.

This is why I feel this book is a really important contribution to improving academic mental health. By writing it, Dr. Ayres provides an empathetic, authoritative and practical guide to managing mental health that is contextualised to the experience of a PhD student. The following is a summary of what is covered:
  • Part 1 - Defining the problem (Chapters 1-3): Following an introduction that helps us how to get the most from the guide, the remaining chapters in this part provides a helpful discussion about the nature of mental health and how mental health concerns have affected PhD students.
  • Part 2 - Mindset matters (Chapters 4-7): The next part guides the reader through different aspects of managing mental health at an individual level, from using self-care techniques, to recognising thoughts and behaviours that can be detrimental to good mental health. This includes advice on how to avoid getting into negative spirals, and managing the 'imposter phenomena'.
  • Part 3 - Environmental stressors (Chapters 8-11): This is an important part of the book that provides a good understanding of the things that are outside a student's direct control, but can affect mental health. This includes stressors like bias, discrimination and harassment, as well as issues like financial concerns, isolation and culture shock. It also covers how important characteristics of the student-supervisor relationship can affect students' mental health. Reading this chapter made me realise the value of students having mentors outside their supervision team - something we do at my institution by assigning a '3rd party monitor' for every student. The final chapters of this part provide a useful discussion of publication practices and the career choices beyond the PhD.
  • Part 4 - Seeking help (Chapter 12): This final chapter of the book covers a range of practical tips on how a PhD student can get started with managing their mental health. It is supplemented by a set of online resources that are available at: https://www.zjayres.com/phdresources
A helpful feature of the book is that each chapter can be read independently, which makes it ideal for dipping into as and when time allows or depending on the particular type of challenge a student is facing. The issues raised in each chapter are contextualised with examples contributed by PhD students, providing important personal accounts that make the challenges concrete. Additionally, Dr. Ayres' own lived experience of managing her mental health and advocating for improving mental health in academia helps ensure that the advice to students is delivered with empathy.

While the guide is primarily addressing students, it also provides important and useful advice to supervisors and those of us responsible for running PhD programmes in our institutions. It is definitely a resource that I will be drawing on to improve my own practice of PhD supervision and will inform my conversations with colleagues to help make the PhD experience a more positive one for our students.

An electronic edition of the book is available via institutional libraries that have a subscription to the Springer library: Ayres, Z.J. (2022) Managing your mental health during your PhD : a survival guide. Cham: Springer. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-031-14194-2.  It is also available in hardcopy from many bookshops.

Image description: Copy of the book "Managing your Mental Health During Your PhD - A Survival Guide" by Dr Zoë J Ayres, placed at an angle on a wooden surface.

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