Meet the Expert
Dr. Luke Allen
Aug 09, 2023
It’s no secret that getting your PhD can be stressful. In fact, one study showed that more than 40% of PhD students surveyed struggled with their mental health while getting their degree. Struggling with your mental health could mean dealing with anxiety that keeps you up the night before a large exam, feeling less excited about a dissertation topic you used to love, or experiencing a general sense of unease or sadness. No matter what you’re feeling, it’s important to know you’re not alone, and there are accessible, meaningful ways to overcome mental health challenges.
This guide examines the most common mental health problems that PhD students face and describes how to recognize the mental and physical symptoms of such problems. You’ll learn the specific circumstances that make PhD students more vulnerable to mental health issues and how to manage you own mental health struggles. You’ll also receive actionable tips and the vital resources you need to feel calm and more at ease while completing your PhD.
Mental Health Challenges of PhD Students
From anxiety to disordered eating, mental health challenges manifest in PhD students in different ways. These challenges can get in the way of studying, working on your research projects, and meaningfully connecting with your professors and classmates. Knowing the most common conditions and their symptoms is the first step to ensuring they don’t disrupt your daily life.
Under Pressure as a PhD Student
From defending your thesis, being a teaching assistant for an undergraduate course, and applying for summer research opportunities, you’re juggling a lot, and with a wide variety of responsibilities comes a lot of pressure. This pressure can contribute to mental health issues as it raises stress levels, disrupts emotional well-being, and can attack your confidence. To help you better tackle the pressures of being a PhD student, here’s some solutions to the most common stressors for PhD students.
Pro-Level Mental Health Management
You’re now familiar with some common conditions and stressors for PhD students, but what about solutions? Thankfully, there are some pro-level mental health practices you can implement today. These include both self-care moves and getting additional support if you need it.
Elevated Self Care
- Exercise and movement: Moving your body isn’t just good for your physical health, it can also improve your mental health because it generates feel-good endorphins that boost your mood. Exercise doesn’t have to be a hardcore CrossFit workout, though it could be. Moving your body could also include going for a walk around campus while listening to a good audiobook or while brainstorming ideas for your next research paper if you’re short on time.
- Mindfulness practices: Sometimes we feel negative emotions because our minds are stuck in the past or the future. Mindfulness practices ground us in the present and remind us that we are doing a good job at breathing, surviving, and even thriving. Try a free meditation video or breathwork exercise from YouTube, journal your thoughts, or try to mindfully eat your next meal.
- Healthy diet: Speaking of your next meal, why not make it flavorful and nutritious? Food is your fuel, so make sure you’re adding the right type to your engine. When you eat healthier, you are better able to focus, you feel better, and you can work for longer periods of time. If you’re short on time, try meal prepping a couple healthy lunches each Sunday.
- Sleep prioritization: Getting those Zzzs should be just as important as getting those As. If you find it tricky to get to sleep on time, set a timer for bedtime, –and try to get as close to eight hours as you can. You can also try out a sleep meditation or white noise app if you have trouble falling asleep once you’re in bed.
- Listen to your body: While self-care advice is great, you need to know what works for you. By listening to your body, you can rest when needed, feed it the type of food it craves, and take breaks whenever necessary. Meditation and journaling are two great ways to connect with your inner self and learn what your body needs.
Pro-Level Care for High-Level Challenges
- Therapy or counseling: If the self-care ideas aren’t resonating with you or you need additional support, consider therapy or counseling. Many campuses have free therapy options available to students. Your university may even have a variety of options, such as in-person therapy, teletherapy, or free access to a mental health app which allows you to customize the experience to your preferences and time constraints.
- Psychiatric care: If therapy isn’t working or you feel like you need a more robust solution, consider psychiatric care. You can opt to see a psychiatrist, do a group therapy program at an outpatient center, or spend some time in an inpatient center. Your mental health must come first, and seeking out psychiatric care is a courageous and crucial step to make sure it remains a priority.
- Medication if needed: If you’re working with a psychiatrist, they may recommend medication to control a diagnosable condition, such as anxiety or bipolar disorder. Medication is an effective, safe option which has helped millions of people feel more at peace in their everyday lives.
Mental Health Resources for Doctoral Students
If you are interested in getting extra support, there are free and low-cost resources available to you. As a PhD student, you can access on-campus resources, online resources, national resources, and state & local resources. We’ve compiled a list of examples for each type of resource.
- Barnes Center at the Arc – Syracuse University’s health center has a variety of mental health resources available to PhD students enrolled at their school, including free counseling sessions and support groups.
- UCLA Substance Abuse Center – If you’re suffering from substance addiction and are attending a University of California school, consider the free counseling from the substance abuse center at UCLA.
- Dissertation Support Group – Any PhD student at University Nebraska-Lincoln can join the dissertation support group if they feel stressed over their dissertation or are looking for accountability.
- PhD Student Support – The University of Pennsylvania has a center devoted entirely to support for PhD students, including both academic and mental health resources
- Graduate Student Counseling – The University of Indiana’s Bloomington campus has counselors with specific training in helping graduate students. All PhD students enrolled at the university can use their counseling and other resources.
- BetterHelp – As an online therapy app, BetterHelp provides low-cost therapy in a virtual format. It has partnered with universities across the country to provide students with their service for free.
- Calm – Similar to BetterHelp, Calm provides mindfulness-based mental health solutions. The app includes meditation videos, affirmations, and more.
- Free Breathwork Introduction – If you’re looking to practice mindfulness, this breathing routine by mindfulness expert Wim Hof is a great place to start.
- Meditation for Students – Want to start meditating? Check out this free meditation designed specifically for students.
- Self-compassion Quiz – Dr. Kristen Neff, an expert in self-compassion, created this free quiz to help people learn where in their life they need to show themselves more compassion.
- Crisis Hotline – If you’re experiencing a mental health crisis, call 988. Experts who work at the crisis hotline can provide relief in the moment and connect you with local resources for continued support.
- National Council for Mental Wellbeing – The National Council for Mental Wellbeing has a variety of helpful articles, tools, and resources for those looking to improve their mental health.
- Society of Behavioral Medicine – This national group creates mental health resources available for free, including a guide to behavioral medicine and self care for graduate students.
- The Anti-Burnout Club – Along with organizing events around the country, this national nonprofit also offers free guides to beat burnout, including a free 30-day challenge for mental wellness.
- MentalHealth.gov – This federally funded website offers free mental health resources and guidance on what mental health services your health insurance covers.
State & Local Resources
- California Mental Health Programs – California has some of the most robust state-funded mental health programs in the country, including a search engine that can match you with local counselors who accept your health insurance.
- CopeCode Club – This Boston-based group offers coping mechanisms, online resources, and in-person meetups for adults in their 20s or early 30s who are experiencing mental health challenges.
- NYC Well – This state-funded organization helps those in New York City connect to local counseling options and other mental health resources.
- Appalachian Community Center – This nonprofit’s free telehealth groups are designed for those who live in Appalachia, a traditionally underserved part of the country.
- Texas Mental Health Services – The Texas state government offers a variety of mental health resources, including a search engine to find counselors and support groups in local Texas communities.
Interview with a Mental Health Expert
Dr. Luke Allen (he/him/his) is a licensed psychologist in Oregon and Nevada in full-time telehealth private practice and has over three years of experience working in university and college counseling centers, most recently at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He has supervised graduate students in a training capacity since 2018 and continues to support graduate students in individual therapy. Dr. Allen specializes in college student mental health, treating anxiety and depression, as well as working with transgender and non-binary youth and their families on matters related to gender identity. Dr. Allen is also a WPATH Standards of Care 7 (SOC7) Certified Member and a WPATH SOC7 Certified Mentor and a co-author of the Standards of Care for the Health of Transgender and Gender Diverse People, Version 8.
Q: What are the first warning signs that a PhD student might want to devote more time to their mental health?
A: First, it is important to recognize that graduate school, especially a doctoral program, is not easy. Often students who are choosing to complete a doctoral program also have to work part time for low pay, be a full-time student, and then, depending on their field, they may feel like they have to engage in a lot of extra work (e.g., additional publishing or holding leadership roles) on top of that to be competitive for employment. It is hard enough to do those things on their own, and then incredible if that person also is trying to maintain a family or other romantic relationships, while also having time for self-care (e.g., sleep, exercise, and hobbies). Graduate school and all the other responsibilities students have can be the perfect storm for creating stress. Some of the first warning signs that students may want to devote more time to their mental health are if they begin to sacrifice getting good sleep or if anger, anxiety, or stress begin to manifest itself in their interpersonal relationships.
Q: What are your favorite self-care strategies for PhD students?
A: Sleep, exercise, and spending time in quality relationships cannot be underestimated. Focusing on improving sleep, exercising, and spending time in quality relationships (with family, friends, and people we care about), are likely to be the areas where will see the biggest return on investment with regard to mental health. Getting good sleep, exercise, and spending time in quality relationships will not solve everything, but you’ll likely be better off than you would be otherwise.
Q: How can PhD students prioritize their mental health, even with a busy schedule and stress to do well academically?
A: It may not actually always be possible to prioritize mental health while also prioritizing academics, work, and interpersonal relationships (not to mention sleep and exercise). Graduate school, depending on the intensity of your program, work obligations, and career aspirations, may be a time where you have to make a lot of sacrifices (e.g., sacrificing time spent in hobbies or time with friends). At a fundamental level, students can prioritize their mental health by establishing concrete sleep and exercise routines as well as improving time management and organization skills.
Most university have a lot of sources of support available to graduate students too, including the university counseling center (which often offers free or low-cost counseling services), the university’s career center (which often can help with things like mock interviews and how to network or find mentors), and the university’s academic success center (e.g., often providing coaching on procrastination, time management, etc).
Q: How can PhD students overcome imposter syndrome?
A: PhD students might not actually need to “overcome” imposter syndrome. You’d be surprised how common imposter syndrome is, even among PhD graduates. The important question may be “Can you feel like you don’t know as much as your peers and at the same time, do the readings, do the work, and show up to classes?” If the answer is yes, then maybe you’ll end up being a doctor with imposter syndrome, but you’ll be a doctor and reach your goals nonetheless. And you’ll have earned it. If you find that imposter syndrome or anxiety makes it harder to participate in classes or other opportunities, then that may be a sign that you could benefit from talking to a mental health professional.
Q: What is one aspect of mental health that PhD students often overlook?
A: I know I am repetitive here, but students often overlook the importance of good sleep, regular exercise, and engaging in hobbies or spending time with people they care about. These have tremendous effects on mental health. It’s also not always easy to know how to navigate big milestones in your education (e.g., dissertation, applying for internships, residency, or post-doctoral opportunities). Finding a good mentor can help with navigating the stressors of graduate school and, indirectly, support mental health. It is important to know that the difficulties of graduate school are not permanent. It’s temporary, and presumably, you’ll not always feel as overworked as you may now.