As Lisa Bayliss-Pratt, Coventry University Pro-Vice-Chancellor Health and Wellbeing, noted in her recent flyer on University Mental Health Day (4 March 2021), “It has never been more important to get everyone in our communities talking about mental health”. My Blog is another opportunity to do just that, with a focus on the mental health of postgraduate researchers (or PGRs, as we now commonly refer to them) and suggested self-help strategies for managing their wellbeing.
Unpacking the notion of wellbeing
The notion of ‘wellbeing’ is still somewhat hazy to many PGRs and, in fact, its precise definition remains heavily debated also in relevant literature (Schmidt and Hansson, 2018). That said, the term is generally understood as an overall state of wellness or happiness rather than just the absence of physical illness or infirmity. Wellbeing is thought to emerge from the comfort of a balanced and fulfilling life across many dimensions. These dimensions include: our physical state of health; an emotional or mental dimension, based on our ability to cope with the slings and arrows of daily living and how we feel about ourselves; our social need to connect with and be accepted by others; a spiritual or faith dimension, to help us find meaning and purpose in life; an intellectual dimension, to expand our understanding of the world around us; and a financial dimension, to make us feel secure.
During their doctorate PGRs are likely to face a variety of challenges across several of the above dimensions that may affect their mental health and wellbeing. Especially during the testing times of the ongoing pandemic, these challenges are compounded by additional difficulties. Managing the relationship with supervisors and managing their time effectively to produce a solid PhD thesis by deadline are obvious examples. But there is more. Often PGRs are under financial pressures, forcing them to do some part-time work alongside their studies (or even full-time work for those enrolled on part-time PhDs), in addition to having to deal with issues ranging from dealing with logistical problems to trying to form or maintain personal relationships at a time in their life when many of them are still developing a sense of self. For PGRs coming from other countries, these challenges are augmented by adaptation issues such as homesickness, culture shock, and the distress of having to adjust to life in a different country and academic community. Given these challenges, it should not be surprising that at some point of their doctoral journey, many PGRs experience wellbeing difficulties, particularly in terms of high stress levels (see, among others, Kernan et al., 2011; Wyatt and Oswalt, 2013) and mental health concerns (see, inter alia, Pallos et al., 2005; Hyun et al., 2006). Students’ financial concerns have also been found to be associated with mental health outcomes (e.g., McCloud and Bann, 2019). In addition to pressures around finance, disruption to the research programme and future employment prospects, sickness and additional caring responsibilities, can form particularly problematic issues for many PGRs.
The further impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on PGRs’ wellbeing
It goes without saying that lockdowns, social distancing measures, and other restrictions related to the Covid-19 pandemic, including restrictions on travel and the even more uncertain job prospects given the increasingly recessive state of the economy, have amplified the above-mentioned concerns for PGRs. Not to mention the added strains of personal grief, further isolation and the impact of technology on mental wellbeing. The upside is that despite its devasting effects, the pandemic has raised public interest on matters of mental health and wellbeing, also within government agencies, first and foremost the UK Council for Graduate Education (UKCGE), the leading independent representative body for postgraduate (PG) education in the UK.
UKGCE recently published the report “Doctoral degrees and the potential impact of Covid-19 on current postgraduate researchers: what are the significant considerations?” The report offers valuable guidance on key issues that all stakeholders need to consider as they seek to maintain the quality and standards of postgraduate research degrees across the UK during the pandemic. Nevertheless, UKGCE leaves it to the responsibility of autonomous Higher Education (HE) providers to consider the issues set out in the report and formulate their own response. The guidance is part of a suite of UKCGE resources developed in support of PG provision during the Covid-19 pandemic. Of course, doctoral candidates are not a homogenous group, and the report recognises that each individual will be affected by the pandemic in a different way, and with more or less severity. Accordingly, the report advises that institutional support must take account of the different impacts of the pandemic in relation to, for example, discipline, nature of doctorate, funding source, year of study, life stage, personal background and ethnicity, and carer responsibility and other commitments.
Unavoidably, we all, PGRs included, have days when we feel a bit down, a little worried about the progress of our research or not at our best. This should not cause concern. That said, prolonged periods of low mood and self-esteem, of feeling anxious, lonely or sad, overly worried or stressed, especially if such states of mind are impacting your day-to-day ability to function, should not be ignored. They are signs that something is not right, and you should immediately seek professional advice. I should be clear and explicit in stating that I am not in the health care profession and, therefore, I am not qualified to give medical advice on mental health, but my homespun philosophy, life experience and my reading of relevant specialised literature, makes me say with confidence that you should not suffer in silence! Do not be embarrassed in needing or seeking professional help. Start by talking to your GP and then tap into the services and resources available within the university.
As observed above, while it has been widely acknowledged that the Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated mental health problems globally, reassuringly, it is also brought the importance of mental wellbeing to the forefront, helping many organisations, including UK universities, to build a better understandings of the issues involved and explore new ways to support each other. Indeed, universities are increasingly making student mental health a strategic priority, encouraged by the recent Universities UK framework. Coventry University, for example, has launched a series of excellent initiatives – part of a wider and ongoing ‘Connections Matter’ campaign (for Coventry University staff and students, a myriad of useful resources can be accessed at: https://livecoventryac.sharepoint.com/sites/staff-connections-matter/SitePages/mental-health-and-wellbeing.aspx), including a ‘University Mental Health Day’ and a ‘Time to Talk Day’. The latter is an annual event aimed at encouraging open conversations about mental health and wellbeing, at breaking down barriers to help put an end to mental health discrimination, and at highlighting how even small things such a virtual message to a peer or a socially distanced ‘walk and talk’ can have the power to make a difference.
Most if not all UK universities now have a ‘Counselling Service’ that offers a range of free and confidential services available to all students not just PGRs (in addition to staff), including seminars and online self-help applications. Your ‘Student Services’ should be able to point you in the right direction as to the specialist support that is available to you within the university and/or locally.
Self-help strategies for managing your wellbeing
Notwithstanding the need to ensure you look for specialist help when you need it, you should also take the initiative in prioritising self-care to manage any stress more effectively and take control of your wellbeing while doing your doctorate. I provide below a non-exhaustive list of strategies that have often been found to be of considerable help:
- Staying connected. We are social beings and regular contact with family, friends and peers, is of paramount importance for our wellbeing. So, to avoid isolation, schedule regular catchups, in person (social distancing measures permitting) or online with them, as something to look forward to every week. Study groups or reading circles, even if in virtual form during the current times, can provide additional and/or alternative ‘spaces’ for socialisation while offering further opportunities to bounce off ideas and share experiences with other PGRs.
- Keeping active, plays a crucial role in both our physical and mental wellbeing. Sports and exercise are not only a great way to stay healthy, they can help you take your mind off study when you need a break, improve your mood and maintain motivation. Every university provides a myriad of opportunities to join different sports clubs or societies and there is usually something for everyone. During lockdowns or social distancing regimes, if gyms are out of bounds, go for a run, or a walk at least, daily. In essence, try to keep fit, since it will also help your studies.
- Scheduling time to relax. Working day in, day out on the PhD for very long hours is simply not sustainable. It will drain you of both physical and mental energy, slow you down in fact, and be deleterious to your health. To be productive you need to maintain balance in your life by incorporating into your daily schedule other activities that you enjoy and help you relax. Do a virtual yoga class, bake a cake, watch a movie, play your favourite musical instrument, whatever you enjoy doing, something that makes you feel good, including plenty of rest. Make such activities become your healthy routines.
- Learning to manage your time effectively. Effective time-management not only helps you visualise and achieve your goals, it also reduces stress and can help you keep a healthy work-life balance thus making your research path pleasanter. There is already plenty of good advice on the web that I won’t repeat here on effective strategies to better manage your time, ranging from using ‘to do lists’ to keeping ‘a schedule’. Of course, unpredictable delays, unforeseen setbacks, and stress itself, are an unavoidable part of life. Hence, learn to be kind to yourself by both accepting the things you cannot do anything about and planning fun activities to reward yourself while pushing ahead with work.
- Developing self-awareness of your wellbeing. Learning to recognise the early signs of starting to feel a little out of kilter, is also very important. So, make time to educate yourself on health and wellbeing issues by reading relevant literature, visiting the relevant university webpages, and attending related virtual events and activities. Most universities’ websites offer many useful online resources, including helpful guidance around physical health, mental and emotional health, eating well, sexual health, alcohol and drugs, and safety.
Inevitably, throughout your doctoral journey, you will experience moments of confusion, internal conflict, loneliness, and go through a rollercoaster of emotions. It is important that you know from the start of your doctorate that this is not abnormal, especially when acknowledging the additional challenges brought about by the current pandemic and related social distancing measures, and their potential impact on your mental wellbeing. Most importantly, remember that although a large part of your doctorate is based on independent study and self-regulated learning, you are not alone! Don’t refrain from looking for help when you feel you may need it, and make sure you prioritise your mental health and wellbeing. This is an essential skill to be gained as part of your experience at university that will be indispensable throughout the rest of your life and career.
Hyun, J.K., Quinn, B.C., Madon, T., Lustig, S. (2006) Graduate student mental health: Needs assessment and utilization of counseling services. Journal of College Student Development, 47(3), pp. 247-266.
Kernan, W., Bogart, J., Wheat, M.E. (2011) Health-related barriers to learning among graduate students. Health Education, 111(5), pp. 425-445.
McCloud, T., Bann, D. (2019) Financial stress and mental health among higher education students in the UK up to 2018: Rapid review of evidence. Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, DOI: 10.1136/jech-2019-212154.
Pallos, H., Yamada, N., Okawa, M. (2005) Graduate student blues: The situation in Japan. Journal of College Student Psychotherapy, 20(2), pp. 5-15.
Schmidt, M., Hansson, E. (2018) Doctoral students’ well-being: A literature review. International Journal of Qualitative Studies on Health and Well-being, 13(1), pp. 1-14.
Wyatt, T., Oswalt, S.B. (2013) Comparing mental health issues among undergraduate and graduate students. American Journal of Health Education, 44(2), pp. 96-107.