Managing While and Post-PhD Depression And Anxiety: PhD Student Survival Guide

Embarking on a PhD journey can be as challenging mentally as it is academically. With rising concerns about depression among PhD students, it’s essential to proactively address this issue. How to you manage, and combat depression during and after your PhD journey?

In this post, we explore the practical strategies to combat depression while pursuing doctoral studies.

From engaging in enriching activities outside academia to finding supportive networks, we describe a variety of approaches to help maintain mental well-being, ensuring that the journey towards academic excellence doesn’t come at the cost of your mental health.

How To Manage While and Post-Phd Depression

Engage With Activities Outside Academia– Participate in sports, arts, or social gatherings.  
– Temporarily remove the weight of your studies from your mind.
Seek A Supportive Mentor– Find a mentor who is encouraging and positive.
– Look for a ‘yes and’ approach to boost morale.
Stay Active Physically– Regular exercise like walking, swimming, gym combats depression
– Improves mood and overall wellbeing.
Seek Positive Environment– Choose a graduate program that fosters community.
– Ensure open discussion and support for mental health.
– Select a university with the right support system.
Remember You Have The Power– Understand your choices in the PhD journey.
– Consider deferment, pause, or quitting if needed.

Why PhD Students Are More Likely To Experience Depression Than Other Students

The journey of a PhD student is often romanticised as one of intellectual rigour and eventual triumph.

However, beneath this veneer lies a stark reality: PhD students are notably more susceptible to experiencing depression and anxiety.

This can be unfortunately, quite normal in many PhD students’ journey, for several reasons:

Grinding Away, Alone

Imagine being a graduate student, where your day-to-day life is deeply entrenched in research activities. The pressure to consistently produce results and maintain productivity can be overwhelming. 

For many, this translates into long hours of isolation, chipping away at one’s sense of wellbeing. The lack of social support, coupled with the solitary nature of research, often leads to feelings of isolation.

Mentors Not Helping Much

The relationship with a mentor can significantly affect depression levels among doctoral researchers. An overly critical mentor or one lacking in supportive guidance can exacerbate feelings of imposter syndrome.

Students often find themselves questioning their capabilities, feeling like they don’t belong in their research areas despite their achievements.

Nature Of Research Itself

Another critical factor is the nature of the research itself. Students in life sciences, for example, may deal with additional stressors unique to their field.

Specific aspects of research, such as the unpredictability of experiments or the ethical dilemmas inherent in some studies, can further contribute to anxiety and depression among PhD students.

Competition Within Grad School

Grad school’s competitive environment also plays a role. PhD students are constantly comparing their progress with peers, which can lead to a mental health crisis if they perceive themselves as falling behind.

This sense of constant competition, coupled with the fear of failure and the stigma around mental health, makes many hesitant to seek help for anxiety or depression.

How To Know If You Are Suffering From Depression While Studying PhD?

If there is one thing about depression, you often do not realise it creeping in. The unique pressures of grad school can subtly transform normal stress into something more insidious.

As a PhD student in academia, you’re often expected to maintain high productivity and engage deeply in your research activities. However, this intense focus can lead to isolation, a key factor contributing to depression and anxiety among doctoral students.

Changes in Emotional And Mental State

You might start noticing changes in your emotional and mental state. Feelings of imposter syndrome, where you constantly doubt your abilities despite evident successes, become frequent.

This is especially true in competitive environments like the Ivy League universities, where the bar is set high. These feelings are often exacerbated by the lack of positive reinforcement from mentors, making you feel like you don’t quite belong, no matter how hard you work.

Lack Of Pleasure From Previously Enjoyable Activities

In doctoral programs, the stressor of overwork is common, but when it leads to a consistent lack of interest or pleasure in activities you once enjoyed, it’s a red flag. This decline in enjoyment extends beyond one’s research and can pervade all aspects of life.

The high rates of depression among PhD students are alarming, yet many continue to suffer in silence, afraid to ask for help or reveal their depression due to the stigma associated with mental health issues in academia.

Losing Social Connections

Another sign is the deterioration of social connections. Graduate student mental health is significantly affected by social support and isolation.

You may find yourself withdrawing from friends and activities, preferring the solitude that ironically feeds into your sense of isolation.

Changes In Appetite And Weight

Changes in appetite and weight can be a significant indicator of depression. As they navigate the demanding PhD study, students might experience fluctuations in their eating habits.

Some may find themselves overeating as a coping mechanism, leading to weight gain. Others might lose their appetite altogether, resulting in noticeable weight loss.

These changes are not just about food; they reflect deeper emotional and mental states.

Such shifts in appetite and weight, especially if sudden or severe, warrant attention as they may signal underlying depression, a common issue in the high-stress environment of PhD studies.

Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms

PhD students grappling with depression often feel immense pressure to excel academically while battling isolation and imposter syndrome. Lacking adequate mental health support, some turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms like substance abuse. These may include:

  • Drugs,
  • Alcohol,
  • Smoking,
  • Overeating, 
  • And many more.

These provide temporary relief from overwhelming stress and emotional turmoil. However, such methods can exacerbate their mental health issues, creating a vicious cycle of dependency and further detachment from healthier coping strategies and support systems.

It’s essential for PhD students experiencing depression to recognise these signs and seek professional help. Resources like the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline are very helpful in this regard.

Suicidal Thoughts Or Attempts

Suicidal thoughts or attempts may sound extreme, but they can happen in PhD studies. This is because of the high-pressure environment of PhD studies.

Doctoral students, often grappling with intense academic demands, social isolation, and imposter syndrome, can be susceptible to severe mental health crises.

When the burden becomes unbearable, some may experience thoughts of self-harm or suicide as a way to escape their distress. These thoughts are a stark indicator of deep psychological distress and should never be ignored.

It’s crucial for academic institutions and support networks to provide robust mental health resources and create an environment where students feel safe to seek help and discuss their struggles openly.

How To Prevent From Depression During And After Ph.D?

A PhD student’s experience is often marked by high rates of depression, a concern echoed in studies from universities like the University of California and Arizona State University. If you are embarking on a PhD journey, make sure you are aware of the issue, and develop strategies to cope with the stress, so you do not end up with depression. 

Engage With Activities Outside Academia

One effective strategy is engaging in activities outside academia. Diverse interests serve as a lifeline, breaking the monotony and stress of grad school. Some activities you can consider include:

  • Sports,
  • Arts, or
  • Social gatherings.

These activities provide a crucial balance. For instance, some students highlighted the positive impact of adopting a pet, which not only offered companionship but also a reason to step outside and engage with the world.

Seek A Supportive Mentor

The role of a supportive mentor cannot be overstated. A mentor who adopts a ‘yes and’ approach rather than being overly critical can significantly boost a doctoral researcher’s morale.

This positive reinforcement fosters a healthier research environment, essential for good mental health.

Stay Active Physically

Physical exercise is another key element. Regular exercise has been shown to help cope with symptoms of moderate to severe depression. It’s a natural stress reliever, improving mood and enhancing overall wellbeing. Any physical workout can work here, including:

  • Brisk walking
  • Swimming, or
  • Gym sessions.

Seek Positive Environment

Importantly, the graduate program environment plays a critical role. Creating a community where students feel comfortable to reveal their depression or seek help is vital.

Whether it’s through formal support groups or informal peer networks, building a sense of belonging and understanding can mitigate feelings of isolation and imposter syndrome.

This may be important, especially in the earlier stage when you look and apply to universities study PhD. When possible, talk to past students and see how are the environment, and how supportive the university is.

Choose the right university with the right support ensures you keep depression at bay, and graduate on time too.

Remember You Have The Power

Lastly, acknowledging the power of choice is empowering. Understanding that continuing with a PhD is a choice, not an obligation. If things become too bad, there is always an option to seek a deferment, pause. You can also quit your studies too.

Work on fixing your mental state, and recover from depression first, before deciding again if you want to take on Ph.D studies again. There is no point continuing to push yourself, only to expose yourself to self-harm, and even suicide.

Wrapping Up: PhD Does Not Need To Ruin You

Combating depression during PhD studies requires a holistic approach. Engaging in diverse activities, seeking supportive mentors, staying physically active, choosing positive environments, and recognising one’s power to make choices are all crucial.

These strategies collectively contribute to a healthier mental state, reducing the risk of depression. Remember, prioritising your mental well-being is just as important as academic success. This helps to ensure you having a more fulfilling and sustainable journey through your PhD studies.

The Author

Dr Andrew Stapleton has a Masters and PhD in Chemistry from the UK and Australia. He has many years of research experience and has worked as a Postdoctoral Fellow and Associate at a number of Universities. Although having secured funding for his own research, he left academia to help others with his YouTube channel all about the inner workings of academia and how to make it work for you.