This piece was written by one of our contributors; PhD student Chloe Casey. *please note this was written by a PhD student specifically for PhD students.
The mental health and wellbeing of PhD students has been a prevalent focus in the media and sector reports in recent years and appears to be a growing concern. A recent international study by Levecque et al  of 3659 PhD students reported that they were significantly more likely to experience mental health problems compared to the general population.
However, with COVID-19 set to wreak havoc on so many PhD students’ research timelines, protecting their mental health is an even more pertinent issue. Of course, COVID-19 is affecting the productivity of everyone’s work across the globe. However, for many PhD students, their research may have come to a complete halt if they were working with patients or practitioners within the NHS, with vulnerable groups or involving research methods using face-to-face contact.
You may not have ever thought about the specific issues facing the mental wellbeing of PhD students, however, the work of PhD students makes up a large proportion of the research output of UK universities. PhD research results in technological and scientific advancements and societal benefits, therefore attrition due to stress or the development of mental health problems means that their novel research may never be completed, published or shared. For these reasons, protecting their mental health is not just in the interest of the higher education sector but the health service, industry and economy too. Although universities have many effective support provisions for student mental health, a blanket approach to all student types is not sufficient due to the unique challenges of PhD study.
This article will outline some of the issues that PhD students are likely to be facing during the pandemic and provides some practical suggestions that may help those of you who are studying for a PhD to increase productivity, relieve stress and protect your wellbeing.
PhD students were working solo before the rest of the world were working from home. A PhD can be lonely at the best of times; a full-time PhD program in the UK involves a period of 3 or more years intensely focusing on one project. Mostly, PhD students work individually on their projects, not part of research teams like other academics. Unlike undergraduate or postgraduate taught cohorts, PhD students in the UK students do have structured weekly seminars or lectures. Up to a third of PhD students are said to not feel a part of a scholarly community at all  Therefore, as you can imagine, loneliness is one of the major factors affecting the mental health of PhD students.
WHAT CAN YOU DO?
Please reach out to colleagues and peers who understand what you are going through. Researchers have trailed small peer-led mentorship interventions in PhD student groups [3,4], finding these were effective, even when delivered online ; increasing the sense of community and fostering academic engagement. So, ask for advice or support from your peers when you are struggling and check in on others too, maybe your expertise could be useful to them. If your university doesn’t have a platform for you to connect with other PhD students from your institution then why not use Facebook, Twitter or Microsoft Groups to make it happen?
PhD students have multi-faceted lives; this requires tailored support from universities. Many PhD students begin their research later in their lives and careers and often have other responsibilities such as mortgages, children, caring for elderly relatives or professional demands to balance alongside their studies.
WHAT CAN YOU DO?
Practice self-compassion and challenge any negative self-talk. Everybody is going through this together, you’re adjusting to this new situation and doing the best you can. You may be an academic who is juggling online teaching and providing support for your students, you may be home schooling your own children, you may be a clinical PhD student picking up more shifts to help the NHS or you may just have your PhD to focus on. Regardless of your situation, working from home and focusing on work in a time like this is hard and your productivity is likely to be reduced. You cannot expect to achieve what you would usually achieve in a usual week. Try to break tasks down into chunks, write a small list of things to do and set yourself manageable goals; celebrating what you have achieved that day. But don’t worry if you haven’t got everything done that you wanted to, there’s always tomorrow. Most importantly: take breaks! Phone a friend or relative, do some baking, sit in the garden or practice yoga – whatever it is that makes you feel relaxed.
Research rarely goes to plan at the best of times and is usually adapted in response to obstacles or challenges with recruitment, this can make you feel out of control, especially in this unprecedented situation. The experience of uncertainty about the future elicits the desire to regain control. Prolonged feelings of lack of control can lead to helplessness and even depression .
WHAT CAN YOU DO?
Take back the feeling of control by focusing on things that you CAN do right now, as hard as it seems. You cannot work with human participants or get into the lab in the following weeks, but you could focus on writing your introduction, literature review, methodology or formatting your thesis. It’s okay if you are finding it hard to focus but celebrate what you have managed to complete, and your future self will thank you for putting in the groundwork now!
The supervisor relationship is key to doctoral student success and wellbeing, this is the most researched aspect of the doctoral experience. The large study by Levecque et al , previously mentioned, highlighted that supervisory style were linked to PhD students’ mental health and psychological distress. They provided evidence that PhD students with supervisors who possessed an inspirational leadership style had better mental health, whereas students of supervisors who had a laissez-faire approach to leadership had significantly higher risk of experiencing psychological distress.
WHAT CAN YOU DO?
If your supervisor hasn’t already contacted you, which I hope they have, reach out and ask for the support you need during this time. I know this could be tough if you don’t have the best relationship with them but do discuss your concerns about amendments to your research timeline. Alternatively, if you need to take some time off due to your mental health in this tough period, tell them.
Try and keep up the usual frequency of your supervisory meetings virtually. Beforehand, write yourself an agenda or a list of questions you’d like to ask them so that the meetings are as structured and productive as possible. Seeing as you’re no longer bumping into academics at university you are likely to have more questions to ask them. So, make sure you do! They’re there to support you but be mindful that they may be struggling to adapt to their new ways of working too.
Planning a PhD is hard, it is a vast expanse of time with very little structure; this can be overwhelming at the start. PhD students can fall into the trap of self-sabotaging behaviours that hinder productivity. A study by Kearns et al  tried to tackle these self-sabotaging behaviours (including perfectionism, over-committing, procrastination and disorganisation) in a small-scale intervention using cognitive-behavioural coaching. The researchers found that factors such as managing time well, allocating specific times for working on PhD, sticking to these specific times, having a specific plan for writing up thesis and feeling confident in your plan were significantly reduced self-reported stress and increased self efficacy.
WHAT CAN YOU DO?
If you are in the planning or research stage of your PhD it is highly likely that you will need to adjust your study timeline considering the COVID-19 pandemic. Hopefully, your supervisors, graduate colleges and universities will be supporting you in this. Try and see this planning as an opportunity to get organised and reassess your priorities and goals. Again, focus on what you can work on while we are in this limbo, for instance that publication you’ve been putting off or revisiting your literature review.
So, if you are a PhD student, finding the project you have been cumulatively working on for many years is likely to be derailed, I offer you my condolences and hope some of the tips may help to keep you focused and on track during these uncertain times. Universities will be
considering allowances for mitigating circumstances for all PhD researchers; no student should be penalised for their progress in light of the current situation Academic support, IT support and wellbeing support should still be available to you via online services, so use these if you need help. Remember, all PhD students are going through this, although all research is different, you are experiencing similar issues and concerns as others. Please don’t suffer in silence!
(1) Levecque, K., Anseel, F., De Beuckelaer, A., Van der Heyden, J. and Gisle, L., 2017. Work organisation and mental health problems in PhD students. Research Policy, 46(4), pp.868-879.
(2) Pyhältö, K., Stubb, J. and Lonka, K., 2009. Developing scholarly communities as learning environments for doctoral students. International Journal for Academic Development, 14(3), pp.221-232.
(3) Galica, J., Bilodeau, K., Strohschein, F., Powell, T.L., Lambert, L.K. and Truant, T.L., 2018. Building and sustaining a postgraduate student network: The experience of oncology nurses in Canada. Canadian Oncology Nursing Journal, 28(4), p.288.
(4) Lewinski, A.A., Mann, T., Flores, D., Vance, A., Bettger, J.P. and Hirschey, R., 2017. Partnership for development: A peer mentorship model for PhD students. Journal of Professional Nursing, 33(5), pp.363-369.
(5) Edwards, J.A., Weary, G. and Reich, D.A., 1998. Causal uncertainty: Factor structure and relation to the big five personality factors. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 24(5), pp.451-462.
(6) Kearns, H., Gardiner, M. and Marshall, K., 2008. Innovation in PhD completion: The hardy shall succeed (and be happy!). Higher Education Research & Development, 27(1), pp.77-89.