Maintaining your mental health in academia

Tags: howtos, musings, research

Recently, there has been a figurative deluge of posts about the Ph.D. life on my various news feeds. The questions posed by many of these articles are similar: is it normal that I find my Ph.D. research so hard? Are others also feeling this sense of dread? Are they as overwhelmed as I am?

While people are generally supportive, in particular on ‘academic Twitter’, in this article, I want to discuss a few things that I deem to be missing from that discussion. More precisely, I want to talk about the ‘elephant in the room’, viz. mental health. It is estimated1 that in 2016, more than 1.1 billion (!) people worldwide suffered from a mental or substance use disorder. The most common disorder was some form of anxiety disorder, closely followed by a depressive disorder2. These numbers are astonishing on their own. Yet, if you need another reason to care, you could also adopt a rather pragmatic point of view and see these tips as a way to (further) ensure and enhance your the consistency of your performance3.

So, first of all, how bad is the situation in academia? Maybe we few, we happy few, are the lucky ones? As it turns out, this is not the case. Quite the contrary:

  • A study by Beiter et al.4 looks at the prevalence of stress, depression, and anxiety in a small (n = 374) cohort of undergraduates. 26% report at least moderate levels of stress, 25% report at least moderate levels of anxiety, and 23% report at least moderate levels of depression.
  • A study by Evans et al.5 showed that the prevalence of moderate to severe anxiety and depression among graduate students is 41% and 39%, respectively. In this cohort of 2,279 students, 90% of them were Ph.D. researchers.

These results are highly disconcerting, prompting some people to speak of a ‘mental health crisis’. The role of the academic system itself has been discussed at length, with some pundits pointing towards the ‘usual suspects’, such as an ever-increasing pressure to publish ‘high-impact’ papers, for example. See this article, as well as its follow-up, for a very detailed and open treatment of systemic improvements, such as updated administration and supervision policies.

In the following, I instead want to focus on things you can do to maintain your mental health and find more joy in your Ph.D. research. Whenever possible, I found secondary sources for my claims and suggestions.

An important disclaimer: I do not want to belittle mental disorders or those who are suffering from them. This is not one of these quack articles that tries to tell you that ‘it is all a matter of willpower’. It is an article that wants to help people maintain their mental health, not regain it. Please talk to a professional if you feel suicidal, depressed, or anxious beyond measure. Admitting that you need help is not a weakness but a strength!

Having said that, let’s discuss a few rules I find helpful.

Rule 0: It’s a marathon, not a sprint

Your Ph.D. research is supposed to add some tiny bit of new knowledge to the ever-growing corpus of human knowledge. That is a noble endeavour. Like all important things, it takes time. There is no short road to academic success. Hence, first and foremost, I suggest managing your resources. Try to keep a steady working pace rather than intense periods of ‘crunch time’ followed by bouts of dawdling and dilly-dallying.

Since this only touches our topic at the periphery, I am not going into details here. Just follow one of the slide decks from, say, critics of the gaming industry here (such as The Rules of Productivity).

Rule 1: Attitude matters

Our thoughts have a way of affecting our lives. Milton summarized this perfectly in Paradise Lost, when he wrote:

The mind is its own place, and in it self
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n

This is a poetic way of saying that, in some sense, our attitude determines how we address the challenges in life. More precisely, it is known that rumination, i.e. the focused attention on one’s distress, can exacerbate depression or prolong its duration. An extensive review of several studies6 shows multiple things:

  1. Extensive rumination can make you think more negatively—not only about the past, but also about your present and future situation.
  2. It can also make you more likely to blame yourself for any current problems you might have and nudge you towards more negatively biased and distorted interpretations of events.
  3. Moreover, rumination is associated with pathological behaviour such as anxiety7.

So it seems that negative thinking can have an adverse impact on your mental situation, thus decreasing our chances of success. But what about the opposite? The budding field of gratitude research aims to answer that question. An initial paper8 discussed the implications of having a grateful attitude, in particular with respect to social interactions. More interestingly, though, it appears to be possible to cultivate this gratitude by keeping records of gratitude-inducing events9. The events or things that you record do not have to be life-changing. It is perfectly sufficient to be grateful for experiencing, say, a nice sunset, or enjoying a coffee. The important thing appears to keep track of things so that one can revisit them later.

To me, this seems to be all the more intriguing because of the ‘hedonic treadmill’ theory, which, roughly speaking, purports that human beings return to a base state of happiness despite life changes (which may be positive or negative). Gratitude and revisiting gratitude-inducing situations appears to be an interesting way to give you a quick ‘boost’ or ‘happiness offset’.

A simple trick I can suggest here is to keep a ‘gratitude file’: just designate a folder for storing nice things that you experience. It may be a nice note of thanks from a colleagues, it may be an unexpectedly positive review by the infamous ‘Reviewer 2’, or it may be a picture of a cute puppy. Revisit this file every once in a while to remind you that not everything is as bleak as it might seem at first glance.

A word of caution: This rule does not suggest that you stop being introspective and just tell yourself that everything is awesome all the time. That would be a dangerous form of denial. Rather, try to find good things in your life and focus on them rather than dwelling too much on the bad stuff.

Rule 2: Enlist the help of others in your battles

You will have to write your own Ph.D. thesis, but that does not mean that you cannot fight alongside like-minded people. Unfortunately, the benefits of ‘venting’, i.e. talking excessively about the negative things in your life, are now known to be detrimental in many cases, such as work relationships10 or close friendships11. However, talking to someone who understands your situation while actively trying to solve a problem can be very beneficial, at least for adolescents12. This is also known as ‘co-reflection’, rather than ‘co-rumination’. Even in the worst case, a ‘circle of supporters’ can at least help you engage in other activities that give you some respite from your daily worries.

A clarification: An important aspect to consider here is that your confidants should have a rough understanding of what it means to be a researcher. I am certainly not advocating for any form of ‘ivory tower separation’ here, but unfortunately for us, the impact of having, say, a paper rejected, is often better understood by someone inside academia. Nevertheless, strive for balance in your social circles in order to remain grounded and open to new experiences.

Rule 3: Strive for an appropriate level of detachment

There are certain things in your Ph.D. life that you cannot change. For example, your experiments may not work out as desired, forcing you do redo a lot of work. While this is not pleasurable, there are no immediate advances in dwelling too much on it. Strive to be emotionally detached from these things. Obviously, you should try to learn from them as much as you can, but do not let setbacks influence you too much. Marcus Aurelius, one of the proponents of stoicism, expressed it like this:

Remove the judgement, and you have removed the thought “I am hurt”: remove the thought “I am hurt”, and the hurt itself is removed.

This does not mean that your feelings are invalid or that you should not have/express any emotion. It rather means that you should aim for some detachment when it comes to certain facts of life. For example, your worth as a human being should not be tied to the acknowledgements of others. Neither should your emotional state be prone to too much negative manipulation13 from outside sources. You can briefly experience anger, fear, resentment, and then just continue with your life instead of continuously dwelling on it.

Detachment is particularly relevant when it comes to comparing yourself to other people. This desire appears to be built into our very cores, and it is absolutely natural to figure out where you stand with respect to your ‘tribe’. However, social media make it possible to easily compare your own low points against everyone else’s high points. Since most people do not openly talk about their setbacks and worries but rather try to paint an awesome large-than-life picture of themselves, you run the risk of continuously comparing yourself to others, who, at least in your perception, are more successful, more attractive, and more awesome in every way. These constant comparisons have a very detrimental effect on both adults14 and adolescents15.

In academia, where there is often a very long delay between your action (submitting a paper) and the corresponding reward (publishing a paper), the allure of small bursts of validation (‘Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’) seems unavoidable—even though we know perfectly well that it will do us no good. What can we do to break this cycle of harmful validation and remain detached? Here are some useful behaviours:

  1. Be aware of this need but change its target: instead of comparing yourself to other people, compare yourself to your past self. I find it much more joyful to think about the things I learned, rather than comparing all my weaknesses against everyone else’s strengths.
  2. Be aware of the inherent asymmetry of social media, where everyone only shows off their triumphs, and look for realistic comparison partners instead, if you absolutely must. The ever-inspiring Dr. Veronika Cheplygina, for example, maintains a ‘shadow CV’, i.e. a CV of things that did not work out on the first try. Not only is this very courageous, it also gives you a look behind the curtains. Not everyone can win all the time.
  3. Be aware of how your media consumption makes you feel. Be not afraid to abstain if you feel that your use makes you feel hollow rather than wholesome, or resentful rather than grateful.

Being detached does not mean that you do not share the joy that others feel about the good things happening to them. It merely means that you are aware of the fact that they also face setbacks and failure. Failure makes them human; failure makes you human. There’s a great quote from Star Trek about this:

It is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose. That is not a weakness; that is life.

Another word of caution: Most things should be indulged in with moderation. You should not be detached from your will to do good research, for example. Neither should you display a casual attitude towards things that help you grow and learn—just know that your value as a human being is independent from your research.

Rule 4: Procrastinate productively

A large source of stress in the Ph.D. life comes from projects that you feel you have to do right now. For some reason, however, you cannot work too long on them. While the existence (and size) of the ego depletion effect is still a topic of debate, working on one thing for a long time can be somewhat tiring. Rather than procrastinating by, say, checking social media websites, you can try to procrastinate productively by keeping a list of tasks that do not have the highest priority but that will still be beneficial in the long run. For example, you can do a tutorial on some technology that you always wanted to learn, read a paper, or update your CV. All of these things may not be necessary at that point, but you will feel better for having accomplished something16, and your future self will thank you.

Overall, small crumbs of progress can accumulate into a new project, for example. You would be surprised to know how many interesting projects start that way.

Rule 5: Show some self-compassion

Most people like compliments. Thousands of variations of the same theme can be found in literature:

Pleasant words are as an honeycomb, sweet to the soul, and health to the bones.

While the benefits of being kind to others are well-known these days17, many people do not apply these principles to their own self. Self-compassion does not mean that you are weak18, but that you add a positive ‘twist’ to bad things that happen to you while also being forgiving. In short, self-compassion means that you treat yourself exactly the way you would treat your best friend. When your best friend fails at something, you could try pointing out that this is an opportunity to grow personally: maybe another approach is needed, maybe more practice is needed—but you would never think less of your friend for having tried and failed.

Self-compassion thus means that you extend the kindness that you express towards others also to yourself. There are numerous studies that show the benefits of this attitude, both in academic settings19 and in the workplace20. Hence, you should do well to remember that you are first and foremost a human being, and not a machine. You cannot exhibit peak performance all the time—it is inevitable that there will be days when you are less productive. Likewise, there will be days when you feel less happy. These things may have ‘neither rhyme nor reason’, but they just are. Stressing yourself into feeling or acting differently is not going to achieve much. It is much wiser to accept this and show some compassion.

With this, I am wishing you all the best for your Ph.D.  research—may it be a joyful and awe-inspiring21 period of your life!

  3. Personally, I do not subscribe to the idea of mechanism in the philosophical sense, but if you do and it makes you read this article and potentially benefit from its content, all the more power to you.
  4. R. Beiter et al., The prevalence and correlates of depression, anxiety, and stress in a sample of college students, Journal of Affective Disorders, Volume 173, pp. 90–96, 2015.
  5. T.M. Evans et al., Evidence for a mental health crisis in graduate education, Nature Biotechnology, Volume 36, pp. 282–284, 2018.
  6. S. Nolen-Hoeksema et al., Rethinking Rumination, Perspectives on Psychological Science, Volume 3, No.  5, pp. 400–424, 2008.
  7. S. Nolen-Hoeksema, The role of rumination in depressive disorders and mixed anxiety/depressive symptoms, Journal of Abnormal Psychology, Volume 109, No.  3, pp. 504–511, 2000.
  8. M.E. McCullough et al., The Grateful Disposition: A Conceptual and Empirical Topography, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Volume 82, No. 1, pp. 112—127, 2002.
  9. R.A. Emmons and M.E. McCullough, Counting Blessings Versus Burdens: An Experimental Investigation of Gratitude and Subjective Well-Being in Daily Life, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Volume 84, No. 2, pp. 377–389, 2003.
  10. J. Boren, The Relationships between Co-Rumination, Social Support, Stress, and Burnout among Working Adults, Management Communication Quarterly, Volume 28, No.  1, pp. 3–25, 2013.
  11. L. Carlucci et al., Co-rumination, anxiety, and maladaptive cognitive schemas: when friendship can hurt, Psychology Research and Behavior Management, Volume 11, pp. 133—144, 2018.
  12. M. Bastin et al., Co-Brooding and Co-Reflection as Differential Predictors of Depressive Symptoms and Friendship Quality in Adolescents: Investigating the Moderating Role of Gender, Journal of Youth and Adolescence, Volume 47, No. 5, pp. 1037–1051, 2017.
  13. If something makes you happy, though, cherish the feeling. Refer to Rule 1 above.
  14. E. Hanna et al., Contributions of Social Comparison and Self-Objectification in Mediating Associations Between Facebook Use and Emergent Adults’ Psychological Well-Being, Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, Volume 20, No. 3, 2017.
  15. P. Stapleton, Generation Validation: The Role of Social Comparison in Use of Instagram Among Emerging Adults, Volume 20, No. 3, 2017.
  16. T. Amabile and S.J. Kramer, The power of small wins, Harvard Business Review, Volume 89, No. 5, pp. 70–80, 2011.
  17. S. Lyubomirsky and K.M. Sheldon, Pursuing Happiness: The Architecture of Sustainable Change, Review of General Psychology, Volume 9, No. 2, 111–131, 2005.
  18. It is unfortunate that this is often among the first associations people have with that word.
  19. KD. Neff et al., Self-compassion, Achievement Goals, and Coping with Academic Failure, Self and Identity, Volume 4, No. 3, pp. 263–287, 2005.
  20. R. Abacia and D. Ardab, [Relationship between Self-compassion and Job Satisfaction in White Collar Workers], Procedia — Social and Behavioral Sciences, Volume 106, No.  10, pp. 2241–2247, 2013.
  21. And if you ever feel that you need a little bit more humility, just read this guide.