How to Manage Grad School and Your Mental Health

Since the pandemic began, the mental health of students and teachers has been affected more than usual and in numerous ways. For grad students (primarily Ph.D. candidates), the circumstances go beyond the pressure of taking examsfear of failing out, or the challenges of learning in a completely virtual environment. And with nearly half of all Ph.D. candidates not completing their degrees the issue of mental health becomes an important factor, among others, to consider before entering a Ph.D. program.

Factors that can affect the mental health of Ph.D. students

According to a 2018 Harvard study of students in economics Ph.D. programs, 18% of the students were reported to likely have mental health disorders (more than three times the population average), and 11% of the students experienced suicidal thoughts within a two-week period.

There are several factors that can negatively affect a Ph.D. student’s mental health. Ph.D. students typically work well over 40 hours per week for low pay, usually around $30,000 per year as a fellow. Unlike other graduate programs, including medical and law programs, Ph.D. programs don’t have a set schedule and number of credits or coursework needed to complete; instead, they’re based on research and publication. While the success or failure of those things can sometimes be out of the student’s control, there is also an element of faculty subjectivity. Negative circumstances, such as research funds running out or hindering publication, can cause a student’s efforts to be in vain. Additionally, universities invest a great deal of time and money into Ph.D. programs and candidates, and there is enormous pressure on the student’s research to potentially be used to procure possibly millions of dollars in research funding for the university. That is a lot of weight for Ph.D. students and faculty to shoulder.

Then there’s the dynamic between the student and their supervising professors. While there are many supportive professors, there can also be a power dynamic that can put students in precarious situations. Allegations of sexual harassment, character assassination and manipulation aren’t unheard of, and were recently scandalized at the University of California, Harvard and Columbia University.

Ph.D. students also face a serious lack of job opportunities postgraduation, which can further affect their mental health, even once they have their degree.

Being aware of and addressing these potential stressors can help maintain your mental health during grad school

If you plan on pursuing a Ph.D. program, there are ways to navigate specific challenges and prevent potential negative effects to your mental health. Choosing the right program, identifying and addressing any faculty or research issues, and creating balance with your home life will help ensure you are in a mentally positive place on your grad school journey.

  • Research your school and program. Speak with current students, alumni, professors and faculty about the program. Search Twitter® feeds or forums for any negative feedback on the program you are interested in. Check professor rating websites, such as Rate My Professors, to see if any complaints have been made and if the university has taken any disciplinary action.
  • Speak up if your program is not supportive of your work. If you encounter specific issues within your program — whether it’s a research challenge, a publication challenge or anything that may negatively impact receiving your degree — speak up. Start with your professor, and, if they are unhelpful, move up the chain of command. You’ve put in a lot of work, so be prepared to defend it not only to obtain your degree, but to improve the success of your work. Allowing an obstacle to go unchecked may lead to a loss of purpose which could adversely affect your mental state.
  • Report unethical behavior and incidents. According to Nature’s 2019 survey of 6,300 Ph.D. students, 21% of respondents said they’d been bullied in their programs, and of those, the most frequently reported perpetrators were supervisors. If you experience a conflict with your supervising professor or another student, address it immediately and in writing. Report the incident to any appropriate authorities, including the dean or president of the university. This includes issues such as cheating, plagiarism, invasion of privacy, sabotage, blackballing and sexual harassment. You’ve invested a great deal of time and money into this endeavor, and no one should derail that effort with unethical behavior.
  • Other factors that may cause stress: life issues such as juggling family commitments or challenges, financial issues, and struggles around being employable post-graduation can also put a mental strain on a grad student. Finding solutions to these issues once they are identified will contribute to alleviating that strain.

Act and engage in self-care

It’s important to stay aware of your mental and physical condition despite working under a great deal of pressure. Loss of appetite, trouble sleeping, and physical body pain can all be indicators of too much stress and anxiety.

Once you’ve acknowledged the symptoms, get help. Campuses always have counselors and hotlines available for students to use. Many universities, acknowledging the growing mental health crisis amongst students in general, are increasing resources as part of their student services programs. There is never shame or embarrassment in asking for help.

In addition to seeking help when you need it, there are steps you can take to reduce stress and anxiety. Establishing healthy habits such as exercise, eating a healthy diet and practicing effective deep breathing exercises are a few effective steps you can take to alleviate and avoid these common grad school pressures.

It’s important to not let the potential of these stressors prevent you from pursuing your dreams of obtaining a Ph.D. Being aware of them and staying proactive to avoid them as much as possible can make the experience a rewarding one.