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Posted on 24 May '17

PhD Pressure - Knowing Where to Find Support

Here's a statement about PhD study: a doctorate is a solitary degree, designed to test a student's ability to carry out independent research.

It sounds plausible enough. It might even match your current expectations and assumptions as you look ahead to a PhD.

But it's actually wrong.

For one thing, a PhD isn't just a test. A viva voce (the final doctoral exam) is a test. But the PhD as a whole is a learning process, designed to teach you how to carry out extended academic research. Nor is a PhD all that solitary. It's an individual project, sure. But that doesn't mean spending three (or more) years in isolation.

These distinctions are important, because it's all too easy to misunderstand what a PhD is supposed to be like. And, once you've done that, you may be less likely to seek support if things get tough during your doctorate.

So, having recently taken a look at mental health for postgraduates (as part of Mental Health Awareness Week) this post follows up with some simple tips for finding support as a PhD student.

#1 Speak to your supervisor

In almost all cases, your supervisor should be the first port of call if you're struggling during a PhD. This advice is so obvious you might be tempted to skip it. But hang on for a moment.

Your supervisor is many things. They're a mentor, an example and the closest thing you'll have to a 'teacher' during your PhD.

But they aren't omniscient. And they aren't directly involved in the day-to-day work of your PhD. Instead, their main role during your doctorate will be to monitor and guide your progress.

Major problems with that progress will be as clear to your supervisor as they are to you: missed deadlines, missed supervisions, missed upgrades. All will be obvious precisely because something will be missing.

It's a lot harder for a supervisor to be aware of the minor problems that lead to those major problems: the loss of confidence or clarity in part of your research, the experiments you aren't sure about and the methodology you don't quite understand... or the times when procrastination becomes paralysis.

The thing is, these are all normal problems for a student to have at some point during a doctorate.

What's more, they're all problems your supervisor will have encountered before: during other research projects, when supervising previous students, or even during their own PhD.

They will be able to advise and support you, but they'll need you to speak up and seek that help. It's better to do so sooner rather than later.



#2 Use your university

By the time you come to study a PhD, you'll probably be quite familiar with the main parts of a typical university (the library, the coffee shop, the student union bar).

Succeeding with PhD research will be a lot easier if you make the most of these facilities (and others). But it's important to be aware of other options for when that research isn't going so well:

Counselling services

Most universities offer some form of counselling support. Such clinics are staffed by trained professionals and are usually free for current students.

These services are appropriate if you're concerned about your general mental health, either as a result of issues relating to your PhD, or due to other circumstances that occur during your time as a doctoral student.

Taking advantage of them may seem like a dramatic step, but it shouldn't be. Universities offer this kind of support because they know students (and staff) need it from time to time - just like everyone else.

Drop-in sessions may be available, or you may be able to register for a specific appointment. Either way, there's no stigma attached to the process. Services will be offered confidentially and will have no negative impact on your PhD progress, or status.

Your student union

Unions exist to look after the needs of all students at a university, including postgraduates and PhD students.

Some may offer counselling and mentoring services, but they can also support you with more specific concerns related to your personal treatment and wellbeing at the university.

Most student unions have dedicated welfare teams, as well as officers elected to prevent discrimination against specific groups of students.

Your union may also be able to assist you with disputes related to your academic progress or performance. This could involve providing advice on formal procedures or providing a representative to accompany you at meetings.

Issues like these are rare, but it's helpful to know where to find support if they do occur.

The gym

Exercise won't solve all your PhD problems - unless you're researching for a doctorate in Sports Science (and even then, probably not) - but you might be surprised how helpful it can be to get away from the library / laboratory and clear your head.

Larger universities often have their own sports centres with gym facilities available to students. There may be a small charge for using them, but this is likely to be a lot less than you'd pay elsewhere.

If physical training isn't your thing, don't sweat (literally). There are likely to be other opportunities to relax around 'campus', including theatres, cafes or bars.

#3 Look into skills training

Remember that introductory point about a PhD being a learning process, not a test? A lot of the time that means learning about your subject area through research. But sometimes it means learning how to carry out that research.

Most of this training happens at the beginning of a PhD. In fact, your 'training needs' are probably one of the first things a supervisor will assess.

This could be an informal process, such as learning to manage a literature review with guidance from your supervisor. Or it could involve technical training as you get to grips with advanced (and expensive!) laboratory equipment or learn how to handle rare (and expensive!) archival resources.

But it's important not to lose sight of development opportunities during your project. Particularly if you find yourself running into difficulties further down the line.

So, if you find yourself struggling with a particular theory or technique, don't automatically assume that your ability is the issue. You may simply need to seek out (or revisit) the relevant training.

Some universities provide ongoing development programmes for their PhD students, including timetabled classes and short courses. Others will require you to be a little more proactive in identifying your needs and seeking appropriate training. Either way, your supervisor should be able to offer some advice on your options (and perhaps assist in providing any training you require).

Taking on additional development sessions may seem like a challenge in the short term, but it will almost certainly bear fruit later.

And remember, additional skills and experience won't just make it easier to complete your PhD: they could also make your doctorate more valuable.



A PhD shouldn't be overwhelming (that's one of the bigger myths about postgraduate research). Our advice on overcoming PhD fears and tackling procrastination can help you prepare for a doctorate.