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Book review: Managing your mental health during your PhD

A survival guide by dr. Zoë Ayres

“This book is dedicated to all those who have lost their lives in the pursuit of higher education, all those who have felt alone in their struggles, and anyone who has ever thought they do not belong within the Ivory Tower.” 

This is the dedication of “Managing your mental health during your PhD”, a book written by dr. Zoë Ayres. Although not everyone might struggle, it is by now well-known that doing a PhD, and working in academia more generally, can be incredibly hard and lonely. Amongst others, PhD students might experience isolation, loneliness, and imposter syndrome. Although doing a PhD can be, and hopefully often is, a fun and highly valuable experience, it is important to be aware of the struggles it can bring as well. 

Isn’t this just another “self-help” book? 

Of course, many “self-help”-type books have been written about this topic: how can you, the PhD student, change in order to better deal with academia? How can you become more resilient? How can you learn to deal with rude or inappropriate comments from other, potentially more senior, members of the academy. 

This book is different. While dr. Zoë Ayres provides some tips and recommendations for how to get through your PhD, she does not shy away from discussing various systemic issues as well. On the contrary, she explicitly acknowledges the broader problem: although almost 50% of PhD students experience mood disorders, there is often limited specialized help (at least, in the UK). Moreover, as not much attention is being paid to systemic issues in the academic world, struggles and issues are often perceived as personal failure of the PhD student.  

So, what can I expect? 

This provides the starting point and the main motivation for the book. In the four different sections of the book, dr. Ayres provides an excellent overview of the issues any PhD student can experience, what you can do about (some of) these yourself, but most importantly, how these are also due to how the academy is set up. 

Part 1 of the book provides a broader picture of the problem, focusing on mental health during the PhD. While this section is of course not specific to the PhD trajectory in the Netherlands, it provides a good overview of the problems that can occur during the PhD more generally, and emphasizes that you are not alone if you are struggling. If you are interested in information more specific to, for example, the Netherlands, you can check out other entries in this blog series or resources provided by Promovendi Netwerk Netherlands

Part 2 of the book highlights some actions you can take yourself, in particular self-care. Again, dr. Ayres mentions that self-care by itself will not solve all problems. But, even if it does not solve all problems, it remains important to look after yourself and your own well-being. In this part of the book, dr. Ayres highlights important self-care routines that many of us might have heard about before, but that are always helpful to be reminded of. She also discusses expectations many of us might have of ourselves during the PhD, but that might not always be realistic. Overall, this part of the book helps put in perspective what we, as PhD students, can do ourselves, and what we cannot. 

Part 3 discusses environmental stressors and various systemic issues that might occur during the PhD. For example, dr. Ayres discusses the Ivory Tower and various kinds of discrimination, the PhD-supervisor relationship, the publication pressure, and the question of whether to stay in academia after the PhD. In my opinion, this is one of the most helpful parts of the book. 

Of course, there has been more attention for these issues in the last few years. For example, Dutch universities are trying to change the publication pressure by also valuing teaching and valorization as parts of the academic job. Still, there is a “hidden curriculum” in the academy, PhDs are highly dependent on their supervisor, and, let’s be real, publications are crucial. Although this chapter acknowledges that many of these issues are complicated, and can not be easily solved, it is always good to be aware and to know that it’s not just you. 

Finally, part 4 discusses steps you can take if you are struggling within the PhD, such as identifying the problem, talking to others, finding a support network, and more. As it does not consider the Dutch context specifically, this might again be a section where information more specific to the Netherlands, or the 4TU network, can be helpful in addition to the book. For example, many Dutch universities have dedicated PhD counselors or psychologists. Although the threshold to go to these might still be high, and the tips from the book might help you actually take this step, we would always recommend you also check out the resources available at your university. 

Who should read this book? 

Overall, this is a highly informative book that contains much more information about mental health during the PhD than the typical self-help book. It is not only helpful for anyone starting a PhD who wants to be prepared, but also for everyone already in the process of obtaining a PhD, in order to stay motivated and put your experience into perspective. And lastly, if you are interested in mental health advocacy and bringing more awareness to these issues at your own university, every chapter finishes with a list of things universities can do better to support their PhD students. Although the burden to change the system should not be on individual PhDs, it never hurts to raise awareness and advocate for a better system. 

Even though not all parts of the book apply to every PhD student or to PhDs in the Netherlands, I would highly recommend everyone to read this book and to take from it what is helpful for their PhD journey. If this has made you interested in the book, you can find an ebook version online via the Springer website or you can write to your library to purchase a copy, as this should clearly be of interest to any university. 

About the author

Céline Budding is a PhD candidate in the Philosophy & Ethics group at Eindhoven University of Technology. Her PhD project is on whether large language models can be said to acquire anything like knowledge of language, and if so, what kind of knowledge this would be. In addition, her interests include philosophy of large language models and explainable AI more generally, as well as standardization and policy of AI.