Let’s help ‘stressed PhD Students’: Designing-in pedagogies of self-care

This post is by Kay Guccione (@kayguccione), who works at the University of Sheffield where she designs mentoring and coaching programmes for research staff and students. She is researching trust and the supervision relationship and tweets about supervision from @predoctorbility. 

Discussion of academic workloads, measurement culture, and the impact of stress on mental health, and wellbeing has seen some recent and well deserved attention. Many of us have known in an uncoordinated, experiential, day-to-day way about academic strain and stress for a while, through doing, supervising, or supporting research work. Those of us to whom doctoral researchers turn when they’re stressed, are glad to see the mental health needs of an at risk group of people being better documented and championed.

But aside from saying ‘see, ain’t it awful’ — what do we do now we have the proof that the PhD is statistically significantly stressful? 

We can design in pedagogies of self-care; creating a (new) academic priority

Calls for raising awareness of stress symptoms and their consequences, and champions of taking time off (#acadowntime, #acaselfcare), mean that people are talking more, listening more, and reaching out more often. And yes we can retweet, create our own slogans, run events, and encourage ‘balance’ — all positive moves. Often we signpost — because we aren’t qualified in mental health practice: specialist counselling, disability, and wellbeing services, are available at most institutions for those experiencing symptoms of stress, anxiety or depression, or other pre-existing or emerging mental health challenges.

And what else?

We don’t want to take the challenge and the emotion out of research work. In the ‘normal’ course of things doctoral researchers experience considerable emotional responses (excitement, disappointment, joy, anger, frustration, exhilaration) to doctoral learning and academic development (Cotterall, 2013; Wellington, 2010). Their sense of well-being, motivation and commitment flexes and can be expected to be challenged and tested during their candidacy (Juniper et al. 2012).

We can’t, certainly at the individual level, ask people to simply opt out of the pressures of academic life. Structural barriers, career bottlenecks, gender, ethnicity and disability inequalities exist, and can’t be workshopped away.

We shouldn’t try to handle this only at the doctoral level.

Stress is rooted in pressure and doctoral students experience pressure in the normal course of their work. It’s to be expected as we work to deadlines and time limits, and because doing research is a process in which we are often working with uncertainty; sometimes there’s no clear way forward. What one person may find exciting and motivating about that, may cause stress in another, we all have different preferences, tolerances, and experiences of coping with pressure. A sense of control over our schedule and workload is an essential part of managing stress. We need to ensure that doctoral researchers develop methods for coping with pressure, and that they are supported to do this by others around them.

The doctorate involves the self. An emotional connection and commitment. A development of personal as well as professional relationships and capabilities. An identity shift. Developing self-motivation, self-reliance, and self-awareness. It should also involve ways of developing self-care as a standard safety feature.

Below are a handful of ideas for how we – as supervisors – can design-in pedagogies of self-care:

stress symptoms

(1) anticipate and plan, reduce unknowns, reduce insecurities.

  • Expectation setting (my previous post on that) — give people a heads up on how things will go.
  • Be upfront about costs. Talk about managing energy expenditure and playing the long-game of research. Make sure financial costs are explicit — e.g. 4th year ‘continuation fees’, acknowledge the personal financial burden that results from an unpaid ‘writing up’ period.
  • Think about formal processes that provide reflection about self-care, for example annual ‘needs analysis’ processes, and ethics processes – particularly for researchers who study sensitive or personally-involved subject areas (Dr Kate Sang recently wrote on that).
  • Create better visibility and better prepare staff who support doctoral researchers ‘when things go wrong’: e.g. clear channels for seeking support from specialist counselling or disability services; for escalating a supervision issue (what is the role and remit of your ‘PGR Tutors’?); for escalating issues related to research integrity, bullying, or discrimination.


(2) acknowledge and reduce stress where we can

  • Supervisors, administrators, and developers all need to stop competing with each other for researchers’ time. Conflicting messages about the value and high priority of professional development, employability, and ‘extra curricular’ are disorientating and stressful.
  • Build effective supervision relationships. I’ve been researching trust and supervision. Good relationships help students discuss and process the strings of disorientating dilemmas they face. Bad relationships leave students wide open to stress and panic.
  • Bring supervision ‘teams’ together as real teams rather than groups of self-interested individuals. Guerin & Green said it all on supervision teams.
  • Fit your own oxygen mask before helping others. If we are stressed, our students will be stressed.
  • Call it. Help researchers recognise when pressure has gone beyond their everyday ranges and become stress. Openly talking about managing pressure and stress is an important part of supervision – not just a workshop. We need to kick back against ‘rite of passage’ and ’no pain no gain’ messages. The doctorate does not have to be awful, or involve prolonged difficult experiences in the name of research. If staff can’t recognise stress symptoms, train them to.
  • Challenge unhelpful labelling and discrimination. The symptoms of stress are in the image above. I’ve heard students exhibiting these symptoms called: emotional; sensitive; psycho; lazy; disinterested; incapable; incompetent; poor; crap; wooly; ditsy; all over the place; lacking independence; needy. That’s not OK.

(3) ‘make’ time away from the stress we can’t minimise 

  • Realise, and help students realise, that we don’t find time to rest, we make time.
  • Mentoring, with a ‘not-involved-in-the-day-to-day-work’ colleague can help. Postdocs can help. They make excellent Thesis Mentors.
  • Role model saying no, prioritising work, doing ‘good enough’ sometimes, going home and shutting down.
  • And a big challenge to end on, for which I have no easy suggestions. We need to adopt better Mental Health Leave of Absence practices, provide training, and make sure that all supervisors know how to create shared ways forward with researchers who are taking a leave of Absence for (stress induced) Mental Health reasons. Simply pausing candidacy does nothing to change the situation that caused the stress.

I invite you to discuss and grow this thinking around pedagogies of self-care.  

Do be creative, you can better this starter-list, and make it fit with your own systems and priorities. 


Image is of checklist of strategies 


  1. Thanks for this piece which has some useful suggestions. Yet, the hardest part from a supervisor’s perspective is to make the ‘diagnosis’, if we want to use this terminology. It is very hard for students to acknowledge that they are stressed and need support mainly because stress undermine performance and performance is what we demand. So it requires supervisors to have a good dose of emotional intelligence to read in the signs and to ask sensitive questions in an environment which allows that to happen. For this reason i believe that building a strong PhD community is one way to help students to cope before it is too late. But doing so requires time and resources and the outcomes are not always visible and tangible and thus institutions might be unwilling to put in the resources required. So, it is a much broader problem than just the individual student or the individual supervisor.


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