Reviewing doctoral well-being research (study report)
Doctoral well-being is one of the central topics in this blog (indeed, it was the one that started it all, more than three years ago). While I have tried to base my writings in the peer-reviewed research of this area, so far my reading of it has been rather unsystematic. How do doctoral well-being researchers summarize this body of knowledge? In this post, I distill from the findings of a systematic literature review on doctoral well-being, teasing out topics and factors that we already knew about from previous posts as well as novel ones that we can try to act upon.
Avoiding avoidance and other mental self-sabotage in the PhD
Does the thesis bring you a sense of anxiety, fear or discomfort? As we saw in a previous post, that is not an uncommon experience at certain points during the PhD. At the heart of many of our unsuccessful strategies to deal with these symptoms (including distraction and addiction) is the notion of avoidance. In this post, we’ll explain what avoidance is, its key role in many mental health afflictions, and suggest exercises and strategies to help us overcome these challenges.
Facing addiction to social media in the PhD
Addiction and the PhD (book extract)
Quickie: How many PhD students are anxious or depressed (or will drop out) worldwide?
One of the catalysts that kickstarted this blog was the realization that PhD students are at a higher risk of mental health problems than other students and professionals. Yet, how bad is the problem really? Exactly how many PhD students are suffering from depression or severe anxiety right now? How many will drop out? In this quickie post, I pull from the data of a few recent studies to give a concrete, numeric
answer guesstimate to these questions.
Chronobiology addendum: A neurobiologist's guide to a healthy and productive day
In previous posts, we have seen how chronotype can influence our productivity, and how we can tweak our breaks to make the most of the ebbs and flows of our daily energy. But, how exactly can we use this chronobiology knowledge to craft a daily routine that is both productive and healthy, and fitting to our particular situation? In this post, I borrow from the habits and routines of an expert on the topic (Stanford neurobiologist Andrew Huberman) ten easy protocols you can put in practice to make every day your best day.
Journaling for the doctorate (II): How to journal effectively
Journaling during your doctorate can have a host of benefits (for self-knowledge, mental and physical health). However, not everyone will benefit to the same degree, and different kinds of journaling have different advantages… if done correctly over a sustained period of time. In this post, I will go over different research-backed journaling exercises and tips to make your journaling most effective.
Journaling for the doctorate (I): Types and benefits
Do you ever get the feeling, at the end of the day, that you have achieved nothing? or that days and weeks pass by, indistinguishable from one another, time slipping away like water between your fingers? Is your mind an unfocused maelstrom of swirling thoughts, ruminating again and again about the same worrying (or plain silly) things? Journaling has been proposed (both by ancient philosophers and modern researchers) as having many benefits, from dealing with stress and trauma, to just understanding ourselves a little better. But, can journaling be useful for us in facing the challenges of a PhD? In this post, I will take a look at the research on different kinds of journaling and what are their effects for mental and physical health.
A Monday Mantra to face uncomfortable emotions (#2 productivity challenge sneak peek)
Take your holidays… the right way
As a PhD student, one sometimes gets the impression that holidays are something that happens only to other people, or that one does not deserve them (I’m so behind on so many things!). Yet, what does the research say about taking holidays, is it really good for you as a doctoral student? Are there better or worse ways of taking a vacation? As preparation for the blog’s own summer hiatus, this post goes over the benefits, pitfalls, and optimal dynamics of taking a longer break.
Am I normal? An intro to mental health in the doctorate
By now, we have established that PhD students (and academics in general) seem to be at a higher risk to develop mental health problems like depression or chronic stress. But, how can we know if we have one of these mental health problems, right here, right now? In this post, co-authored with colleague, friend and therapist Paula Odriozola-González, we go over a few basic concepts of psychopathology, and propose criteria and simple practices to help separate internal experiences that we all go through at one time or another, from the more serious stuff.
Is your PhD giving you beautiful dreams or horrible nightmares? In either case, you probably should be getting more of them. Sleep (or, rather, lack of sleep) is one of the best-known and most consistent risk factors related to depression, anxiety, and host of other mental and physical health issues. It is also one of the factors (mostly) under our control – even if it often gets the back seat with respect to other priorities like work, social life, family, or the latest season of our favorite TV show. In this post, I review some of the (very extense, and rather terrifying) research about the effects that lack of sleep has on humans in general, and PhD students in particular. The post also points you to practices and resources to help you in sleeping not only longer, but also better. Keep your delicate mind and body machinery in optimal working condition!
Cultivating the progress loop in your PhD
Have you ever felt like you are “stuck” in your PhD, making no progress, or going in circles? If so, you are in good company – most PhD students report such experience at one time or another during their doctoral process. The normalcy of this experience, however, should not make us dismiss it as unimportant. In this post I review research that speaks to the importance of this sense of progress (or the lack of it) to our engagement with work and the eventual completion (or dropping out) of the PhD. The post also reviews several everyday practices to cultivate your own sense of progress.
Happiness in the lab series
In this blog I have often covered the mental health and wellbeing problems that may come with doing a PhD, if we are not careful. In this series of posts I look at the flip side of that, diving into the research on thriving at work, to find out which practices may help us be a little happier during our research, and how to diagnose ourselves about what aspects of our research activity can most be improved.
Happiness in the lab, part 5: Kindness
Even if you feel that your research contributes to a bigger purpose, even if you work at it with great engagement, even if you’re resilient to setbacks and misfortune… still your time working in research can suck. This week I look at the final missing piece in our search for a happier (research) workplace: the quality of our social interactions with others. Particularly, how positive connections and prosocial behaviors can help us thrive at work (not just survive). In this post, I examine some of the main components of a prosocial workplace, how to assess them for yourself, and a few research-backed practices to make your lab a kinder place.
Happiness in the lab, part 4: Resilience
No matter how meaningful your research feels to you, no matter how engaged you are when doing it, sometimes things just don’t work out as you expected. Papers get rejected, proposals are not funded, data gets mangled and needs to be collected again… plus all the non-research-related stumbling blocks that life throws at us, from sickness to accidents or family tragedies. How fast and how well can we recover from those setbacks that throw us off balance? This fourth post in the series goes over the concept of resilience as an important pillar for staying happy and fulfilled while working in research. Read below for instruments you can use to gauge it, and practices to help you stay resilient in the face of difficulties.
Happiness in the lab, part 3: Engagement
Have you ever found yourself avoiding your supervisor, or the thesis meetings, or just not wanting to open the manuscript file you have to finish? Then you might have some problems engaging with your research work. In this third post of the series on finding more happiness in your research, I look at how engagement at work is defined, how to assess your own levels of engagement, and some research-backed practices to help you engage better with your work and find your “flow”.
Happiness in the lab, part 2: Purpose
Continuing with last week’s post on “happiness at work”, in this post I explore the first of the four pillars for a happier workplace: the sense that your work has a purpose, that it is personally meaningful to you. Read on to learn to self-assess your sense of purpose at work, and get some ideas on how to make your research work feel more meaningful.
Happiness in the lab, part 1: What is happiness?
Being a Ph.D. student and being happy sometimes feel like two incompatible states. However, we all know someone that seems to enjoy greatly their work, even their dissertation work (heck, I have to confess I’ve been one such annoying person myself sometimes). What things make people love their work? Apparently, an entire branch of positive psychology has been delving into this question for decades. This post is the first of a series that adapts insights and practices for greater “happiness at work” from a massive open online course (MOOC), to the work life of doctoral students (and academics more generally).
On cultivating (and reining) curiosity
One would think that research, as the pursuit of new knowledge, is mostly based upon curiosity. However, the daily grind of research life can erode that sense of excitement students have about delving into the unknown. In this post, I explore the role of curiosity in doctoral studies, and look at a few practices and tricks to keep the flame of curiosity alight (without burning the village!).
Choosing not to drop out: a view from self-determination theory
In last week’s post, we established that dropping out of a Ph.D. (or thinking about it) is surprisingly common, and we saw demographic and socio-economic factors that seem related to doctoral attrition. In this post, I dive into another strand of research that relates doctoral dropout with a general theory of human motivation: self-determination theory. This research helps explain why you may persist and finish your doctorate (and even have fun doing it), despite having such socio-economic factors playing against you. Or vice-versa. The post also gleans practical advice from the literature on doctoral attrition, in the hope of helping students and supervisors avoid this common pitfall.
Who drops out of the Ph.D.?
Aside from the fact that doing a Ph.D. seems to put you at a greater risk of being anxious or depressed than other occupations, some students may also face the question: will I ever finish my thesis at all? This post digs into research about doctoral attrition and completion, and what factors seem to make dropping out more likely. Do not give up!… unless you really want to.
Risk factors for depression and anxiety in doing a Ph.D.
As a follow-up to the first post in this blog, I dig a little deeper in some of the research on anxiety and depression during doctoral studies, to find “risk factors” and “correlates” that seem to often come along these depressive symptoms. I hope that the awareness of these factors (from gender to other things you can actually change in your everyday life) will help you understand why some people struggle doing a PhD, while for others it seems a piece of cake. Change what you do and put the odds on your side!
The second reason why I write this blog
Initially, I thought that I was doing this to help the PhD students around me (and others like them elsewhere) to pass through the dissertation process more effectively, with less stress. But at some point, I realized that other, more selfish, reasons were playing out as well. In this personal account I reflect on a chronic problem of academics and Ph.D. students alike, and how I face it through this blog.
Is doing a Ph.D. bad... for your mental wellbeing?
There is a growing body of research that indicates that doing a doctoral dissertation can be taxing on the mental health of PhD students, with depression, anxiety, or burnout as potential pitfalls. Is this problem real and, if so, how bad is it? In this post, I review several recent studies, some of which also offer insights about potential risk factors. This also kickstarts the whole idea of this blog, as a way to increase awareness about these difficulties, and offer practical tips and tricks to survive such a difficult period.