By Ellis Mallett |

Since the pandemic hit back in March, life has been full of twist and turns, especially for doctoral students all over the world. PhD candidates are known to be particularly harsh on themselves at the best of times, never mind in the midst of a second lockdown. This post hopes to provide some tips on how to look after yourself in these troubled and uncertain times.

  • Be aware and acknowledge

Being aware of yourself, your body and your mind can really help to understand your needs. 

How much sleep do you need to function well? Is there a routine that you find particularly useful? At what time of the day do you work most productively? Do you work most efficiently by separating time into chunks or by just getting into it and pushing through? Is there a different way of working you’d like to try that you haven’t had the time to experiment with yet?

Ask yourself questions that will help you figure out the ways of working that are suited to your needs. Don’t punish yourself if you sleep past your usual wake-up time, don’t overwork for long hours if you haven’t been as productive as you’d hoped, don’t be afraid to try something new. Use this time to experiment, be open-minded and try things you haven’t pushed yourself to do yet.

Ask yourself, how are you feeling today? Is your mind tired? Is your body tired? Do you feel fed up? Are you lacking motivation? 

If the answer is yes, it’s important to acknowledge this and take some time to really think about how you feel and what you can do to help. This might be taking a nap, watching a favourite series, doing some exercise, or putting your work away and returning to it another day.

If the answer is no, recognise this too. In the midst of a pandemic, it’s important to acknowledge and celebrate the small things – even if it’s waking up and feeling ready for the day, ticking some things off your to-do list big or small, reading a couple of pages of that article you’ve been meaning to get round to.

Be kind to yourself – recognise your limits and be careful not to set your expectations too high. Be aware and acknowledge.

  • Get some head space

Related to being aware is the idea of ‘checking in’ with yourself and getting some head space. I’m often guilty of worrying about things that haven’t happened yet, and I frequently find myself overthinking something that happened last week. 

While many PhD students are prone to worrying, setting time aside out of your day to wind down can really help to gain some perspective. Admittedly, I was sceptical of practising ‘mindfulness’ or ‘meditation’ when it was first introduced to me – thoughts such as ‘this isn’t for me’, ‘I can’t do that’, or ‘it won’t work’ filled my mind.

However, setting ten minutes aside to ground myself and relieve some stress through mindfulness is now a routine part of my day. Headspace improves focus, reduces stress, reduces irritability and increases positivity. It’s amazing what having something non-PhD related to focus on can do for your mental health. 

Give it a go!

  • Have a digital detox

Social media and other online tools have been a life-line for many of us during the pandemic – virtual workshops, online conferences, and even ‘coffee breaks’ have allowed us to stay engaged with one another at a time of need. On the flip side, however, constant news checking, Twitter scrolling, and back to news checking can take a toll in the long run. 

Notifications trigger an urge to check – try turning them off. Whether it be emails, news notifications, or Tweets.

Time limits – many devices now include a feature which allows you to limit the time you spend on particular apps. This might be worth a try if you’re a prolific scroller!

Delete those apps – it might be time to delete the apps you spend the most time on. Even if it’s just for the time you’ve scheduled in to do some writing… it might be interesting to see how many times you grab for your phone to find the app isn’t there anymore!

Of course, screen time can be useful if it’s for positive purposes. Whether that is to work out, find a recipe, or speak to friends. Yet it can also be harmful; if you’re scrolling due to boredom or feeling anxious, it can often make you feel worse. Use the time to try new things – headspace, a new book or perhaps a walk in the park.

Digital detox
  • Connect

Staying connected and creating a solid support network can do wonders for your mental health. There has been lots of focus over the last few months about staying engaged in your studies, committing to attending certain online events, making sure you’re participating in virtual conferences and networking.

While this is of course an important part of the PhD journey, it’s also worth thinking about who you engage with outside of your doctorate. Whilst colleagues and fellow PhDs might be able to share your experiences, it’s possible that they will only reinforce the difficulties you’re feeling and may leave you feeling worse off.

So, speak to family, reach out to non-PhD related friends, attend events outside of your field, reach out to that friend you haven’t spoken to for a while, join a society. Empathise, think beyond ‘writing up’, gossip, laugh, cry, breathe and stay present. Importantly, stay connected.


While this is by no means an exhaustive list, we hope we have given you some food for thought about ways to look after yourself whilst studying for a PhD during a global pandemic. If you have any other tips, we’d love to hear them!

Ellis Mallett is a second year PhD student at the University of Surrey. Her thesis constructs a neoclassical realist theory of overbalancing to explain why states overreact to marginal threats. Wider research interests include contemporary US foreign policy and grand strategy. You can find her on Twitter at @ellismallett

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