Taking Care of Yourself!

Health & Work in Academia

Writing a dissertation can be challenging. You have to work independently and self-reliantly while at the same time communicating and collaborating with other researchers, in particular your supervisor. Additionally, some doctoral candidates may have to apply for their own funding time and again. Others, new to a German university, have to get acquainted with the overall German academic system and at the same time learn to navigate a new workplace culture and communication styles. Pursuing a PhD thus sometimes feels like a test of stamina. That's why it is so important that doctoral researchers take care of themselves, learn to set boundaries and develop their personal healthy working routines.

Mental Health During Your PhD - The Toxic Mix

Cultivate your Working Habits

Reflect and Evolve your Routines

Effective working habits and a good work life balance are central to staying healthy and prolific. In order to find the best routines for yourself, you may want to reflect on your processes once in a while and create your working time with more awareness on what helps you in the long run.

Find your Rhythm: Work Productively

While some doctorate candidates have fixed working hours, others are extremely independent in structuring their days. Regardless of the flexibility you can actually harness, it makes sense to discover the phases in which you work most productively. Tipps

Break Down Your Goals: Plan Actionable Steps

Setting goals and being clear about what you want to accomplish helps you to stay focussed and productive.  Write your goals SMART and break them down into actionable steps. Learn more about it.

Build a Routine: Become a Creature of Habit

Writing a dissertation takes years. This means you need to set up a routine and develop strategies for carving out space and quiet to work on your PhD project on a regular basis. Some ideas.

Create an Inspirational Atmosphere: your Work Space

The place in which you work should support and inspire you. It's the little things that have great impact on your productivity and creativity. Find out what your perfect surrounding should look like.


Take Breaks: Make Breakthroughs

Writing a thesis is not a sprint, it's a marathon. Finding effective working habits and creating a wholesome work-life balance is essential to staying healthy and productive. Tipps.


Schuhe einer Person, die eine Treppe hinaufgeht

Further reading

Waiting for the motivation fairy
(Kearns & Gardiner 2011)

The valley of shit
(The Thesis Whisperer 2012)

Five things successful PhD students refuse to do
(The Guardian, Hankel 2014)

Procrastination? Perfectionism? Pragmatism!

Reflect upon your mindset and overcome procrastination.

If you tend to procrastinate, it might be helpful to reflect upon the mindset in which you approach the task. Procrastination can often be a result of perfectionism. We postpone tasks because we fear we will fail to meet our (perfectionist) standards. Instead of tackling our next task, we look for activities that seem easier to complete and that make it seem as though we're doing something useful - we respond to emails, clean the lab, track down references. But motivation for what we really need to do, like starting to write that next article, does not rise while doing something else. Motivation does not magically appear, but "action leads to motivation, which in turn leads to more action". And that's the real reason behind the tip by Kearns and Gardiner (2011): " You have to start before you feel ready; then you'll feel more motivated, and then you'll take more action."
It is also useful to break down big projects - such as an article and of course an entire dissertation -  into very small steps. Set a realistic goal, break it into small steps for the day or the week and stay focused and pragmatic. "This is what I want to get done. The result has to be good enough - not a hundred percent perfect." And then reward yourself!

Tips to avoid procrastinating:

  • Start BEFORE you feel ready.
  • Big projects need to be broken down into small goals and tiny specific "to dos" for the day. "I will start working on my method chapter today. In the morning, I will structure my thoughts on the topic with the help of a mind map. In the afternoon, I will write for 60 minutes to get a start on the topic."
  • Be pragmatic. "I aim for results that are good enough - not better than enough."
  • If you feel you're not focused, try using the Pomodoro Technique to structure your workflow and to plan your breaks.

Academia. Do I Really Belong?

Identify the impostor syndrome

"Oh dear, everybody will realise that I am not an expert!" The central point of the impostor syndrome is that you believe that you are nothing but a fraud. Those affected are sceptical about themselves and their abilities. They believe that they will not be able to fulfil their professional role and that one day people will find out about their „incompetence“. They do not link their success and their achievements to their abilities but relate them to external factors or fortunate coincidence. Doctoral candidates sometimes also doubt that they are capable of what they achieve and think that the world around them will soon realise that they do not belong to academia anyway.

How can you counteract impostor syndrome? The academic world is a place that nurtures the impostor syndrome. Researchers are under constant pressure of critique regarding their academic standing, be it at conferences, in working group meetings or in peer-review processes. An academic culture in which colleagues rigorously scan texts in search of inconsistencies – mainly to make a name for themselves - is likely to intensify the fear of failure. Doctoral candidates are furthermore in a phase in their academic career that is marked by informal grading and in the end by a formal evaluation.

In addition, one feature of the German academic system still is that the majority of the professors are white, middle class and male. That means that doctoral candidates of different backgrounds can easily feel alienated if they do not conform. They might feel they are “not good enough” since they do not comply with the academic environment.

All of these aspects may enhance a feeling of inferiority. However, becoming aware of these pitfalls and talking about them will be the first step in order to say “YES, I am in the right place here at the University. I am a true researcher.”

Poster on Mental Health During your PhD - what you might experience

Further reading

Impostor syndrome & Academia
Kearns, Hugh. Research intelligence: how to overcome academic impostor syndrome. Times Higher Education. 18.07. 2019.
The Wellbeing Thesis. Building your Identity as a Researcher – Overcoming Imposter Syndrome

Impostor syndrome & Diversity
Simpkin, Theresa. ‘Impostor syndrome’ trivialises the serious issue of feeling phoney in HE. Times Higher Education. 29.01.2020.

Take Care of Yourself

Five ways to wellbeing

Taking good care of yourself is paramount - not only to the success of your PhD project - but to be able to enjoy life. Self-care is not selfish, because colleagues, friends and family profit from you being well! But how can you take care of your mental health? The National Health Service in the UK recommends 5 steps to mental wellbeing. And we at BYRD have some suggestions on how to take these steps if you are a PhD candidate in Bremen.


Connect with other people

Feeling close to, and valued by, other people is a fundamental human need and one that contributes to functioning well in the world. It is clear that social relationships are crucial for promoting wellbeing.  Pursuing a PhD, however, can sometimes be a lonely endeavor. If you feel like that, it could be worth to put some effort into meeting up with others! Find some suggestions here.

Be physically active

Writing a dissertation requires long hours of sitting at your desk. Make sure to be active nonetheless. Being active is not only great for your physical health, but it can also improve your mental wellbeing by raising your self-esteem, helping you to set goals and achieve them, and by causing chemical changes in your brain which can help to positively change your mood. Some ideas what to do.

Keep learning

Good news! Learning new skills can also improve your mental wellbeing by boosting self-confidence and by helping you to build a sense of purpose. And you do learn A LOT during a PhD. Try not to feel overwhelmed by all the methods, approaches, data and theories you still want to explore, but take a few minutes once in a while to think about what you've already learnt! If you wish to keep learning but want to get away from your PhD topic - which you definitely should do on a regular basis! -,  find some ideas here.

Give to others

Participation in social and community life and other acts of giving and kindness can help improve your mental wellbeing by creating positive feelings and a sense of reward. It not only helps you connect with others, but giving enhances a feeling of purpose and self-worth. If you feel your PhD life does not allow time to volunteer in your local community, you could offer small acts of kindness towards other people - on your way to work or in the lab. Some examples of the things you could try.

Take notice

Reminding yourself to ‘take notice’ can strengthen and broaden awareness. Being aware of what is taking place in the present directly enhances your well-being and savouring ‘the moment’ can help you to reaffirm your life priorities. Heightened awareness - or "mindfullness" - also enhances your self-understanding and allows you to make positive choices based on your own values and motivations. So interrupt the 'autopilot' mode once in a while and try to notice the everyday. Some ideas to practice mindfulness.

Further Reading and Resources on PhD Life and Mental Health

Information and resources collected by the Max Planck PhDnet on Mental Health -  including an Immediate Help Document
The Wellbeing Thesis. An online resource for postgraduate research students to support your wellbeing, learning and research.
Petra Boynton: Being well in academia: ways to feel stronger, safer and more connected, Routledge, 2021.
Zoë J. Ayres: Managing your Mental Health during your PhD: A Survival Guide, Springer, 2022.
Wellbeing and mental health lens on the Vitae Researcher Development Framework (RDF) - tool to reflect on and build your wellbeing and mental health literacy as a researcher

Background information on PhD life and mental health
Nature's 2019 PhD survey
Evidence for a mental health crisis in graduate education
(Evans et al. 2018)
I don’t think there’s anything darker than doing a PhD (Pollak 2017, The Irish Times)

Blume im Beton

Services on Campus

Psychological counselling

Psychological counselling on campus is available to all PhD candidates enrolled as students. The psychological counselling services are a point of contact should you experience problems of a personal nature or connected to your work or doctoral studies.

Internal Social Counseling Service

The internal social counseling service within the University of Bremen is providing help to all employees at the university who have problems at work, private problems or health related problems.

Telephone Emergency Services

If you have a serious crisis, you can contact the following agencies:

Telephone emergency services/crisis line:
0800 - 1110111 (24 hours), free calls, including from mobiles. This crisis line only offers conversations in German. They, however, have information on international helplines in other languages on their website.

Social-Psychiatric and Crisis Intervention Service at the Bremen Health Office, Hornerstr. 60/70, 28203 Bremen:
0421 - 800 582 10   8.30 am to 5.00 pm
0421 - 800 582 33   5.00 pm   to 9.00 pm and on weekends  8.30 am to 5.00 pm

Updated by: BYRD