It is a well-documented phenomenon that PhD students are in a mental health crisis. It is currently estimated that half of all PhD students suffer from psychological distress, and anecdotally I have seen many of my peers struggling with anxiety and depression. I began my PhD, like many, with hopes that it would be an opportunity for me to grow and develop. It's true, I've achieved a lot of things I never would have thought possible. I've signed up for the Great North Run; spoken at international conferences; and organised events in a World Heritage site. I have also, however, experienced a great sense of isolation while doing the thesis. I've struggled with terrible landlords and bouts of illness.
Through all of this, I have been very aware of how lonely writing a PhD can be. I've always been a very social creature, so I found it particularly hard. While there is a research space at my department, I live a little way out of town and can't justify losing the writing time to a long public transport commute. This means I spend a lot of my time sitting at my computer in my room. Thankfully, I'm not living alone this year, but when I was I found it very difficult to cope with the sense of remoteness. The PhD itself can often feel quite isolating. You sequester yourself away and immerse yourself in a topic for which few people will share your enthusiasm. I began blogging about writing up, and found a thriving community of fellow PhDers, eager to share their experiences. People would private message me, asking for advice about things like changing supervisors or dealing with stress. When I posted asking if anyone found emails an anxiety trigger, I was inundated with responses.
I was aware that I was fighting the tide somewhat, trying to use social media to make people feel better instead of worse. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram have been linked to mental health problems. Instagram, the site where my blog gained the largest following, has been criticised for being the worst for exacerbating feelings of depression, anxiety, or loneliness. To combat this, I took a few steps. Firstly, I post no pictures of myself on The PhD Write Up, rather focusing on things from my point of view. I don't want readers to compare themselves to me, but rather to see things through my eyes. Next, I try to be honest. I talk about when I'm having a hard time, struggling to get things done, or just feeling low. I don't sugar coat or glamourise writing a PhD, many of my photos are of cups of coffee or my laptop. Finally, I try to be positive. When someone completes their thesis, has paper published, or does a conference presentation I always try to congratulate them. If someone seems down I ask if they're okay. When people send me words of encouragement I thank them personally. These little steps of digital courtesy can mean a lot to someone who might be spending their entire day staring at a screen.
For what I've put out into the world, I've had far more in return. The community of PhD researchers online is uniquely lovely, and I've really felt their support and embrace via the blog. I've had people come up to me at conferences, telling me how much they enjoy following my posts. When I went to Barcelona I had expert advice on where to go for the best food. One follower even sent me a care package all the way from New Zealand, with chocolate, a necklace, and an awesome pen. (Thank you again, @phoenixfruitbat!) I've also had the blog used as an example in training courses on how to best manage your online presence as a researcher, and had my department promote it on official channels. If you're currently studying for a doctorate, I would really recommend joining the community of PhD bloggers out there. You might find that it makes you feel that bit less lonely at your laptop.