Book Review: Managing Your Mental Health During Your PhD: A Survival Guide


Abigail Lindner

Abigail Lindner
Worcester Polytechnic Institute

Earning a PhD is no walk in the park, but you might wonder: How much of the challenge is inherent to the process and how much is external? How much is unavoidable - just part of the deal - and how much is the product of an off-balance system?

A senior scientist in industry now, Zoë J. Ayres knows of the stresses faced by students and scholars in academic environ- ments, having studied analytic science with a PhD in electro- chemical sensor development and spent several years in post- doctoral positions. In the introduction, she acknowledges the dearth of materials, scholarly or otherwise, on the mental health of PhD students and postdoctoral researchers, and reflects on the need for greater, better conversation on the systemic chal- lenges in academia that exacerbate it.

The author’s aim in Managing Your Mental Health During Your PhD: A Survival Guide is related to this need: “[I]n this book," Ayres writes, "I hope to explore well beyond the typical, trite ‘eat well’ conversation when it comes to mental health, and talk about the behind the scenes of doing a PhD that is so often missing." Ayres (2022) While focused on helping PhD students, she also invites PhD advisors and the friends and families of PhD students to engage with the guide so that they might bet- ter understand what to be alert for (and how to support) their students’ and PhD-aspiring friends’ mental health. 

Ayres divides the book into four parts: 

  1. Defining the Problem
  2. Mindset Matters
  3. Environmental Stressors
  4. Seeking Help 

In “Defining the Problem," Ayres lays out the current state of affairs for PhD students, drawing from her personal experience, the experiences of others who shared their stories with her, and surveys conducted by both universities and third parties. She provides an overview of the arguments to come for why a high proportion of PhD students, compared to the general population, experience mental health struggles, honing in on the re-search culture that has developed in the modern university. 

Through "Mindset Matters" and “Environmental Stressors," Ayres covers a wide range of topics related to the research culture and general system of academia that she sees as responsible for the “majority of additional strain" foisted on PhD students, in addition to predisposition, inadequate preparation and support, and unavailability or inappropriateness of help. Each issue, separated into its own subsection, has at most one page (front and back) devoted to it - an intentional organizational decision by Ayres to make the guide more accessible to time-strapped PhD students. 

Ayres starts by proposing ways in which a PhD student can, while working inside the existing academic culture, practice self-care. She is conscientious in acknowledging that self-care is not all that there is to maintaining positive mental health - there are more factors at play than whether you eat well, exercise enough, and keep a balanced schedule - but these foundational tools play a significant part in alleviating the stressors of PhD life. Topics include establishing a healthy sleep schedule, setting boundaries, maintaining productivity while avoiding burnout, and beating back imposter syndrome.

From these recommendations, Ayres segues into a discussion of the issues in academia that contribute to mental and emotional stressors that self-care cannot fix and that need not exist in the PhD experience, noting that “so often in academia it is the working environment that can make academia difficult to navigate," contrary to the common lie that mental health struggles can be chalked up to a personal lack of resilience rather than to the environment. In these sections especially, Ayres includes excerpts from conversations she had with other current and former PhD aspirants, highlighting the treatment and reception of a diverse sample of students in their academic environments.

I found this section of the book the most fascinating; while the previous section on self-care was helpful and immediately applicable, “Environmental Stressors" introduced me to a number of previously unexplored ideas and data points. Ayres runs through various forms of discrimination that, unfortunately, arise as much in academia as they do outside of it, and how a student can navigate through them until institutions work toward real cultural change. Then, given the incredible importance of the PhD supervisor in a student’s success, Ayres devotes an entire chapter to the student-supervisor relationship, highlighting conflicts and red flags that may hinder or harm the student as they progress through their program. 

In the last section, “Seeking Help," Ayres recommends ways to start the conversation about mental health in academia, advocate for yourself in your institution, connect with communities that exist to herald these issues and support the students deal- ing with them, and recognize when external assistance, such as medication and/or therapy, may be needed.

While desiring a whole-system change in academia and a reality in which there is “no need for a PhD ‘Survival Guide,’" Ayres understands that transformations of attitudes and cultures will take longer than hoped; so, in the meantime, she wrote this book to present the statistics and stories to raise awareness, and the resources and options to aid in management, of student mental health on the PhD journey. At 200 pages, Managing Your Mental Health During Your PhD is a slim volume, de-signed to not discourage already-busy PhD students with sheer size. Balancing brevity and detail, Ayres could not cover every bit of ground, but, for readers interested in reading more about a specific topic touched on in the book, she has siz- able reference pages at the end of each chapter as well as a web page,, that she regularly updates based on inputs from PhD students, former and current, worldwide.

Because the book covers so many topics, the reading can be dense at times; I highly recommend 1) re-reading sections and 2) not trying to read the entire book all at once. Ayres notes, too, in the introductory sections, that she intends the book to be a resource - a guide, like a car manual, that you reference when needed. 

Managing Your Mental Health During Your PhD is a valuable addition to the library of any PhD student, regardless of background, as well as undergraduates who may be considering a PhD. Despite its small size, it manages to address a rich variety of issues affecting the experiences of PhD students, and encourages readers to think more, and discuss with others, about the challenges in academia and what can be done, either at an individual level or at an institutional level, to change them for the better. Ayres overviews several dark topics through the book, but emphasizes throughout that those who are struggling are not alone and that thriving, not just surviving, is possible. 



Ayres, Z.J., 2022. Managing Your Mental Health During Your PhD: A Survival Guide. Springer. USD 27.99.