The importance of building your PhD support network

Cover photo by Dim Hou on Unsplash

“I feel really isolated doing my PhD.”

Often this is what my PhD friends around me says to me whenever we caught up over a coffee, or just a brief chat at the corridor. That led me to ask why should we be doing PhD feeling miserable and alone. Moreover, it is not the easiest journey one decides to embark. Like all things in life, the PhD experience will definitely be better when the candidate is better supported.

At this point, most of you must be thinking I am referring to supervisory panel support. Yes, that is crucial to a successful and rewarding PhD, but not all. Supervisors have their own job portfolio and commitments too. Depending on the type of organisations they work in (research institute, industry, university, start-ups etc.), their responsibilities can vary and still, that means they have more on their plate than just to supervise and support students full time.

So what can you, as a PhD candidate, do to get the support you need to get through the hoops of PhD?

In this blogpost, I will discuss a few support networks you can build along the way as you are cruising through your PhD journey.

Health support network

This will be the first thing I would put on the to-do list. PhD is one of the most stressful moments (for most of them) in life. Having a professional network to look after your well being is absolutely important. It takes the stress out of managing your health while juggling so many things during your candidature. Without health, you have nothing. To ace your PhD, one needs a healthy mind and body.

Chuck Pagano - If you don't have your health, you don't...

So how can be achieve this? Get in touch with a general practitioner (GP) that you regularly visit, and set up a “mental health care plan”. This does not mean that you must first have an issue to see general practitioner : that’s a misconception. A mental health care plan is generally having a medical professional to monitor your stress and anxiety level while embarking on a stressful career training period like PhD. Stress can greatly impact both mental health and physical health. Having a regular general practitioner appointment under the mental health care plan helps one to be accountable of monitoring your own stress level, and prompts self reflection and better stress management.

Usually, a GP would ask a few key questions on your life stresses and habits, to observe that if the stress that you are undergoing is beyond normal or manageable levels. They are professionally trained to advise you on how to manage stress symptoms, such as insomnia and loss-of-appetite , and provide medical interventions as required, or even medical certificates if the health conditions will cause an impact to your candidature or research progress.

The bonus is, if you happen to feel unwell near your next appointment date, you do not have to worry or fuss about not getting to see a GP to address any health concerns due to the long waiting line, especially during COVID-19 as there are more restrictions implied. Even having a regular e-appointment over video call or zoom is fine, as long as you set up a plan to constantly keep your well being checked.

Another essential point of support would be the counselling services on campus. Be sure to be familiar with the counselling services on campus when you start your PhD. Speaking from personal experience, often we need a confidential third person to listen to our research challenges, stresses, or non-biased opinion on how to deal with conflicts at the work place. It is always good and healthy to have a safe space to vent and seek support psychologically, especially for international students who are far away from home.

Family and friends

It is important to keep in touch with your family and friends during your PhD. Despite it can be tough at times, for example when it is almost time to submit a major paper, thesis writing and defence period where we can just go “off the radar” for a while, I cannot emphasise how important it is to have one or two person close to you, outside of your PhD lab that can support you through this challenging times. They may be good listeners, great advisors, a friend who drags you out of the dark pit hole when you cannot see the light at the end of the tunnel, or just those who will just check on you when you have completely no idea how you are even. These people keep you grounded, reminds you who you are, and sometimes they are the main spiritual pillars to keep you going when you feel like giving up.

Honestly, whenever I think back how far I have come, I do not think I would have made it this far without this group of amazing people.

and do not forget to make new friends as you go along!

One aspect of my PhD that I enjoyed the most is to meet like-minded people. They are the ones who share dreams, ambitions and similar interests. It is definitely a motivation boost to find people who are also striding through treacherous waters of PhD. With friends and allies, now rather doing this alone, you can face the challenges together.

The internet and Twitterverse

With everything digitalise this era, it is hard to not exist on social media. Since it has been deeply integrated into our modern lives, why not use it to provide yourself additional support?

My personal favourite is no other than Twitter! Since having my science communication account active since 2018, I have been connected to so many amazing scientist and science enthusiast from across the globe. Sometimes it is just heart-warming to receive really nice supportive comments on twitter during challenging PhD times.

Sometimes, all you need is just that little understanding, encouragement, and advise to keep pushing forward. Like my this recent twitter thread of mine

and this

I hope this short piece of writing could inspire you to start getting some support for your PhD. It has helped me so much during my postgraduate training days, and I hope it would bring some joy to your journey, similarly to how these supports have brought joy and reassurance to mine.

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