How to support someone doing a PhD

February 1, 2017

Everyone knows that doing a PhD is hard, but it can also be tough for partners, friends and family who want to be supportive but don't necessarily know how. So here are a few ideas for how to support the PhD student in your life.

Don't dismiss the problem

If someone's talking about how stressful they're finding their PhD, the first instinct is to be reassuring. Don't worry. Everyone goes through this. Just keep going and it'll be OK. It's a well-intentioned sentiment, but instead of being reassuring it can feel dismissive.

Rather than try to convince them that it's OK really, just try to understand what they're going through and acknowledge how they feel.

Another way people try to be supportive is by offering a logical sense of perspective. Objectively, we all know that doing a PhD isn't the worst thing you can go through (there are people in war zones right now who have far worse external circumstances), but the subjective experience is real. You could argue that stress is all in the mind, but in some ways this is worse because your own mind is the one thing you can't escape.

So, again, instead of arguing that it's not as bad as it could be, accept that what they're going through is real.

Ask rather than advise

If you want to help, it makes sense to offer solutions. But sometimes it's better to ask questions rather than advise.

Even as someone who has spent several years giving PhD advice for a living, when I'm talking to friends doing PhDs I try to resist the temptation to go straight into advice mode. This is because:

  • If you go straight to the solution then you deny them the opportunity to vent their frustration first
  • It takes some time to really understand what's going on
  • Sometimes it's better to help people figure it out themselves (Is there anything you think you could do differently? What do you think you should do?)

Of course it's OK to offer some advice, but don't rush to do so. Being supportive is as much about just being interested as it is about solving the problem.


PhD stress: don't ignore the warning signs

Update: What about supporting the non-student partner?

A commenter on my Facebook page responded by asking about how to support the non-student in the relationship. I think it's important for PhD students to remember that the stress does pass on to other people and that spending all of your energy exclusively on your PhD can be hurtful to those excluded. No matter how demanding work gets, set aside at least some time for your relationships with other people. Investing time for half-hour phone call to a friend or to eat dinner with your family is just as important as investing time in the work. A PhD is not everything!

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