For something that almost every student will experience whilst at university, especially during your PhD, loneliness is not a thing that students talk about on a daily basis. Doing a PhD during a pandemic is hard enough without the added stress of loneliness and anxiety.
Recently I had an idea that I decided to put out there in the Twitterverse to see how any people felt the same way that I did, and boy did I get a reply. Within a few hours, my Tweet went more or less viral with 834 likes, 155 retweets, 101 comments and over 100 private messages from PhD students from all around the world. I wasn’t alone and I felt like all these students needed a safe place to express themselves, share their knowledge and just get away from their PhD for a moment. From that single tweet, the PhD Support Group was born.
During your postgraduate studies, whether it’s a PhD, Master’s or MPhil, you put yourself under an immense amount of stress. This stress can cause a variety of issues like anxiety, depression, isolation and so on. Feeling this way is completely normal. We all feel this way sometimes and there is nothing to be embarrassed about.
Firstly, I want to emphasize that maybe not everyone will experience loneliness at university, and it definitely should not be a deciding factor that puts you off moving away for university or even going at all.
Secondly, most people including myself, feel these emotions because there are bound to be moments where we as students don’t feel that same excitement or motivation to be at university anymore. This is normal and these feelings come and go. The more you socialise with your peers, supervisors and students, the less alone you feel, however during the pandemic the only way of socialising is online. For some people it is not enough – not enough to keep them going and motivate them to study and progress in their research. When I did my Master’s degree, it wasn’t during a pandemic, but I still felt so isolated from my peers and couldn’t talk to anyone about what I was going through.
Being at university does not inherently make you feel alone: you might live with flatmates from your first day of first year; you are in classes of up to 200 people daily; you might be involved in societies or clubs where you meet many new and different people every week. However, during your Master’s or PhD this is not the case. The majority of people live at home, or rent flats off campus, they do not get involved with many societies or clubs due to the sheer number of study hours they have to put in to get the results they need. I wish there were support groups during my Master’s and PhD. A place where I can talk about my feelings, struggles and anxieties, but also can have a debate or conversation with like-minded people about our research and thesis struggles. Hence the creation of the PhD Support Group.
I wanted to break the stigma around mental health in academia and get people talking about what makes them feel lonely during their PhD and ways to prevent loneliness from becoming so increasingly overwhelming.
Let’s talk a little bit about the group: so far, we have 70 Whatsapp members, and over 110 members on the website/forum. The PhD Support Group is an online community dedicated to providing answers for questions, big or small, share knowledge, and discuss research. The group is also there to help each other solve issues that arise during a PhD. On this forum, students can find what they’re looking for, starting from research to thesis questions to ultimate discussions about the universe. The group is a safe space for everyone whether you are doing your PhD, thinking about doing one or starting one soon.
In terms of advice for combating feelings of loneliness, there are few things you can do:
- Take regular breaks from your study and socialise online. Focus on your mental and physical health.
- Change the scene once in a while. For example if you are studying in your flat, try and study in a park or outside.
- Keep up regular hobbies. I know it’s very difficult to do during COVID, but try to find a way of using your hobbies as distraction.
- Make sure you know that you are not alone in this. There are thousands of people out there who feel lonely sometimes. We are all in the same boat.
If you feel like you need a safe space, or just a place to rant, feel free to join us at PhD Support Group: https://www.phdsupportgroup.co.uk.