The importance of Mental Health during a PhD

An interview with Sara Cardinale, a 3rd year PhD student at EECS QMUL on her PhD journey and mental health.

Interview conducted by Elona Shatri

Let's begin by asking you about your initial expectations when you started your PhD journey.

I had a decent idea of what a PhD entailed since I’d seen my partner go through two years of his own PhD. We often discussed what it was like, so I felt well-informed about my responsibilities and the process. However, once I started, it turned out to be as I expected, just more challenging in various ways. My partner’s PhD was in a different field, and we are different people, so our experiences differed, and the challenges I faced were different from his.

How have these initial expectations evolved over time?

Our journeys were distinct, and my insecurities were different from his. For instance, I lacked confidence in machine learning and had to learn it from scratch, while many around me were already proficient. Additionally, my first year was demanding due to the numerous modules I had to complete, whereas my partner’s PhD program had none, making my first year particularly challenging.

Have the issues you faced at the start of your PhD evolved? Have you worked on improving your confidence and addressing the areas where you felt you fell short of your expectations?

Yes, I’ve come to realise that most PhD students face uncertainty. On the surface, they may appear confident, but when you discuss their research, they often admit to not knowing what they’ll do next. Recognising that this is a common issue has been reassuring.

Imposter syndrome affects many of us to varying degrees. We all struggle with similar issues, but there's often a stigma attached to admitting a lack of self-confidence. Do you think being a woman in a male-dominated academic environment played a role in this?

Absolutely, especially considering my upbringing in Italy where there were stereotypes about math not being for women. Transitioning from that mindset to realising my passion for computer science was a significant journey.

When did you first become aware that you were struggling with your mental health?

The first year of my PhD was overwhelming due to the workload and external expectations. I also felt unsupported by certain staff members. It all came to a head around April, which coincided with exam season. My lectures were online, as were the exams. That’s when I realised I needed professional help.

Were there specific triggers or experiences that brought this to your attention?

It was a combination of external expectations and my own high standards. I was trying to excel in everything, and my supervisor wanted me to publish a paper, which added to the stress.

How have your advisors, peers, and the broader academic community supported you in dealing with your mental health challenges?

Most of the staff were helpful, especially during a difficult period in April 2022 when I needed accommodations for an exam. However, there’s room for improvement in educating staff about mental health. Some well-intentioned advice was either incorrect or unhelpful. Ideally, they should refer students to counselling.

What about your peers? Did you find individuals within your cohort who could relate to your experiences?

During tough times, I tended to isolate myself, especially when I started taking antidepressants. However, I reached out to a few people, including yourself and others, and realised that many were dealing with mental health issues, not just related to their PhDs. Talking to them was beneficial.

Moving on, what strategies or practices have been most helpful in managing your mental health throughout your PhD?

Therapy has been incredibly beneficial. Also, I am open with people, including my advisor, about my high expectations and the need for boundaries. Discussing my plans with my advisor helps in managing expectations and time effectively.

Has your mental health affected your research and academic output?

Yes, it has. While I’ve tried not to let it impact my work, there have been fluctuations in my productivity. For instance, I had a challenging period in July, but it wasn’t as severe as some earlier experiences. Despite the difficulties, I managed to publish a paper during my first year and complete my modules.

Did achieving these milestones boost your self-confidence?

Yes, it did to some extent, but it also felt forced. I was pressured into publishing a paper shortly after a stage-zero presentation, which wasn’t ideal. I should have taken more time for myself.

Are there specific resources or services at Queen Mary or within the academic community that you accessed or wished were available to support students facing similar challenges?

I personally haven’t needed these services, as I can afford therapy with my PhD stipend. However, I’m aware that master’s students and undergraduates without financial support might benefit from such services. I did use counseling services at my previous university, which was helpful.

What advice would you give to other PhD students dealing with similar challenges, or those who might not recognise the signs?

If you recognise the signs, reach out to people. You don’t have to go through this alone. There are others who have faced similar situations and can relate to your feelings. Opening up can lead to finding support and helpful techniques. If you notice someone else is struggling, encourage them to seek help and take breaks when needed. Therapy is also highly beneficial.

How do you envision your path forward, both in terms of research and your mental well-being? Are there changes or shifts you hope to see in the academic environment to better support this journey?

Moving forward, I plan to be more attuned to signs of burnout and declining mental health. It’s crucial to prioritise self-care and set realistic expectations. Imposter syndrome is prevalent in academia, and acknowledging this normalcy is essential. Academic environments should provide more education about mental health to better support students. Expectations in academia can be excessively high, and understanding this can be reassuring.

Navigating Academia with a Newborn: An Intimate Conversation 

In this interview conducted by Elona Shatri, Inês De Almeida Nolasco, a PhD student at QMUL, provides an account of her journey starting academic pursuits while expecting. She elaborates on the challenges of navigating both her research and new motherhood amidst the unprecedented circumstances of a global pandemic, offering a nuanced perspective on the institutional support systems and the broader implications for women in academia. 

Can you share your personal journey and experiences as a PhD student who had a baby during the pandemic? What were the key challenges you faced? 

I started my PhD in February 2020 when I was around five months pregnant, and around the end of March, I started working from home due to the pandemic.  

Everyone at that time was struggling with the uncertainty of a novel situation and dealing with something no one had experienced before. It wasn’t very different for me. The main challenge was the ever-evolving protocols from care services as they adapted to the escalating situation. For instance, I never thought I would ask for breastfeeding advice over a video call. There was also a strong feeling of isolation and lack of support from our families, who could not travel to the UK, which was very difficult to accept.  

Nonetheless, I also have very warm memories of those times while trying to get behind the first stage of the PhD and planning the birth and life with a newborn rendered lockdown and pandemic to the background.

How did the interruption in your PhD studies impact your academic progress and career aspirations? 

I took six months off, and my funding and PhD finish date was extended. Other than the odd conference I may have missed during that time, there wasn’t a significant impact on my academic progress.

However, it was hard restarting work after some time away and a significant shift in priorities. It didn’t help that the pandemic at that time was still not entirely resolved, and my partner and I were still adapting to life with a baby. My mind was definitely not in the right frame to develop work at the level I felt was expected to.  

3. Could you elaborate on the support systems or resources that were available to you as a PhD student and new parent within EECS at QMUL? Were there any areas where you felt additional support was needed? Were there any specific institutional or departmental policies that supported you during this time?

“It is sad that having a child while studying for a PhD feels like an immense privilege. “

Regarding financial support, I’m a student funded by the ESPRC, which paid for my 6-month maternity leave, and the Westfield Nursery provides a discount to QMUL staff and students. These are hugely important but still far from enough to support new parents, particularly, moms. For example, more than my monthly stipend goes directly into paying the nursery fees; this means I would probably not have been able to continue studying if I didn’t have a supporting partner. 

The scenario gets even more grim because PhD students receive a nontaxable stipend; we are not considered employees, which means that I need to be eligible for most government support programs like the 30-hour free childcare or the tax-free childcare. 

It is sad that having a child while studying for a PhD feels like an immense privilege. 

In terms of academic accommodations, did you find that the university was flexible and accommodating in adjusting deadlines, workload, or other academic responsibilities due to your circumstances? 

Unfortunately, after maternity leave, you are expected to restart working full-time and still fall within the progression deadlines of the PhD (shifted for the duration of maternity leave). This is hugely unrealistic due to the demands of having a new baby, which creates immense and unnecessary pressure on the students. What happens frequently is that, if possible, parents transfer to a part-time working regime, but that means a considerable pay cut.  

The job of managing deadlines and adjusting workload is left to the supervision team and student, and although it makes sense to assess each case on an individual level, this means that the process is very subjective to the relationship and understanding one has with one’s supervisors. I’m grateful to my supervisors, who have shown great support and understanding.

What advice or recommendations would you give to other women pursuing a PhD who are considering having children or those who may face similar experiences in their academic journey? 

I recommend not disregarding the immense shift in focus after having a baby. It might not happen to everyone, but it was huge and very unexpected for me. Suddenly, the PhD was not the main thing on my mind, making me question if I should continue it. 

Also, it helps to plan and take advantage of every opportunity and support available to you. If I could go back, I would have taken more maternity leave; six months later, it was too early to return to work!

Regarding childcare and work-life balance, what strategies or arrangements did you find most helpful in balancing your academic responsibilities and parenting duties?

Nursery is an absolute necessity; other than that, it hugely helps to have close friends or family who can offer some help during work peaks or approaching deadlines.

If not for other factors, the best time to have a kid is during a PhD; the flexibility it provides is super helpful in managing the day-to-day. 

From your perspective, how can EECS at QMUL enhance diversity and inclusivity, particularly for women and parents pursuing PhDs? Are there specific initiatives or changes you would recommend?

The mental load and stress of complying with the same schedule of PhD progression as before has been hard to manage. Given the financial consequences of transferring to a part-time working regime, this is not an option for many. 

Another point is related to our status as students, which means we are not eligible for most childcare support from the government. 

In my experience, these are the main issues which the universities could try to address either by creating different pathways for new parents or increasing the financial support offered.

Interview: Professor Yue Chen (Director of Scholarship)

Professor Yue Chen has moved into a new role as Director of Scholarship. This interview explores what the role means and why she feels passionate about it.

Prof Yue Chen Director of Scholarship

What is the Director of Scholarship role?

The main duty of the role is to look after scholarly activities and to support staff on teaching and scholarship contracts. Given advances in technologies universities are not a monopoly provider for high level education so it is important to look into our delivery to ensure our teaching is at a high level and is still relevant. School is still growing, we have around 5000 students including the Joint Programme in Beijing and around 150 academic staff. This creates big challenges that can be helped by investing in scholarship.

How would you define scholarship in this sense?

Exploration and reflection on teaching practice, teaching initiatives related to in-house teaching and supporting learners. I use the metaphor of a colour palette with three parts:
1) Scholarship for teaching and learning (improving teaching practice)
2) Educational research: using data analysis or other research methodology to explore pedagogy or particular areas such as student motivation.
3) Wellbeing, ethical issues and social justice.

What made the role attractive to you?

It seemed like natural progress after being Director of Education. That role was about ensuring the smooth operation of our day-to-day academic business. A school our size has lots of operational needs. In the role I was exposed to new ideas for assessment and education and I wanted more time to explore them. For example how does assessment change learners behaviour?

On that topic are students over-focused on optimising assessment results?

There is a very competitive job market and this makes students become more “strategic” on how they learn. Students are still starting at the same age but there are a lot of new things on the curriculum that they need to learn. Can we bring students back from a strategic way of learning? Can we give them a larger picture of education beyond what appears on a transcript? I want them to develop skills for critical thinking, the ability for life-long learning and to learn to solve complex problems. I also want to keep the human touch in teaching.

Could you explain that last phrase a little more?

New technologies support education and make it more convenient and flexible but this can have drawbacks. I want to make teaching personal. Thinking about my early education I remember seeing particular teachers as a role model, inspiring students. A student who was taught by an AI could never see it as a role model. I want to support students with understanding and empathy.

Often we are teaching at a large scale. How do we keep that empathy?

It is very hard to make teaching personal when we teach large classes but even then we could let students learn in more personal ways. Can we help students recognise the gaps in their learning? We can listen to their feedback and help them achieve learning outcomes without undue stress. For example students might have a “fear of missing out” where there are so many resources available. This can make students anxious and overworked which can have a negative impact.

What teaching methods do you see as most useful outside the traditional “broadcast” lecture?

1) We should understand students’ learning needs and level — a challenge of QMUL’s inclusive model means that we get students from a number of backgrounds. One option might be to diversify the way we assess students. Some students are disadvantaged by certain assessment styles and giving them a choice might help with this.

2) We should find the right pedagogy that fits the module we teach. Lots of people talk about the flipped classroom but, for example, this might be more useful in situations where students are more experienced as learners and more willing to engage in discussion.

3) It is important to be an effective learner ourselves. We need to expose ourselves to advanced technologies and understand their impact on teaching.

Book Review: Women in IT: Inspiring the Next Generation (2014), BCS Publishing

This review was written by our own Michaela Macdonald

I picked this book up at a BCS’s authors event last year with a certain amount of curiosity. This is a 2014 title and wondered, how much has changed within the industry regarding the systemic lack of diverse representation in the workplace in the UK IT sector. Firstly, if you would like to understand and dig deeper into the underlying reasons, you will not find them here. While the book provides a cursory background to the persisting gender imbalance in the sector, these are not studied in great detail.

The book exists as a part of a wider initiative by e-skills and BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT, to inspire the next generation of IT professionals and academics so that the workforce truly represents the diverse users of technology. In three main parts – IT professionals, entrepreneurs, and academics – the book aims to create a positive impression of all the different careers possible in the tech industry through individual stories of women’s experiences. Many of the women featured have appeared on the annual list of the 25 most influential women in UK IT in the past. There is also a story from a former QMUL colleague, Nela Brown, a sound artist, musician, designer and technologist with a PhD in human-computer interaction. She founded G.Hack, an art and technology lab for female researchers at EECS, in 2011, aiming to create a supportive and women-friendly learning environment where skill sharing and hands-on experimental production can occur.

Secondly, notwithstanding the developments over the last decade, progress is still too slow. During the global pandemic, the IT sector experienced and unprecedented boom. In 2022, the gross value added (GVA) of the entire sector in the UK alone was £141.8 billion. And yet, companies are facing an enormous talent gap. Employers believe that the key to reducing the gender imbalance lies at an earlier stage – in schools, colleges, and universities – which is where the gender divide starts. Lower female participation rates exist at the GCSE level, with the gap increasing at A-level and continuing into higher education and, thus, the IT professional workforce. The lack of females taking IT-related qualifications directly impacts the proportion of females that are employed today as IT specialists. Businesses can only address inequality, make better products, and tackle the skill gap crisis by training and recruiting people from different, underrepresented backgrounds.

It’s not necessarily a book you will read from cover to cover, but it will certainly provide food for thought for educators and anyone looking for more diverse role models.

“Computing is too important to be left to men”. Karen Spärck Jones

Book review: “The Algorithmic Leader: How to Be Smart When Machines Are Smarter Than You” by Mike Walsh

This review is from Elona Shatri, a fourth-year PhD student at QMUL and a part of the Centre for Digital Music.

“The Algorithmic Leader: How to Be Smart When Machines Are Smarter Than You” by Mike Walsh provides an insightful and practical guide for those leading teams in the rapidly changing field of AI, as well as all industries that are transformed and impacted by AI. The book offers a thorough overview of how AI is changing different industries and proposes strategies for leaders to leverage this technology for growth and innovation. Specifically, the book draws attention to the importance of equity and inclusion in AI, and how they promote diversity and avoid bias in decision-making. The book is written in engaging and accessible language, and complex concepts are made easy to understand for readers with no background in AI.

What I liked about this book is the way it challenges traditional hierarchies and structures that can hinder innovation, and instead emphasizes a more collaborative and adaptive approach that embraces the potential of AI to augment human intelligence.

Wiki-editing event for International Women’s Day

On International Women’s Day, our team members Elona Shatri and Richard Clegg organised a Wikipedia editing event to create or enhance articles about inspiring women, particularly those in the STEM fields. Although Wikipedia is a widely used source of information, it has been criticized for its significant gender bias, with fewer articles about women and a greater tendency to delete those that do exist as “non-notable.” This gender gap in content and editors was highlighted when Dr. Donna Strickland’s Wikipedia article was deleted for being “non-notable” just before she won the Nobel Prize in Physics. 

The editing evening was held on March 8th, with a team of seven individuals working together to improve existing articles and create new ones. In keeping with the theme of the event, the team listened to a carefully curated playlist of music composed by women, which was available on Spotify. Through this event, we aimed to make a contribution to the representation of women on Wikipedia and promote greater gender balance in its content. 

LGBT+ history month at QMUL

LGBT+ history month logo
LGBT+ history month logo

February is traditionally designated to celebrate the LGBT+ History Month, and as part of this initiative, many colleagues at EECS and across the University paid tribute and celebrated the LGBT+ community and their allies. 

You can read about the EE & CS linked achievements at: Including the (love and law) story of Edie Schlain Windsor the IBM senior systems programmer who led the landmark Supreme Court Case (United States v Windsor) that led to the legalisation of same-sex marriage in the US. 

Paul Curzon gave a talk at the London CAS conference for teachers on the 25th February. The theme of the conference was Love Computing, and so Paul’s workshop explored the work of (gay) Christopher Strachey’s and his love letter writing program (you can read more here:

And if you haven’t seen it yet, you can still head to the cinemas to watch Blue Jean, which is a frank, powerful and emotionally resonant portrait of lives, both public and personal, in the not-too-distant past. In 1988, Margaret Thatcher’s government was about to implement Section 28 laws designed to ban anything that appears to “promote the teaching of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.” The story follows a PE teacher Jean who is careful not to advertise her queerness at the school where she works, but when a new pupil joins her class, her double life becomes to unravel. 

Perspectives from a prospective CS student

A cartoon of a woman studying

My name is Ines, I am 17 and currently in Year 13.  

I study politics, computer science, and mathematics, and my favourite varies each week. In politics, I enjoy studying and learning about political ideas and concepts, especially feminism! I also really like the feeling of success when I solve a complicated mathematical problem right, or when my program runs for the first time. 

Almost everyone in my computing class does maths, but nobody in my year does computing and politics. Only two other students do politics and maths. Mixing humanities and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) is not incredibly uncommon, but I still get confused looks whenever I tell someone my subject choices.  

In my primary school there was a computing extracurricular activity, that I did from 6 years old until I finished school. From then, I just kept choosing it, for my Year 9 early options, to GCSE, to A level, and now as a university course! I never had any specific inspirations, I just knew that I really enjoyed programming, and I was not going to let myself be driven out of it.  

I recently finished the coursework required for my Computing A level. I created a booking system for a hotel. It was pretty hard, but I managed to learn, through many YouTube videos and hours on stack overflow, many different skills that I could not have even fathomed a year ago.  

I chose to apply to a university in the the UK because I like the way the courses are structured. I really like the fact that it is possible to choose from niche modules in later years, but the foundation is set out first. I also really enjoy the London atmosphere and would love to be a student here. 

It is accepted that computer science is the future, for better or worse. Cash is being replaced with cards, cashiers with self-checkouts, and so on. There is not a single area of life that has not been impacted by technology, and that will not continue to be. 

I enjoy coding but have not really settled on a specific area. In university, I would like to focus on AI and learn more about it. I would like to do a masters, but I am not sure of the program yet. Hopefully, I will have the chance to this abroad, to experience a different university life. Having a specific goal really helps me stay motivated. Right now, it is reaching my predicted grades so I can get into my top university choice. 

I attended a couple of the Girls in Tech courses run by Queen Mary. In one, we were taught about HTML and C#, and the other one was a discussion between different women in Tech industries found them interesting and they made me feel scared of the computer science environment.  

Outside school, I take guitar lessons and really enjoy listening to various kinds of music. I also tutor maths and bake a lot. 

My Computer Science class is 17 boys and 2 girls, which can be very overwhelming at times. Sometimes it can feel like we are ‘other’ in a class where the teacher enables dubious conversations on women. However, I really do like Computing and that love, and my stubbornness outweighs the negative feelings. If not you who, and if not when? 

Book review: Design Justice (Sasha Costanza-Chock) reviewed by Ashley Laurent Noel-Hirst

This review is from Ashley Laurent Noel-Hirst a first year PhD student at QMUL, part of Centre for Digital Music.

If you have ever wondered why facial recognition software routinely fails black women; ’security’ AI systems increase risk of violence to intersectionally marginalised people; or how defaults in online forms skew university admissions, then you should read this book. If you have never wondered about such things, then you should definitely read this book.  

Combining academic rigour with anecdotal grounding and approachable writing, Design Justice by Sasha Costanza-Chock outlines how seemingly harmless design decisions can reflect and reproduce dynamics of power in a tech-centric world. They posit that ‘everyone participates in design’, and provide frameworks for multi-axis analysis of (dis/dys)affordances in contemporary technology. To those who are paid to design, Costanza-Chock invites a re-evaluation of practice.  

Thought-provoking, challenging, and inspiring all at once. A necessary read for anyone interested in technology and society.’ 

Thoughts on holocaust memorial day by Prof Mark Sandler

Holocaust Memorial (Berlin)

When I was a child (I was born just 10 years after World War 2 ended) there was no word we used for the genocides that Nazi Germany committed. To a large extent, these things weren’t spoken of. My best friend Paul’s mother Lorli (they lived down the road) “came to England as a child”. It was years later that the Kindertransport came into public discourse and I realised that “Auntie” Lorli was one of these children. It turned out that Paul’s father Harry also escaped Germany just in time. Neither of them saw their parents again. Apparently, I discovered just last year, Harry saw some action in France, helping the resistance, but that’s another story. (My own ancestors came from Russia/Poland around 1900, fleeing from an earlier brand of anti-Jewish persecution.)

Nowadays, we have Holocaust Memorial Day, which every year is on January 27, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. But HMD isn’t just for Jews – nor is it all Jews have, of which more later. HMD commemorates all the peoples who just weren’t ‘right’ for the Nazi version of the world: Roma, Sinti, LGBT+ and others were all persecuted, impoverished, enslaved and murdered. And it’s vital to remember that HMD is also there to commemorate the genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur. This is because the Nazis weren’t the first to commit genocide and aren’t the last.

Jews also have our own day to remember. We call it Yom Ha’Shoah (Yom is Day, Shoah is Holocaust). It’s held in Spring on 27th of the month of Nisan, which by the Jewish calendar is the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Both this and HMD are special, solemn events and I hope you don’t mind that we keep one for ourselves, while fully and completely supporting the world’s memorial on 27 January.

It’s worth remembering that anti-semitism is getting stronger. It doesn’t go away, it ebbs and flows just like any other human disease. There are those who deny the Holocaust happened and others who say it is vastly exaggerated. And on our campuses, anti-semitism is on the rise: there’s been a 22% increase in anti-semitic acts in the last two years, up to 150 across 30 universities. That’s reported incidents, and includes physical assaults as well as acts perpetrated by academics!

I am proudly a supporter of the Anne Frank Trust, which doesn’t teach only about the Holocaust. It goes into schools and helps young people aged 9-15, to understand all forms of prejudice, to learn how to challenge it, and to change lives for the better. Perhaps you might like to make a donation.


Mark Sandler 27.1.23