We offer a consulting service for PhD communities in order to strengthen the mental and emotional well being of PhD fellows as they undertake the doctoral journey. We are a team composed of one psychologist, one facilitator of group process work and one academic. Our approach is preventative, in that we help put in place a culture that allows PhDs to deal with potential challenges that they may encounter. Our combined expertise, including personal experiences of PhD breakdowns and breakthroughs, as well as experience in the academic environment, means that we are a fitting team to address the realities of academic culture, including the inherent pressures that come with this job.

Ruth Aharoni Nielsen, Psychologist
Tali Padan, Group Facilitator
Thomas Theis Nielsen, Associate Professor


If there was a ‘before’ and ‘after’ picture for every PhD fellow, one might notice that the fresh-eyed, excited and motivated look of the ‘before’ picture is missing in the later picture. This is the case for many, though not all PhDs. There are also a few unfortunate cases of PhD dropout, burnout, stress leave and experiences of anxiety and depression. What happens between those before and after pictures are taken? Why is it that so many PhD fellows face debilitating breakdowns? And how can we help them on this journey?

Through our experience, we have found three major challenges that we address in our work:

  • The harsh academic environment caused by external and internal pressure
  • The individual nature of the PhD process
  • Lack of understanding and support from fellow colleagues

The harsh academic environment means that PhD fellows, previously seeing themselves as top academic performers are suddenly at the bottom of the food chain, continuously critiqued and given feedback on how to improve. There is nothing inherently wrong with such feedback, but some fellows start to equate this feedback with a sentiment of not being good enough. Because of the next two challenges – the individual nature of the PhD process and the lack of understanding from colleagues – PhD fellows can start to dread every feedback session and spiral in feelings of unworthiness. Power dynamics between PhD and supervisor can make the journey even more challenging for PhD students, especially if supervisors do not know how or cannot support the PhD fellow in an appropriate way. There are also many other challenges that may accompany this vital relationship, including personality clashes, publishing pressures, time constraints, and unmet expectations from both sides.


Although we offer a preventative approach, we recognize that some breakdowns are unavoidable and work with students to transform these breakdowns into breakthroughs. We do this in the following way:

To address the individual nature of the PhD journey, we offer Tali’s group facilitation that allows all PhDs to form a culture of sharing and connection. In our research, we have found that PhDs who participate in such a culture have a much higher success rate. By success, we are not only talking about postdoctoral achievements in the job market but finding and promoting one’s joy in the academic process and love for research. For individuals with especially difficult circumstances, we also offer one-on-one counseling with our experienced psychologist Ruth Aharoni Nielsen. Finally, we offer practical and grounded advice from Associate Professor Thomas Nielsen, who can guide students more strategically and support them in their academic aspirations.


The idea behind PhD Break is exactly that – taking a break. This is not a break to avoid work or ignore difficulties but a break to examine and reflect how the PhD process is going, its effects on the PhD fellow’s well being, and an opportunity to set a different course, if needed. It is an opportunity to break the habits and routines of the harsh academic environment and create a culture of connection and love of learning.

PhD fellows, if they are to continue in their academic pursuits, will be the teachers of our university students, inspiring them to love learning as much as they do. If we lose our love for learning, our students will do too. We are inspired to offer this PhD Break as a way to turn PhD breakdowns into breakthroughs and create an academic culture infused with the love for learning.