Is prioritising sleep the first step in academic self-care? Tips for getting a good night’s sleep during postgraduate study

By Kirsten Russell.

Undertaking a PhD provides an invaluable opportunity to train and develop as an independent researcher. However, PhDs can also be challenging and it is easy to abandon academic self-care in the face of heavy workloads and imminent deadlines. Sleep is often the first thing we sacrifice, with many seeing it as a waste of time and hindrance to productivity. However, adequate sleep is vital for optimal health, wellbeing and daytime functioning. In this article I argue that prioritising sleep could be an important first step in good academic self-care and provide some tips on how to develop good sleep practices.

The need for academic self-care

Postgraduate study provides an exciting opportunity to undertake invaluable training that will develop a wide range of skills applicable to life and your future career. Conducting original research in an area that you are passionate about, attending national and international conferences, disseminating your findings and networking with inspiring early career researchers and academics are just some of the advantages of undertaking a Master’s degree or PhD. However, there is no denying that postgraduate programmes can also be a daunting and challenging experience. The need to produce research that is novel and worthy of publication, whilst also trying to strengthen your CV in the hope of enhancing future job prospects can at times lead to a seemingly endless list of tasks to complete. As a result, it is easy to abandon self-care to increase your chances of achieving more. The reality is, however, that doing so is often counterproductive to accomplishing your goals and, most importantly, in maintaining good physical and mental health.

Eating healthily, exercising regularly and obtaining enough good quality sleep are all key to practicing good self-care. However, daytime sleepiness, sleep deprivation and irregular sleep schedules are highly prevalent amongst university students (Hershner & Chervin, 2014; Lund, Reider, Whiting, & Prichard, 2010). Further, as a result of trying to balance academic and social demands, good sleep practices (also known as sleep hygiene) tend to be poor within this population (Hershner & Chervin, 2014). This may be the case as in today’s fast paced 24/7 society, sleep is repeatedly not considered a priority but as unproductive and a waste of time. Sleep is often mistakenly seen as a time of complete mental and physical inactivity and we sacrifice sleep in favour of activities we feel are more important. However, the reality is that research shows we will benefit across almost all aspects of physical and mental functioning if we make time for adequate sleep (Shochat, Cohen-Zion, & Tzischinsky. 2014; Hershner & Chervin, 2014).

The role of sleep in academic self-care

Professor Russell Foster, Head of the Sleep and Circadian Neuroscience Centre at Oxford University, recently suggested sleep is “the most important thing that we do”. Research evidence has consistently demonstrated that obtaining between 7 to 9 hours of good quality (refreshing) sleep is vital for a healthy body and healthy mind. Poor sleep can be a risk factor for developing physical and mental health problems in the future and can also worsen existing health conditions (Kyle, Morgan & Espie, 2010). In terms of physical health, insufficient sleep duration, inadequate sleep quality and irregular sleep patterns are often associated with a variety of negative outcomes including obesity (Fatima, Doi, & Mamum, 2016) and cardio-metabolic impairments, such as increased blood pressure and diabetes (Knutson, 2010). Further, insufficient sleep contributes to poorer immune function (Bryant, Trinder, & Curtis, 2004), potentially increasing susceptibility to viruses and other infections.

With regards to mental and emotional well-being, poor sleep is associated with depression (Baglioni, Battagliese, Feige, Spiegelhalder, Nissen, Voderholzer, et al, 2011), anxiety (Harvey, Murray, Chandler & Soehner, 2011), difficulties regulating emotions (Gruber & Cassoff, 2014), lower self-esteem (Rogers, Gardani & Biello, 2012) and reduced life satisfaction (Roberts, Roberts & Duong, 2008). Research has also demonstrated that both the quality and quantity of your sleep can impact how you perceive and react to stressful situations (Minkel, Banks, Htaik, Moreta , Jones, McGlinchey et al, 2012; Minkel, Moreta, Muto, Htalk, Jones, Basner et al, 2014). That is, sleep loss both lowers the threshold at which an individual will experience an event as stressful, and results in an increased cortisol (stress hormone) response to the event. Further, sleep disturbance has been associated with an increased risk of self-harm and suicidality (Bernert, Kim, Iwata & Perlis, 2015).

As well as having the potential to impact significantly on overall health and well-being, sleep quality and duration can also influence academic performance (Hershner & Chervin, 2014). Sufficient sleep is required to achieve optimal levels of cognitive function including; attention, memory, learning, and higher order executive functions (Dewald, Meijer, Oort, Kerkhof, & Bögels, 2010). Further, studies have shown that sleep can inspire creative insight. Rapid eye movement (REM) sleep in particular is important in finding the hidden links between ideas, a process which is essential for creative problem solving (Stickgold & Walker, 2004), and a key skill for any researcher attempting to generate novel research ideas for their PhD! As a result, restricting sleep to allow extra time for working or studying is an ineffective strategy for increasing academic achievement (Lee, Park, Kim, Cho, Kim et al, 2015).

Overall, these findings demonstrate that insufficient sleep impacts upon how we feel (mentally and physically), the quality of work that we produce and how we interact with our friends, family and colleagues (Kyle, Espie, & Morgan, 2010).

How to improve sleep during postgraduate study

Your behaviours and sleeping environment can significantly impact how you sleep each night. Sleep hygiene refers to a variety of practices and habits that can be implemented to help achieve a good night’s sleep.

1. Maintain a consistent sleep-wake schedule

Aim to go to bed and rise at roughly the same time each day (even on weekends!). Getting into the habit of sleeping at set times reinforces the natural sleep-wake cycle in your body. By establishing a sleep routine, you will find it easier to sleep at that time every day. Staying up late on weekends and sleeping in the next day creates “social jet-lag” (misalignment between your internal biological clock and the external social timing). This makes it harder to go to sleep on Sunday night and get up early on Monday morning which can lead to a sleep debt.

2. Prepare your bedroom for sleeping

Use your room only for sleeping. When you engage in other activities, such as studying, writing or watching TV in your room you will struggle to doze off and will find it more difficult to relax in that space. Ensure your room is dark, cool, quiet and comfortable and avoid the use of devices that can disrupt sleep such as phones, tablets and laptops (especially in the hour before bed). Using these devices in bed can encourage unwanted wakefulness by 1) suppressing the production of the sleep promoting hormone melatonin and 2) increasing cognitive arousal (i.e. mental activation such as thoughts and worries). You need to re-train your brain to associate your bed with only sleep.

3. Use the hour before bed to wind down and build your own bedtime routine

Aim to spend the hour before bed winding down and getting your brain and body ready for sleep. Creating a night-time routine can help with this. It is important to use this time to relax by engaging in activities like reading or listening to music. Avoid activities that will stimulate your brain such as working, exercise, watching TV or using game consoles, computers, or mobile phones. Try and deal with any anxiety or stress before bed so that it does not keep you awake. Aim to manage your activities effectively during the day to minimise worry at night. Some experts suggest writing down tasks you are worried about in a notebook before bed. This will help get them out your head and help begin to form a plan of action. We are better equipped to problem solve during the day than just before sleep. Engaging in some relaxation techniques before bed can also assist with shutting off your brain from worries or stresses. These may include yoga, mindfulness, or progressive muscle relaxation.

4. Limit caffeine, nicotine and avoid alcohol close to bedtime

Caffeine and nicotine are stimulants that can cause us to feel very awake and alert. This disrupts our normal sleeping pattern and reduces our ability to fall asleep and stay asleep. Avoid consuming caffeine in the six hours before bed time (be aware that caffeine can be found in chocolate and soft drinks too). Try to cut down nicotine consumption in the evening. Alcohol may help you fall into a deep sleep quickly. However, as it is absorbed into your system, sleep becomes fragmented and our ability to stay asleep is disrupted. As a result, you will wake up feeling sleepy and unrefreshed. Avoid alcohol for four hours before bed time and make sure you keep hydrated. Avoid becoming reliant on alcohol to fall asleep!

5. Avoid naps

Sleep is thought to be regulated by two separate biological mechanisms in the body (Borberly, 1982). The first process (Process S) can be thought of as an hourglass like timer that creates “sleep pressure”. Put simply, the longer you stay awake the more pressure there is to fall asleep. When we fall asleep, the pressure is relieved. The second process (Process C) provides an overall timing mechanism for sleep regulation. When we nap, we disrupt the sleep-promoting signal and make it more difficult to drop off at night. This can lead to a vicious cycle of sleep disruption. As a general rule you should save sleep for night-time. However, if you feel the need to nap then keep it between 10-15 minutes and ensure it is before 3pm.

It is important to note, that behaviourally-induced sleep deprivation is not the only cause of daytime sleepiness. Students are also at increased risk of developing sleep problems and disorders that cannot be solved by employing good sleep hygiene in isolation. If you experience severe sleep problems (e.g. insomnia, nightmares or circadian rhythm sleep disorders) for an extended period of time, it is recommended that you seek professional help.

Could prioritising sleep be the first step in academic care?

It is easy to sacrifice self-care in the face of heavy workloads and imminent deadlines, and sleep is often the first thing we abandon. However, this is not sustainable and can lead to burn out. It has been demonstrated that good sleep offers benefits in terms of the way we feel both mentally and physically as well as encouraging increased focus and the ability to work efficiently. Further cross-sectional evidence has demonstrated that adequate sleep is positively related to other aspects of academic self-care. Sufficient sleep is associated with other health promoting behaviours such as healthy diet, physical activity, proper stress-management, life appreciation and responsibility regarding health (Chen, Wang & Jeng, 2006). As such, prioritising sleep is an important first step in good academic self-care. So even if you feel that you don’t have time to sleep, find it anyway! It is time to wake up to the importance of a good night’s sleep.



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Kirsten Russell
(@Kirsten_Russell) is research assistant and a PhD student within the School of Psychological Sciences and Health, University of Strathclyde (

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