Me vs the PhD

CW: mental illness

Cross-posted from The Abominable Thesis

I know I like NEVER talk about this, but I had a hard time writing my doctoral thesis. I know, shocking. 

But in all seriousness, it was bad at times. Bad as in my mental health seriously deteriorated. Over the last 2-3 years of it, I had several depressive episodes and was at least moderately anxious pretty much all the time. Now I have an official anxiety diagnosis and am on medication. I’m ok! I have access to lots of support systems and am managing well. And I’m definitely not anxious only because of the PhD. But the PhD significantly aggravated my moderate psychological instability to the point that I became pretty miserable.

I hope that it’s obvious why this is such an important topic. Academia is absolutely ravaged by mental illness. So today, I’d like to talk a little bit more about why my experience was so bad in the hopes that others may feel less alone and maybe even have a new perspective on how to advocate for their needs. 

Before going on, I’d also like to acknowledge the irony of complaining about such an incredible privilege. Graduate education is a perfect example of how privilege perpetuates itself: not everyone can access it, but those who can are often afforded more and better opportunities because of it. This is such an important and complex issue that I’d like to dedicate a whole future post to it. I’d also like to have a post just about the things I loved about my PhD experience! I’m starting with this post, though, because my negative experiences were a big motivation behind this blog in the first place and I think it’s important to explain in more detail for the reader.

As much as my tone might make it sound like I’m the victim, I know there are things I could have done differently to make my experience more manageable. I take full responsibility for those decisions. For example, the decision to start a PhD in the first place, ha. Other decisions I made because, well, you don’t know how to do a thesis until you’ve done a thesis. And then you literally never do one again unless you’re Bruce Banner (which, by the way, is a very obvious cautionary tale of the impacts of graduate education on emotional regulation). Finally, some of the reasons I struggled were because of aspects of the PhD as an institution: the structure of the program, university culture, academic norms, etc.

Here are the four issues that really stood out to me as major contributors to my own PhD stress:

  1. Isolation
  2. Lack of guidance
  3. Lack of “rewards”
  4. Time pressure

1: Isolation

Writing a thesis is a famously isolating process. You literally just sit in front of your computer and… write. To be done on time, you feel like you need to spend alllll of your time writing, which means all of that time alone. But it goes beyond this literal isolation. You’re also probably the only one working on that very, very specific research question (although there are lots of exceptions to this). If this is you, you’re not sharing the experience, your thoughts, your doubts with anyone who really gets it. That can feel incredibly lonely; it certainly was for me.

It might not be news for you that having strong, healthy social relationships is one of the most important ways we can protect our mental health. Even if you’ve heard this before, it’s something that needs to be repeated over and over. Humans are inherently social animals. Feeling like we belong to a community is fundamentally part of our self-esteem and sense of meaning. This is something we need to accept as fact and fiercely defend in our own lives. 

Still have doubts? Watch this Ted Talk, cause if it’s in a Ted Talk it’s definitely true (🤔): What makes a good life? Lessons from the longest study on happiness.

2: Lack of guidance

I’ve always thought of myself as a highly self-motivated and independent worker. Well, the PhD really pushed the limits of that aspect of myself. Almost every PhD student I’ve talked to has struggled with the lack of guidance from their advisor or other professors. There are a lot of obvious reasons why this can be frustrating, most of them revolving around the question “Wtf am I supposed to do???”. 

But I found more insidious reasons why this was an issue, especially when I started writing. I know how to write (cause I use words like insidious). It’s not like I needed my advisor to teach me how to put words on paper or use topic sentences. But again, this was the first time I was writing a PhD thesis and I had no idea if my analyses and conclusions were even in the ballpark of the expectations of a doctorate.

Let me give you an example. I wrote an outline for one of my first chapters and asked my supervisor and advisor (main advisor and side advisor, if you will) for feedback. Because I had NO IDEA what was appropriate for a thesis chapter. Like, none. Again, first time. They both wrote back and were like “Hmm, yeah, we like don’t really comment on outlines? Like, they’re kinda hard to comment on?” (They’re both lovely people, honestly, there was just a lot of miscommunication). So, they didn’t give me feedback. I realized later that they probably thought I was looking for a much more detailed response than I was actually looking for. I didn’t want them to evaluate my word choice in an outline. I was literally looking for either “yeah, this is a reasonable scope and structure for a thesis chapter” or “why did you send me a menu for the Cheesecake Factory?”.

This problem only got worse the more I worked on my thesis because the amount of stuff I had doubts about only grew. And the thing is, it’s really hard to stay motivated when your task a) requires an immense amount of effort, b) you’re already sick and tired of it, and c) you have no idea if all that effort will amount to anything. It sounds crazy to be so insecure, but I really felt like I had no sense of perspective.

I had my worst depressive episode in large part because of this specific issue. I was qualitatively analyzing my data, which was a part of the writing process in my case, and I had no idea if my analyses were reasonable. Advisor #1 couldn’t help me because it was out of her depth. Advisor #2 had limited time to help me and had exhausted that previously. My theoretical framework was relatively uncommon, so I struggled to find someone else familiar with it to give me feedback. I went a couple months where I was pretty classically depressed and really struggled to keep working on my thesis. Finally, I found someone who was willing and able to read it over. All she said was, “This is on the right track and it’s interesting.” And that was it. I wasn’t 100% back to normal after that, but it was a TOTAL game-changer. I had direction, motivation, and I felt loads better. I didn’t need my thesis to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. I didn’t even need to get a good grade. I just needed to pass and those few words made me feel like that was possible.

3: Rewards are distant and abstract

This is a funny one, but also a pretty big deal. Human motivation is fundamentally all about rewards (and punishments, but we’re not getting technical here). Whatever you do, you have motivation to do it because it feels good on some level: it tastes good, earns you money, licks your face, or confirms some kind of identity you want to have (smart, talented, beautiful, etc).

There are definitely a lot of motivations for doing a PhD. At the beginning stages I was collecting data, which was SO fun. I traveled to beautiful places and talked to interesting people. I learned a new language and explored fascinating theories in social psychology. And writing can be fun too, for sure. I don’t even mean that sarcastically. But as with anything, the fun wears off after 16,247 hours. At that point, what’s left to motivate you? The thought of getting your diploma? Ok, but… that reward is a) still far in the future and b) pretty abstract: the piece of paper itself is virtually meaningless and we can’t be sure how much the title will help our future career. Maybe we won’t get a postdoc and all the industry jobs want more work experience. There’s certainly pride in getting a PhD, but pride can only compensate for exhaustion so much.

4: Bone-crushing time pressure

PhDs are weird cause you just kinda finish when you finish. Oh, except that your funding isn’t guaranteed, so you should finish sooner. Except that some post-docs expect you to have been in your program longer. Oh, and the department is pressuring you to finish on time so that they get more grants. But you’re still expected to produce a 250-page groundbreaking work. 

To be fair, though, you do usually have a lot of control over your timeline. While that sounds like a good thing, and in many ways it is, it can paradoxically add to the pressure. If there’s no set end date, and your project is absolutely massive as most theses are, you end up feeling like you have to work constantly. A distant deadline makes it really hard to manage your time. 

To add to this, many universities foster a culture of overwork. Students are given tasks with vague guidelines but high expectations. Professors, their role models, practically live in their offices. I saw my own undergraduate students pushing themselves to the point of panic attacks because they felt that anything less meant they weren’t studying enough. This is heartbreaking, but true.

When I started grad school, I had unfortunately just lost a dear friend who had had severe mental illness. In the wake of this, I promised myself that no academic or professional goal was worth sacrificing my physical or mental health for. I made a conscious effort to stick to this promise for the first two or three years. I didn’t work on weekends, I usually didn’t work in the evenings, and I sometimes even took a vacation (unheard of!). I was also easy on myself. For the first time in my life I wasn’t at the top of my class, not because I wasn’t working hard, but because I was at a very high level of education. I chose to be ok with that and I genuinely was.

But being surrounded by the toxic university culture every day, in combination with the mounting pressure of the impending thesis, eventually got to me. I remember one week I thought “I’m a bit behind where I want to be. I’m going to work through this weekend to catch up”. And then I worked through the weekend after that, and the one after that, and through pretty much every one for the next year until my first submission. 

I didn’t catch up. Catching up in academia is like crypto: people are obsessed with it, but does it even really exist?? So in the end, we never catch up, and also never rest or have fun. It’s the worst of both worlds.

In general I make it a point not to regret my decisions in life, but breaking my own self-boundaries might be an exception. After my defense, I went back to free weekends and evenings while I did my corrections (UK system) and it made a huge difference.

So, in conclusion, the PhD is hard for many, many reasons. I didn’t even get to the scarcity of funding, the confusing and elitist academic system, overidentification with your research, or the intellectual challenges of the work itself (arguably, the only challenge that was actually welcome). Plus, I had a lot going for me. Academia is a notoriously sexist, racist, ableist, overall bigoted institution, and I didn’t have to face many of the barriers that exist because of that. Although I’m a woman, I was in a women’s-only hall and a woman-led research group in a (sort of) woman-dominated field. I don’t feel that I faced any barriers because of who I was, at least not consciously. 

For other people from minority backgrounds, the barriers can be everywhere. Students are all too often neglected and not taken seriously if they’re from a minority background. Others face very literal barriers: the 14th century architecture of Cambridge isn’t exactly wheelchair accessible (understatement of the year [not that most 21st century architecture is very accessible either]). I heard so many of my friends’ frustrations when they were slighted compared to their labmates, or couldn’t attend an event because of its location. These issues go far beyond inconvenience or bruised pride: they block students from very real career opportunities. Maybe most importantly, they can have a cumulative and detrimental effect on a person’s social power, self-esteem, and sense of dignity. This is relevant to this conversation of mental health because this process of repeated and consistent stress such as discrimination can lead to lasting mental and physical health issues in a process called weathering. All of this besides the simple but crucial fact that it is undeniably and deeply unjust.

I don’t offer many solutions in this post, except to treat your social life and your work boundaries as sacred. I do hope that, if nothing else, someone reading this feels a sense of solidarity in their own struggle. I even flatter myself to think that maybe my words can give shape to what others have experienced. 

But as much as I flatter myself, a blog post is rarely enough to protect your mental health from this kind of stress. If you’re struggling during your graduate study, or under any other circumstances for that matter, you absolutely deserve help and support. You don’t have to feel this way and there are ways to feel better, no matter how impossible that seems at the moment. Seek out a counselor or therapist, or even talk to your doctor to point you in the direction of mental health resources. There’s no need to get caught up in doubts about whether you’re “fargone” enough to warrant it: everyone can use mental health support. You can also check out the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) website for more resources. If you’re worried about hurting yourself or others, call the suicide hotline (USA): 800-273-8255, or use their chat or website services.

What have you struggled with during your studies? Were the challenges you faced similar to or different from mine? How did you find resilience in the process?

Red Pill, Blue Pill, Yes Pill, No Pill??

CW: mental illness, medication

After only 1.5 posts, several eons ago, I’m hoping to return to this blog. I dealt with more challenges this year than I usually have to deal with (as I think is true for very, very many people). But that actually means that this blog is even more important to me as a place to explore mental health, wellbeing, and personal development.

So, in my return I’d like to talk about a very controversial mental health topic (as if any mental health topic wasn’t controversial): medication. And I’d like to talk about this because it’s one of the reasons returning to this blog doesn’t feel massively overwhelming right now.

Before I begin, a couple of disclaimers:

  • Medication is NOT for everyone, by any means!
  • It’s VERY important to speak with a medical professional (as in, a psychiatrist or your primary care physician) about medication before taking it
  • Any medication CAN be dangerous
  • All of the above being true, this is an overall medication-friendly post

There are sooo many things I want to say about this topic, but this post is already really long. I’m going to stick to sharing a super-brief version of my own medication story and then talking about some of the common hang-ups people have and offer alternative ways of looking at things. At the end, I’m just going to mention how important it is to combine medication with other forms of support, for people who do go that route.

My own medication journey.

I’m going to start by telling you a little bit about my own medication journey. If you’ve never taken medication but are considering it, I think it’s good to have a realistic idea of what that process looks like by hearing other people’s stories. And if you are on medication, I’d love to hear how your own journey compares.

The first time my doctor recommended I try a psychiatric medication was in January 2021 because I was having serious trouble sleeping. And no wonder: my PhD thesis was due in a month and a half. The medication she prescribed (Trazodone) wasn’t for me, though, and I didn’t continue taking it. That summer, my doc returned to the topic because I was going through some exceptionally stressful circumstances and struggling to cope. That time she put me on Lexapro. I’d heard great things about Lexapro and knew it to be an effective, non-addictive medication with minimal (if any) side effects. Unfortunately, I had a similar experience as I did with Trazodone so I didn’t continue it either.

Fast forward to September that year: my doctor recommended I try Buspar. I tried it and I felt better very soon with no side effects. But I assumed I felt better because the major life stressors I’d been dealing with over the summer were basically resolved; I didn’t attribute it to the medication. Even though I felt better, my doctor recommended I keep increasing the dose to the point that it started interfering with my sleep. So, I stopped taking it. But low and behold, I started feeling anxious about a week later, around Thanksgiving. Somehow, I didn’t put two and two together until January this year, after I’d transitioned from anxious to depressed. I asked my doctor to put me on Buspar again, this time staying on the low dose.

Within a week, I started feeling better. My mood was up and I didn’t have that sensation of impending doom. I felt less overwhelmed by everything I needed to do and consequently I was more productive (back to blogging!). My self-esteem suddenly shot up and I even… felt proud of myself??? Like, even for little things???? Dude….

Sooo… should YOU take medication??

Believe it or not, the purpose of this post is NOT to encourage you to take medication; again, medication is most definitely NOT for every person or for every situation (and that’s a conversation for you to have with a mental health professional, not a total stranger on the internet). Instead, my goal here is to give you an opportunity to reflect on any doubts you might have about taking medication if you’re struggling with your mental health. For many people, there are very good reasons to not take medication. Other people, however, might be dealing with some hang-ups that are… less rational. Sometimes, confronting our hang-ups head on helps us understand how much they are really helping us.

I was not happy about my doctor recommending that I go on psychiatric medication. It made me worry about all of the things I’m going to describe below. And interestingly, some other people weren’t happy about my decision, either. From my experience, people’s (including my own) resistance to medication tends to revolve around two main themes: shame and toxins, so those are what I’ll look at today.

Pride & Shame

In this context, when I say “pride” I’m not talking about “I’m proud of myself for finishing my PhD!”. I’m talking “I don’t need anybody’s help, ever!” kind of pride. The kind that indicates shame.

It’s understandable that people feel ashamed of taking psychiatric medication, even though there’s nothing to feel ashamed of. Mental illness is massively stigmatized, which is ironic since so many of us struggle with it. So, it can be hard to accept that we have mental illness, especially to the point that medication is on the table. This was certainly one of my own barriers, which is surprising considering I’ve struggled with anxiety all my life and suggested to multiple friends that it might help them.

That’s not the only thing we feel ashamed of, though. Even if we accept that we’re unwell, a lot of us feel like we should “be able” to get better without medication. As if medication is cheating, or something. Again, I empathize a lot with this attitude from a personal standpoint. But it’s definitely not cheating.

I’d like to offer this metaphor for people who experience this kind of shame. Think about it like long-distance travel. When you go from one place to another, you usually take multiple forms of transportation, especially if you’re going long-distance. It might be reasonable to walk ten minutes to get groceries, but totally unreasonable to walk from San Francisco to New York. Even driving that distance is unthinkable for most people. Imagine feeling ashamed for taking an airplane across the whole United States because it’s the “easy way out”

Well, we can look at our mental health journeys similarly to this. Everyone wants to get from point A to point B, but the distance and the terrain between those two places are unique for each person. Some people might walk the whole way, some might use a taxi, some might drive to the bus stop, take the bus to the ferry, the ferry to the subway, the subway to the bike rental, the bike to the paragliding jump off point, etc. All of those modes of transportation represent different tactics that we can employ to get us from A to B in our mental health journey: therapy, meditation, journaling, socializing, manicures (you do you, babe), and so on. And sometimes, the distance we’re trying to go is far enough that it makes most sense to take a plane. That doesn’t mean that you have to take a plane, but… why wouldn’t you?

Toxins

For some people, the answer to “why wouldn’t you?” is that they feel like taking medication is exposing their body to harmful chemicals. I’d be willing to bet that this fear is a pretty instinctive impulse, and it’s not a bad one to have. It’s rational and important for us to be selective about what we expose our bodies to.

But at the end of the day, everything is a chemical (yes, literally everything!), and just because it was synthesized in a lab doesn’t necessarily mean it’s harmful for us. Similarly, just because something comes directly from nature doesn’t mean it’s safe: just think about how many lethally poisonous plants and animals are in the world! At the end of the day, a molecule is a molecule, and its origin doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with whether it is safe or dangerous for us. In fact, the whole idea of toxicity is relative: anything can be toxic at high enough doses (even carrots!), and anything can be non-toxic at low enough doses (even bleach! But don’t test this at home… bleach needs a verrrrrry low dose to be non-toxic!).

Psychiatric medications have been synthesized in a lab, but that doesn’t mean that they’re dangerous (assuming you’re taking them correctly). In fact, there is a very long, thorough, and systematic research process that highly-trained scientists have to go through to make sure they’re not dangerous. Many medications can have side effects, but what those side effects are and how severe they are depend on a lot of things: the person’s unique physiology, the issue they’re dealing with, other medications they’re taking, and so much more. In some cases, the person can’t take any medication at all, or just can’t take some kinds. In other cases, like mine, I had unpleasant side effects for some medications but not others. Many other people have the same experience. And it might turn out that there is no medication that is right for you, for whatever reason. But there’s no reason to be worried that medications are dangerous on principle.

I should also mention that there are SO MANY different kinds of psychiatric medications out there to treat everything from depression to schizophrenia. And to be fair, some of them do present more risks than others. Some are addictive, some are highly addictive, and some are much more likely to cause serious side effects. But that’s simply not true for all psychiatric medications. Research gets better every day and today, there very many safe options (again, assuming they’re used correctly). And for people considering the trickier options, it might be that for them risking addiction and side effects is worth the benefits of the medication. We can’t know what a person is going through on a daily basis to judge their decisions.

Enough ingredients to bake a cake

I strongly believe that people struggling with mental health should feel like they can consider medication without fear of being shamed for it (and, by the way, they should also feel that they can refuse medication without being shamed for it!). But medication probably won’t be truly effective if it’s the only thing you’re doing: remember, you still have to drive to the airport. As my therapist explained to me, medication can help you feel better, but it won’t change the mindsets and habits that perpetuated your mental health condition in the first place. That’s something that you can do through journaling, therapy, life coaching, maybe your religious practice, and so on.

Let’s use one last metaphor to illustrate this point. When you bake a cake, you always use more than one ingredient. The specific ingredients you use might differ: some cakes are chocolate, some are vanilla, some don’t have flour, some don’t use eggs. But you will definitely need multiple ingredients. In your mental health journey, it’s probably not reasonable to expect to feel better from using just one approach, like just medication or just meditation. But using a combination of the right techniques that work for you can make a huge cumulative difference.

I’ll say this again because I cannot stress it enough: I’m not encouraging anyone to take psychiatric medication. Instead, I’m encouraging you to reflect on the hang-ups you might have about it and how much those beliefs are based on reality. This is not just for people considering taking medication themselves, but also for their friends and family. It was very hard for me to see my friends push back against my decision to take medication, especially since it has had such a positive impact on my life. You deserve to feel better, accomplish your goals, and have a satisfying life, whatever that means to you. If the way for you to get there is with the help of medication, then don’t let any hang-ups get in your way. ❤️

If you’re struggling with your mental health, you absolutely deserve to feel better. Get in touch with your doctor or a therapist, even if medication isn’t the right choice for you; they can help you find other strategies to manage your mental health. You can also check out the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) website for more resources. If you’re worried about hurting yourself or others, call the suicide hotline (USA): 800-273-8255, or use their chat or website services. You are loved and you are worthy.