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?