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This week I wrote an article for The I about why studying for a PhD can be bad for mental health. The article was a summary of a series of interviews I conducted with three current or former PhD students.
An article by IFL Science claims that over half of PhD students suffer with psychological stress during their studies. It’s great that research is being done, but papers like this aren’t particularly comforting to the individual.
This series of interviews with PhD students aims to humanise the experience of struggling with mental health while studying for a PhD and hopefully help those who are having similar experiences. First up –
Oscar is 28 and began his PhD in History at the university of Cambridge in 2012. Oscar had already experienced symptoms of depression when he was an undergraduate studying at UEA.
“A PhD is very different to an undergraduate or a Masters. I didn’t quite appreciate how different it was going to be. During my undergraduate I lived with people that I liked. If I didn’t appear for most of the day I would get a knock on the door and someone would say “How are you? We’re in the living room, come hang out.”
The structure of your social life while studying a PhD is not the same as in an undergraduate. The studying is far less social as you are the only person researching your specific topic. Oscar explains that it was in the second year of his PhD that he started to recognize he was struggling with his mental health and his third year when he knew he had a serious problem.
“I think the big catalyst is simply the way you have to work. You work on your own all the time, at least if you’re doing a humanities PhD. You meet with your supervisor once a month, you give them work which you’ve done all on your own. You’re supposed to spend 6 hours a day in your office or in the library working alone, not necessarily interacting with people. You’re the only person that pushes you to do it.”
This is a common issue for those studying humanities PhD’s. You are one of a handful of people in the world who is looking in-depth to that specific topic. As a result, those studying can feel isolated. Unless you arrange to work with a seminar group or find a buddy to go to the library with, your entire schedule is centered around being alone. This is not great for those who may be prone to suffering with mental health issues.
Another factor is being self-motivated enough to create a schedule and stick to it with no one but yourself to answer to. Oscar’s motivation was low in his second year, and escalated entirely in his third year. The guilt of not doing his work piled on top of him.
“I got into a cycle where I’d wake up and sit around all day and watch TV and play video games. It got to the point where I was living during the night, I was waking up at about 5pm and staying awake until 6am and then going to bed. I got completely out of kilter and spent my days sleeping and doing the minimum effort of anything I could to survive. I picked up smoking and wasn’t eating properly – maybe one or two meals a day. You don’t want to tell anybody because you know you’ve been sitting around for five months not doing anything. Then you feel guilty so you don’t tell anyone. And I had zero motivation to do anything. The amount of effort it takes to do anything seems monumental when you are depressed.”
This lack of motivation and feeling of enormous effort to do simple tasks only added to the problem.
“Eventually I got cajoled into going to speak to a doctor about it who then put me on the path towards taking time off and getting anti-depressants. That was when I realised it wasn’t healthy to spend five months doing nothing and barely seeing anybody and staying home all the time.”
A third factor, and one many PhD students suffer from, is what is known as Imposter Syndrome. This is the belief that you fluked your way to where you are now and at some point you will be found out.
“You’re doing research, you’re supposed to be working on something that other people haven’t work on so it’s all novel. And then on top of that there is the stress that you are surrounded by very smart people. You’re going to be assessed by how good you are at creating this thing. The guilt of the fact your wasting time and wasting money is incredibly powerful.”
This feeling is common amongst PhD students and highly detrimental to mental health. Often in academia these thoughts and feelings aren’t shared, and tutors are told that they are there to guide students through their studies – they are not qualified to act as councilors and some don’t feel comfortable in doing so.
After visiting a doctor Oscar was slowly able to get his life back on track. The doctor diagnosed him with mild depression, referred Oscar to a counselor and subsequently Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. This helped Oscar immensely, however treatment for depression varies from person to person.
One of the main changes that got Oscar back to a normal routine was accepting a Monday – Friday 12-2pm admin role at the university reception. He enjoyed it so much that it made him realise that, after four years, he did not want to finish his PhD.
“Every morning I’d wake up and be happy and get to work and have a really good time and then it would get to the afternoon and I’d be like okay I have to do my PhD now. I really liked the mornings, I really didn’t like the afternoons. And after a while I realised I don’t want to be an academic, because that would mean more of this, so why don’t I just not finish my PhD and get a job and have a good time with my life.”
In regards to what advice he would offer students embarking on a PhD, he says that enjoying life outside of your PhD is very important.
“Make sure that you keep doing stuff. It gets harder and harder when your mental health isn’t going very well to go out and socialise. You don’t have to work all the time. Make the time to stay social. Because I really think that being sociable even when I haven’t wanted to is what has helped me the most. And there were times when, as much as I wanted to see people, I just really couldn’t be bothered with the effort and really had to drag myself out. And I’m glad that I did. I ended up having a good time, a nice time, and it kept me sustained.”
“Work-wise I would say to people – nobody finds it easy, everybody finds it stressful, and lots of people have problems. Imposing a structure early on, establishing it and sticking to it when you can is very important. If you think you’re struggling with your mental health, tell someone ASAP. Perhaps it feels like it’s not a big deal but it can be very serious.”
Oscar is currently working in the administrative department at Cambridge university, is dating a nice person and has now come off his anti-depressants.