PhDs and mental health: Ruben’s story

By Alice Austin

Reading time 5 mins

Ruben is 28 and is in the 5th year of his double PhD in Computer Science. He is studying between Ghent University and TU Berlin.

Ruben saw studying a PhD as a good opportunity to stay in Berlin where he completed his Masters and a way to extend student life before settling into a career.

“My Masters went well and I enjoyed writing my thesis so I thought I should try out a PhD; I didn’t really have any expectations. I had indefinite funding and it took me almost 2 years for me to find my topic. This made me super, super insecure.”

Many PhD students suffer with Imposter Syndrome – they feel that they don’t deserve to be there and they are on their course by fluke. Ruben suffered badly with this during his studies.

“I thought I’d cheated my way there and that people thought too highly of me. I thought I wasn’t capable of doing it. I thought about quitting but was too afraid of the stigma surrounding that.”

To many the independence is one of the most appealing factors of post-doctorate studies, however Ruben says that this is the part he struggled with the most.

“The freedom makes you procrastinate a lot. Once you get stuck you get lazy and that leads to escapism. I started going out a lot and focused on everything apart from my PhD because I was scared to find out that I wasn’t capable of doing it.”

Ruben’s insecurities came to a head when he presented his first paper at a prestigious conference. “I thought I would be there in front of 60 people and they would discover an error and make fun of me. I was so insecure I was ready to bail. I spoke to my tutor about it and he said ‘You’ll be alright’ which didn’t really help.”

In the end Ruben did the presentation and it went well; nobody laughed at him. “I realized people don’t actually care.

Ruben believes that a PhD is not the cause of mental health problems but the combining factors of freedom, the challenge and time can cause them. “People who’ve already had a career are more confident as they don’t need to be mentored. But the first thing I did by myself in life was a PhD which is just a big jump into nothing.”

Often professor’s aren’t trained to notice when their students are struggling. Ruben says “The professor I had in Berlin was great but very busy. I told him when I broke up with my long-term girlfriend during my PhD. Half a year later I admitted I hadn’t done shit in the last 6 months and he said ‘yes, that’s okay – when I broke up with my long-term girlfriend I didn’t know what was up or down for two years.’ I wish he had said  that earlier and asked if I needed time off. He expected me to ring the alarm myself, but I was getting paid for the first time in my life and I wanted to show up for work, basically.”

A lot of the time young PhD students don’t recognize the signs of mental illness. These days the topic of mental health is spoken about in the media, however it should be on every professor’s radar to recognize the signs – especially if their student isn’t producing any work. Ruben didn’t recognize the signs and so didn’t tell anyone.

He says “The difficulty is that you don’t become a professor because you’re a people person. You become a professor because you’re a really good researcher. You can’t expect too much from professor’s themselves. But I think mental health at work is a global issue. Nowadays people are starting to talk more about it, but with PhDs it’s different. You don’t know what your goal is, or if you do you have no idea how to get there. It’s comparable to writers block – you can just get stuck.”

The reality is that no one in Ruben’s life would have minded if he had made a mistake in his PhD. I didn’t have any pressure from my friends or family. They wouldn’t mind if I quit as long as I’m happy.”

Ruben didn’t suffer with mental stress before he began his PhD but explains that he has always put a lot of pressure on himself. “I always wanted to achieve a lot – I started my first company when I was 18 and then another one during my studies. I always wanted to go fast. I thought I was on a roll for having the perfect life – I achieved a lot while I was young, I had a great girlfriend. Then we broke up and I was in Berlin which isn’t great for mental health in general – it’s an isolating city. By the end of my second year I got to a point where I couldn’t make any decisions. I totally froze. If I went to the supermarket I would be paralysed by choice. I was so insecure that I couldn’t even decide what clothes to wear.”

At this point Ruben decided it was time to see a psychologist. “I had bi-weekly sessions for about 9 months and that really helped normalise my thoughts. I learnt how to rationalize and to open up.”

Ruben believes that the best way to tackle the issue of mental illness amongst PhD students is to create a safe and open environment. “What helped me the most is that my professor shared that he had problems himself. I didn’t have the confidence to share, but the moment he told me that he had struggled I realized there’s a bit of space for humanity and that helped me a lot.

It was very hard to ring the alarm because I only understood how bad I felt once I was better. I didn’t realise that I was just a bad version of myself – I thought that was who I was, just a nervous wreck.”

Amongst all this, Ruben found his topic and hit on some ground-breaking research that won him several prestigious awards, making his PhD a huge success. Although this has given him confidence, he now feels as though other young PhD students are comparing their work to his and feeling low about themselves. Ruben says “If I could give any advice to people starting their PhD it would be that no one really knows what they’re doing; people are too focused on their own work to think about yours.”

“One of the great things about the PhD is it gives you confidence in your own abilities once you’ve completed it. You learn to think and analyse deeply and you learn that the edge of knowledge is only there because no one has gone further. It’s not about being a bigger genius than the guy before – it’s about exploring new territory.”


This is the third part of an interview series on PhDs and mental health.

Read Oscar’s story here.

Ready Irene’s story here.





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