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PhD life and depression.

I have been in some sort of a lull for two weeks now.

Fellow postgrad warriors who know me are aware that my writing habits are rather melodramatic (although not unique to me) – sometimes I churn out an entire chapter in three days; sometimes I produce a journal article overnight; sometimes I give four talks in three days; sometimes I write five articles simultaneously; sometimes I sleep 10hrs in the whole week.

I run on much adrenaline, passion, and genuine interest/curiosity for the things I enjoy pursuing. I wouldn’t say I am pushing my body to its limits, or endangering myself to pursue some unattainable workaholic goals. My system is just productive functioning in peaks and troughs.

The troughs?

Sometimes I spend three months on a chapter I really dislike and cannot stop rewriting to death and make no progress; sometimes I work on the same ‘revise and resubmit’ article for more than a year and make no progress; sometimes I stare at the same paragraph for a week and make no progress; sometimes I open a document and read it and close it and make no progress; sometimes I refuse to touch any intellectual reading for days and make no progress.

While my troughs take me away from the tangible productivities of academia, I believe I also engage in some healthy level of self-care: haphazard sprawling; riverside reading; sunset chasing; suburb roaming; flower picking; bubble blowing; ambient recording; lucid jamming; frenzied juicing; backyard BBQing; post-crossing; chummy playdating – the things that fulfill and nourish my insides in a way that differs from the satisfaction and joy that academia brings.

It wasn’t always like this though. When I was still (wishfully) dreaming about pursuing a career in professional orchestral music and was rehearsing with several groups, six times a week, I don’t recall ever being in lulls that repulsed me from the very thing that I love. It was always more of a sustainable marathon, smooth and steady, slowly but surely, much unlike the massive/impressive sprint + dramatic convulsing + immobile collapsing of my academic pace today.

And I’m increasingly certain that this trajectory is not healthy living.

I’ve been prowling through the interwebs and absorbing much internet intellect on PhD/academia-induced depression. Not people with depression pre-academia, or academics studying depression, but specifically PhD students and academics who have fallen into or discovered their depression stemming from (being in) academia.

There are the officious reports from the likes of The Guardian, Times Higher Education, and University Affairs; there is much commiseration over humour on PhD Comics and PhD Stress; and there are several supportive networks and online forums.

We all know the usual buzz on the shortfalls of the industry: infantilization in the ECR stage, structures of inequality, lifelong competition, isolation from peers, constant critique, abysmal job market, DEBT, and all that depressing stuff.

And there’s also the ‘how to cope stuff’ like family support, writing groups, writing plans, pacing, practical targets, etc. But more crucially, I think PhD students often don’t recognize or acknowledge our depression.

(totally subjective non-peer reviewed brainfarts based on personal anecdotes to follow)

Most of us are “chronic over-achievers” (borrowing from a heart-felt and intimate post from my beb, Renee Powers) who are not learning how to deal with failure and rejection in the early years of our careers(-to-be). We know and love what we do and we do it the damned best we can. (aren’t we all closet perfectionists?) I mean, getting into grad school *and* clinching some sort of a scholarship is at least one marker of this ‘achievement’, right? In short, we kick butt and we know it. And when we suddenly don’t kick butt, our system goes into shock, and our brain sometimes does not compute. Within ivory towers where we told we’re the creme de la creme, etc meh self-esteem boosting things, we are not taught to deal with failure and few of us know how to deal with feelings of rejection in a healthy way.

We pride ourselves in our intellect, reasoning capabilities, and rationality, and sometimes allow these to supersede our emotive impulses. It’s the ‘I feel totally crap but things still need being done’ default robotic workaholic mode. Sometimes we discount the amount of emotional labour we pore over and pour in. There is also the whole business of impression management, and defending your work and pride whenever you give presentations based on your lifelong expertise to a room full of brainy people who are *trained* to find loopholes in everything you say (more about intellectual peer review, and less about ego-boosting/bravado-sustaining/empty talk displays). I don’t know if academics get to take mental health days at work?

Academia is a lifestyle and acknowledging failure will gravely upset our social realities. Work is life and life is work. We use weekends to catch up on work; recess weeks are for conference travels; summer breaks are for ‘sabbaticals’ on which we go off to a foreign exotic place to do *more* work anyway, just in a different environment or with different collaborators. I know a couple of academic-parents who always set aside time for their kids (TL and fun activities with his bubs, and CBdC who insisted on leaving a seminar on time to take her daughters trick-or-treating!) and I aspire to be like that in the future. But I think most of us PhD/ECR newbie have not learnt to manage work-life balance because we are always working towards *some* goal. First publication? Dissertation submission? First book? Postdoc? Tenure track? Tenure? Head of department? Run an entire university? Idk. When so much of your time/effort/resources/life is invested into a career that requires a very intense level of commitment, we sometimes fail to separate work and non-work spheres. This is even more salient when the structures of the industry keep encouraging us to put in the difficult, dirty, daunting legwork in our early years.

I try to tell myself that my self-worth is not determined by my academic achievement, that my life is so much more than this PhD, that I am ‘crystal who happens to be an academic’ not ‘crystal the academic’. I don’t want academia to be my master status. I want to learn to calibrate all my pursuits. But at this point, this academic rut I find myself soaking in is influencing much of my other-lives.

Do I have PhD-induced depression? I don’t know (yet). But my usually reliable list of self-care pursuits has been failing me of late, and I don’t know what to do. But I know I’m not alone.

PS: I don’t know if mental health is common public conversation where you’re from or if your institution has support mechanisms addressing it (please tell me?) We’ve just had Mental Health Week at UWA.

2 replies »

  1. OK, Crystal, this is a TOTALLY NORMAL PHASE when you’re doing a PhD. I literally conned my body into thinking I had tendonitis I was so scared of finishing my dissertation. My arm hurt so bad I couldn’t lift a bread knife let alone type, and I was actually on paid sick leave for six weeks (!). My physiotherapist was suggesting surgery but luckily I read a book about how our brains can make our muscles feel pain by reducing oxygen flow to them, and stomach ulcers stopped being very common once people figured out they were stress related. My tendonitis hurt just as bad as ever and I didn’t believe a word of that stupid book. But then work bought me speech recognition software so I could get back to writing my dissertation even without being able to type and after two hours of talking to it to train it my throat was so sore and my voice so hoarse I could barely croak. Now even I saw through this. I can yack on for HOURS and not worry and now I’d lost my voice after two hours of training speech recognition software? And it was as if someone switched on a light switch. I realized that if I learnt to type with my toes I’d get some rare toe injury or something so I couldn’t write my thesis anyway. Miraculously my “tendonitis” improved (it actually was tendonitis – the symptoms were all real it’s just that the cause wasn’t really overuse of a computer) within a few days and I realized I was just plain terrified.

    It’s like it’s not even being scared of NOT finishing. The idea of finishing can be just as scary. The whole situation is absolutely insanely terrifying. You not only have to finish a gigantic problem, you’re supposed to be super smart and also get an awesome job in what you know is a really tough market. And if you DON’T finish that’s awful too.

    What finally, bizarrely did the trick for me was deciding it would be OK if I didn’t finish and actually thinking out alternative careers for myself. Once I actually sort of accepted that I might fail, I managed to finish. A few months overdue, but it was OK.

    Here are some blog posts I wrote back then:

    and a book that helped me

    So ultimately, yeah, perhaps you have PhD-related depression. I had PhD-related tendonitis. Might not be that much of a difference. And your way through it may be different from mine – but I’m sure that you’ll find a way through :) (Also, see you in Seoul next weekend!!!)

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