It has been said that the letters Ph.D. really stand for Permanent Head Damage rather than Doctor of Philosophy.
Sadly it’s not uncommon for doctoral candidates to experience mental health related difficulties during their studies. Some of this can be down to the nature of the degree. Candidates have to spend a lot of time and energy self-motivating to create new knowledge. Their work is solitary, hyper-focussed and generally not well understood by those around them. They have very intense, unequal relationships with a supervisor who holds a lot of power over them and who may be over or under-involved. By its inherent nature research involves a lot of dead ends, false starts and the ever present spectre of rejection from journal reviewers. And that’s all before undertaking the small task of writing up a book the size of a telephone directory and having to face a viva in front of a panel of experts.
As someone who has gone through the doctoral process themselves, supervised several and then ended up working therapeutically with PhD students and academics here is my advice.
- Anxiety, stress and uncertainty are common, but more common as is the dreaded “imposter syndrome” where your typical PhD student wanders around fearful that they will be found out or people will realise that they are not clever enough. It’s all lies. If you are here in the first place, you are good enough.
- Faced with writing a thesis it’s an understandable response to feel one that may be better off dead/ running away/ drinking until oblivion. This isn’t often acknowledged and people suffer, thinking they are the only one that feels like this. If you do feel this way, do seek support because there are a lot of resources at university to help with this. The Students’ Health Service, Student Counselling service, the Student Union and Academic departments can all be possible sources of support when it comes to despair, fear or doubts.
- A good thesis is a finished thesis. It doesn’t have to be perfect, world changing or the last word in your subject area- it just needs to be done. Your PhD is not your magnum opus, it’s really your driver’s licence into the world of research and academia. You may not even be in the same area in the future. I can barely remember what was in mine, and have to think quite hard to even recall the title. However, the research and analytic skills I learned finishing it I still use on a daily basis.
- Get out more. It’s all too easy to spend all of your time in the library/laboratory and feel massive guilt for doing anything other than your thesis. However, balancing your work with friends/ relationships/ healthy eating/ exercise and interacting with the outside world is incredibly important. It also makes you more effective and is probably the best known defence against procrastination, as you have a shorter window of time where you will need to be focussed. It’s only too easy to spend 20 hours a day occupying yourself with not writing.
- You are not your work. It’s only a small part of what you do and doesn’t reflect on your capacity for kindness, altruism, empathy or being a worthwhile human being. It doesn’t even reflect on your intellectual ability as your PhD is more a measure of your tenacity and resilience than it is about how smart you are. Others will love you for a variety of reasons, but your PhD is unlikely to be one of them.
- Best of luck with it. It’s tough. Remember, a thesis is written a line at a time. Keep doing that and it will eventually get done.
SHS Consultant Psychologist Dr Ian Barkataki