Driven mad by your dissertation?

This week is Mental Health Awareness week at the university. In many ways, this is great timing - students have started their classes; some may already be feeling overwhelmed and homesick, while others might need a reminder that should a crisis situation arise, there are resources to help them maintain their mental, spiritual, and physical health and wellness while completing their degrees.

I thought it important to write about here because the PhD is particularly fraught with obstacles to being a well-balanced human being. Unless you are an experienced practioner of Zen Buddhism, it's hard to maintain your equilibrium with the pressure and isolation that can mark periods of the PhD process. I myself (and I will remain anonymous here because mental health is, unfortunately, still stigmatized in the workplace and academia) have found that it has exacerbated all my psychological weak spots - fear of failure, discomfort with isolation, feelings of intellectual and psychological loneliness, impostor syndrome - and has even created new ones! Add to that a lack of structure to the day or week, and poor eating, sleeping, and physical habits caused by stress, procrastination and laziness, and you might have a recipe for disaster!

There are 8 new full-time PhD students joining our already-swollen ranks this year, and of course there are new distance-learning PhDs as well. (DL has it's own psychological disadvantages.) And to them, I would say that while it's not pleasant, it is normal and nothing to be afraid of. We are all in this boat together, literally, and there is no reason to be afraid of seeking support. Some people feel that by confiding their insecurities or anxieties to their peers, they are showing weakness to the competition. But the thing is, we are intelligent, resourceful, and supportive people in our other lives - we need to be the same to each other as colleagues.

We will have a Tea in the Attic session this week about 'Surviving your PhD', and I am sure we will talk about some of the coping skills necessary there. There have been one or two posts about this in our Facebook group, too. But I would like to open up the discussion to our wider readership - you can stay anonymous in the comments, if you prefer. What has been/was your biggest psychological challenge in the PhD experience? How, if at all, did you cope with it?

By talking about these things, we remove some of the fear and isolation, and hopefully prevent consequences of mental breakdowns like having to suspend studies, drop out, or worse. Please, if you feel overwhelmed, reach out and talk to someone. You and your work are important; don't let 'The Crazy' (as I call my own fits of irrational anxiety) get in the way of fulfilling your full potential.

[Image: Vincent Van Gogh, 'Old Man in Sorrow (On the Threshold of Eternity)', 1890, Kroller-Muller Museum, Otterlo, Netherlands]


Anonymous said…
Imposter complex is the worst. Even though I’m in my third year I often wonder when my supervisors will finally discover the error they made. And, although I don’t want to discourage new PhD students, I’m not sure it ever goes away. We’re like models and actors in a way. They go to auditions and are told they’re too tall, too small, not the right kind of face. It’s not personal but it must be sole destroying at times. We aren’t concerned with looks of course, but we constantly submit our work for others to criticise, and whilst it’s our supervisors, editors, and conference organisers role to critique our work and offer suggestions, it’s hard not to take it personally when you’ve spent hours crouched over a keyboard.
I was sitting with one of my supervisors sometime ago waiting for them to finish reading an email. They turned to me and said they had submitted an article four times and the editor has returned it every time with vast numbers of corrections - they were very frustrated. But it goes to show, our supervisors, who are normally close to the top of their profession, still have to deal with rejection and criticisms. It’s something we all have to learn to live with, just as actors and models do. If you do take these personally, your imposter complex will eventually take over – I’ve experienced this and it’s not pleasant, but a little is perhaps it’s a good thing; keeping us sharp and focused.

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