PhD Depression (or just the blues?)

While many people will suffer ‘the blues’ during the PhD, in some cases the problem is more serious and can lead to or trigger clinical depression. In those cases, all the practical advice in the world won’t help and you need to seek medical attention. If you are worried about how you feel, and nothing seems to help, please visit your GP for advice. The website Beyond Blue has many excellent resources and information if you are worried about another colleague, family member or student and are not sure what to do.

If you are suffering from the blues, here’s some practical advice that might help. I’d like to thank Ümit Kennedy for sending in this post. Umit is a PhD candidate with the Writing and Society Research Centre at Western Sydney University. You can connect with her via email at umit.kennedy@gmail.com or on social media using @umitkennedy. Although the days of her PhD blues have passed, she still uses these tips to get back on that horse every time she is knocked down.

I am well and truly in the middle of my three year PhD at an Australian University. Right now I’m experiencing some of the darkest days of my PhD journey so far. I am just so down. I hate my life. I don’t know what I’m doing. I’ve lost all my confidence. I feel like a total fraud. I’m feeling more and more distanced from ‘normal people’. (Mainly because it frustrates me more and more when people don’t understand what I’m doing or just can’t see the value in it.)

I’m calling what I’m feeling “PhD blues”.

file251272828278From an outsider’s perspective I have nothing to feel down about. I just had my first ever article accepted for publication in an academic journal. I’m well on track, ahead even, with a clear plan for completion. I participate, go to conferences, speak on panels, and submit abstracts left right and center. The problem is that whenever I ‘achieve’ something it doesn’t feel like an achievement.

Even having an article accepted, for example, in my experience, involves a pretty brutal reviews process in which everything including your ideas, argument and writing is criticized. So it can be hard to feel appropriately pleased about an achievement when the process of attaining it leaves you feeling lesser, little, unqualified, and no longer confident to submit anything ever again. Of course, you have to get over it and get back on that horse. Here are some of my practical tips to get out of the “PhD blues” and get on with it.

Achieve something

Do something that makes you feel like you have achieved something today. It might be as simple as cleaning the kitchen and cooking a beautiful meal. It might be organising your study, or wardrobe. It might be going for a walk or a run. It might be getting creative and making something. Weeding the garden, or in my case the pot plants on our little balcony. Attending to the piles of washing. Deep cleaning the bathroom. Grocery shopping. Putting everything up for sale on eBay. Finishing that novel that has been sitting on your bed-side-table for an eternity and finally giving it a place on the bookshelf. Anything that will make you feel like you have achieved something today. Sometimes just succeeding at being an adult (by doing any of the things mentioned above) is enough of an achievement to make me feel a bit better.

Treat yo’ self

By this stage of my PhD journey I have developed a reward system for myself. Whenever I have achieved a goal or worked particularly hard I reward myself by going to my favourite shopping center, buying a crème brulée late, and allowing myself to browse through my favourite stores. On a down day, treat yourself. Instead of treating yourself for achieving a specific goal, you are treating yourself for making it this far. And that is a pretty epic achievement worth celebrating!

Work on something completely different

I know this can feel like procrastination or a waste of time, but seriously, we both know that on a down day no amount of progress on the thesis is going to take place. Today would otherwise consist of many tears and watching YouTube or Netflix in bed. So instead, today is the day to develop those ideas for an article that has nothing to do with your research, but that you are excited about. It’s a day to write that blog post. Or as I’m trying to do now, write something practical that will feel like an achievement at the end of the day even though it hasn’t progressed my thesis. If writing is thinking, and I think it is, then you can’t go wrong.

Take this one step further and do it where people can see you. I love going to a busy coffee shop and writing. Even if what I’m writing is useless, I enjoy imagining what people are thinking when they see me: ‘Is she a journalist? Is she writing a novel?’ They’re probably not thinking any of those things, but it makes me feel like I’m interesting and like the image I portray is desirable. Look the part, feel the part! Am I right? Going to a busy coffee shop or library can also make you feel like you are part of the world, which I think is important when we are feeling isolated and alone.

Find the right people

I know how much my PhD is responsible for my feelings because life seems okay again when my husband gets home from work and we have some time together. Similarly, life feels okay again when I catch up with a good friend (who understands the academic/research journey). Or my parents, who I’m fortunate enough to say, also understand the academic/research journey. So much of my “blues” is to do with my isolation as a PhD student. The only community I have found is at conferences, and my only connection to those wonderful people is predominantly through social media. The right people are crucial. My hairdresser the other week was NOT the right person, and made me feel a million times worse when she had no idea what a PhD was and questioned why on earth I would want to spend so many years of my life “studying”. “I’M NOT STUDYING!” I wanted to scream. Find the right people and spend some time with them.

Break it down

Finally, after you have done all these things and feel like maybe you can face the world again, break it down. Break the rest of your PhD down into bite site, achievable pieces. Make an ACHIEVABLE timeline. Create a weekly or fortnightly to do list. Try to limit your to do list to one substantial task each week or fortnight. The goal of this exercise is to make you feel like “yeah, I can totally do this”. Next week all I have to do is *insert whatever you need to do next week* and I can totally do that! Feeling like you can achieve next week’s task (with all the tasks mapped out ahead of you until completion) will motivate you to keep going. Breaking it down and creating a timeline can feel really overwhelming, so make sure you’re ready for it – make sure you’ve given yourself some R&R time before you get stuck into planning. And yes, it will take you hours, but it’s not a waste of time, I promise. I revisit and re-create my to do list and timeline every time I’m feeling overwhelmed.

Don’t think about post PhD life

Recently, this is what has really got me down! My advice is don’t think about what will happen after the PhD. You will need to face this at some point, but that time has not come yet. Right now you need to get the freaking thing done! As my Dad has started saying (and as he was once told) “just get it done, it’s not your life’s work”. And as my husband reassured me the other night “the doors will start opening as you publish, teach, and build a network” and those things can’t really happen until I get more done. So the focus for now is getting more of the research and thesis done. Worry about the rest later.

Quit feeling guilty

So you haven’t really got anything done this week? Did you try? If you’re a PhD student the answer is most likely yes. (We tend to be a pretty hard-working, self-disciplined bunch.) Well, either you were tired and needed a break or you actually spent all the time where you feel like you were doing nothing thinking. Quit feeling guilty. Ideas do actually take time to develop and your brain never really switches off. Sometimes you just need to sit on things. I can guarantee that the periods where you are highly productive more than make up for the days (and sometimes weeks) where you feel you have made no progress. So quit feeling guilty and give yourself a break!

I wrote this article after searching “PhD Depression” for many hours. I could absolutely relate to everything I was reading, but I couldn’t find anything to help me get out of the dumps. So here is my experience of what has helped me.

These are my practical tips. Feel free to share yours.

Related posts

The process

PhD paralysis

 

 

52 thoughts on “PhD Depression (or just the blues?)

  1. Loved this post! I felt the same during my second year and it is really hard to pull yourself out of it. I especially agree with not thinking about post doc life. It only distracts you and adds to the stress!

    • Thanks, Rachel! I’m now approaching the end of the PhD and I still have to remind myself not to worry about post doc life!

  2. Reblogged this on Jenni Hyde and commented:
    This is a well thought out post on dealing with the dips in the PhD journey, that I think applies whatever the research project. Personally, my advice would be to watch out for “Deep cleaning the bathroom.” I know it’s a piece of advice that works and at the root of it is a need to change the scene and do something physical that takes your mind off it, but with all of these things, you need to watch what’s happening carefully. At the point where that becomes the only thing you feel in control of, there’s a major problem that’s much bigger than the PhD blues. I know. I’ve been there.

  3. After spending last night sobbing to my partner that maybe I’m just not smart enough, this is exactly what I needed to read. Just knowing others are feeling the same helps! Thank you for the post.

    • I sob to my partner about the PhD ALL THE TIME. You absolutely are smart enough and you’re definitely not alone! 🤗

  4. I’m now finished the PhD but still grateful for this post as I am supervising now, and recommend this blog to all PhD students within earshot. An addendum to this – and it’s my own experience. If you have any autoimmune disease, expect it to flare up – watch for signs and let your doctor know that you’re taking on a PhD. I have Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis, and an accompanying list of related ailments on the side (insomnia being the worst). After a particularly awful second year, the blues hit and the thyroid went nuts. It took a year to get it back on track, including having to go on hydro cortisone pills for the adrenals that had flat-lined. And then there was the psychologist. All the actions I took were the right things to do, but it’s a rough time until you recover. Along with medical support, meditation, exercise and a good diet were key to getting through the days. Thanks again for tackling this big issue.

  5. Thank you so much for this post. I’m experiencing the ‘mid phd blues’ at present! My confidence is low and I don’t want to get out of bed! I feel like a little hermit isolated from the world! As you suggest I’m trying to keep it in perspective and just focus on getting it done! I do have a creative novel I want to write and that I was putting off til after the phd was done, however, you’ve inspired me to start writing it sooner! I feel almost guilty for spending time on other things! Can’t wait til I can get this thing submitted and get my life back!

    • Writing your novel sounds wonderful! I’ve recently been talking to friends about how creative practice (of any kind whether related or not) can help with research!

  6. Thank you- I loved your post. I’m only at the start of the PhD journey and have already experienced some of what you’re talking about. I especially enjoyed your idea about writing in public and creating a mysterious public persona!

    • Thank you so much, Marian. Writing in cafes gets me through!!! I like thinking of myself as a writer with a visible routine! (We are writers, after all, no matter the discipline.)

  7. Can you please be my life coach?! This is such sage advice and exactly what I needed to read this morning. I think there is a fluid overlap between the PhD blues and anxiety. All of these things you listed are ‘symptoms’ of anxiety I feel. I’m so glad you addressed the guilt factor as well. Thank you!

    • Thanks, G. I’m so glad you found it helpful! I think you’re right about the correlation between blues and anxiety. The isolation is definitely anxiety inducing.

  8. Thank you for this. I’m in my second year of my PhD and I’m going through this right now. I have so many days where I feel like I get nothing done, and productivity has ground to a halt, and nobody really understands. This is exactly what I needed to read today.

  9. I have now finished my PhD and graduated. Personally I profoundly regret the entire thing. I found that the PhD process not only went beyond mere blues and triggered my anxiety, it sent me into a spiral of loneliness, depression, crushed confidence and autoimmune diseases, it also all but killed my friendships, destroyed two intimate relationships, and has now made me completely reevaluate my life and career plans. I am now out of academia and far happier, I have found new friends and my health has improved, though I will always bear the physical and psychological scars of that traumatic experience. People reading this: you dont have to put yourself through this. You can quit. You are not a failure for quitting, in fact sometimes struggling on and wasting years of your life is the stupid option.

    • Thank you for your honesty. I think I needed to hear this. I’ve just posted my thoughts on Phd life, but didn’t go in to detail about the levels of stress I was feeling. I’m so glad to read you made it out of the other side.

  10. Thank you so much for this post – I have definitely experienced this and also find that these practical steps do help a lot. Especially realising that the good writing days will more than make up for the days where productivity is low! I’m also lucky enough to have colleagues to commiserate/compare with, and for me that’s really helpful too – understanding that no matter how well other people seem to be getting along and how far into their PhD they are, they also have ‘down days’. Good luck with the second half of your PhD!

    • Thank you so much! I’m near the end now and still have to remind myself of these things. All the best with your research!

  11. I really like what you’ve shared Umit, thank you. But isn’t the question ALL of us should be asking is why are research degrees so difficult and demanding – to the point where people’s mental, physical and emotional wellbeing are compromised, and sometimes very seriously so. To me, this indicates there is something seriously wrong with this system and we should be advocating to change it. There has to be other, more humane ways of ensuring people are capable of producing research.

      • I’m not sure Umit but maybe we should start by having the conversation. I know I’m not the only one who feels like this so I’m sure there are others who could join in! I can think of a couple already. If you like I can contact you via your supplied email.

      • I don’t seem to be able to reply to your comment directly, Victoria, but absolutely, feel free to use my email.

  12. Thank you so much for this post. I wish i could have read it 3 months ago. I’m at the beginning of my Phd career and had no idea just how much the criticism and having to justify my work would affect me. So much so that I began to experience the physical symptoms of stress and anxiety just at the thought of meeting my supervisors. I know how hard I’d worked and how much of my home life was sacrificed to produce work for them and yet… I found myself in tears driving away from uni every time (not just tears, but awful migraines, feelings of uselessness etc) So you can imagine how I’d gone from being an A class student with my degree etc to that of feeling totally inadequate with the ‘what on earth am I doing here? I’m a fraud! ‘ thoughts and feelings! I attended student counselling and my GP, who both advised to close the books and step away from the PhD for a while and to do things I enjoy. So I began to be creative and went to the gym and suddenly I found my old happy self return (but this has taken at least 10 weeks so far!) My problem is now this, I know that during the next 3 years I am sure that I will experience stress and anxiety symptoms again. I know that, because this is the nature of the Phd beast! So, knowing that, do I want to continue? The thoughts and feelings I experienced before I saw my GP scared me! I don’t want to ever experience them again. At this moment I’m trying to decide if I should start again? Open the books, read some journals and see if I can get back on track. Or should I recognise that the PhD journey isn’t for me and switch tracks? I would love to hear what other people think. Many thanks if you take the time to read this. Just to say, all of these dark days that I experienced I kept so well hidddn from my partner and family and pretended every day that I was getting on great and loving the Phd life! Purely as I didn’t want to disappoint them. My partner is so proud that I’m doing a Phd. I wish he wasn’t as it would be so much easier to make my decision.

    • Kaz, I’m so sorry that you’re going through this! I know I found it so hard when I recognised that I was changing into someone that “isn’t me” (lack of confidence, self-doubt, anxious etc.). I don’t feel qualified to give you advice, but based on my own experience I would ask, are you able to continue being creative and going to the gym (and more) and get back to the PhD? Perhaps scheduling in, and prioritising, the things that keep you happy and grounded might help with the research? The trick (I think) is to stop seeing the other stuff as “extra”, “self-indulgent” or “a waste of time”, and rather view then as integral, necessary parts of the research process. But, as others have said, sometimes it is the right thing to walk away from the PhD, and there is absolutely no shame in that. One thing I would absolutely recommend is talking to your partner openly and honestly about everything that you are going through. There is no way I would have got as far as I have with the PhD if I didn’t have my husband’s shoulder to cry on. If your partner is anything like mine, not only will they continue to be proud of you, but they’ll also be proud that they were able to support you through it. I really hope things continue to get better for you, whether you decide to continue with the research or not!

      • I agree with Umit. A partner’s support (if you have one) is critical. One thing I’ve found with many thesis students (myself included) is that we have a strong tendency to perfectionism and that can lead us to 1) set unrealistic demands on ourselves and 2) want to project an overly rosy view of thesis life and how we’re coping with it to the rest of the world. Add to that a desire for (honesty moment here) the recognition that comes from being associated with such a (seemingly) prestigious undertaking AND a total lack of understanding of lack of self-care (not being awful here – most of us are clueless on this front) and we have a recipe for disaster. My tip to any student: keep what you’re doing firmly in perspective, pay utmost attention to your self-care, and never, ever identify yourself by what you do instead of who you are. It is your being that matters most. A thesis is just something you might, or might not, do as an expansion and expression of who you are.

  13. Great post especially about deciding who to surround yourself with for your own wellbeing. I am a part time PhD student and I am not too far from finishing now, actually years ahead of the normal part time schedule. I have suffered from some angst/blues throughout my PhD because of the reactions of people around me, especially friends, to my PhD. I feel like I should be better at dealing with them and not caring what others think, but I am not, so if I could go back and do it all again the main thing I would change is that I would never have told anyone I know that I was doing a PhD.

    My friend group was very critical of it and every time I saw them from my first year onwards they would ask “Why haven’t you finished?” and then “Why not?” I would explain that it’s a long process to no avail. The next time I saw them, “Why haven’t you finished?: Then eye rolls and sighs and deeply concerned and confused looks. Or I wouldn’t see someone for six months and when we caught up they would say “Wow, why are you still doing that? Are you writing two PhDs? Aren’t you worried it’s taking too long” – in my second year! Others would say “Must be nice to have nothing to do all day” etc. It made me feel like I was somehow failing when I was not and was actually way ahead of schedule. One person said “You really need to get your act together and wrap this up” also in my second year.

    Granted, none of these friends had done a PhD, but I still felt that this response was the worst thing about doing a PhD. It made me feel like if I had not done a PhD, I wouldn’t have faced as much judgement as I did merely trying to strive and improve myself. It would have been much easier if I had just keep my doing a PhD to myself as I actually found the work itself not too bad at all.

    • I totally totally relate with this comment. To my mind, everything was ok until I told people or my husband told people I was doing a PhD! The “when are you finishing/hoping to finish” question is just not on! Oh well…I have to keep working at a proper retort or response 😅

      • I’ve come across this too. I feel underneath these kind of comments lies comparison (at the least) if not envy or perhaps even jealousy. Either way, it’s an undermining. People might not understand what a thesis is, or why one might attempt such a project, but they do know it has prestige. I can feel they are often overwhelmed too by the fact that it signals you are, at the very least, extremely intelligent, at least in the way society currently champions intelligence. I feel the best way to deal with these reactions is 1) expect them and 2) not react to them in return yourself. Accept that they are going to occur, and while it might not be ideal and you might not choose it, it will happen. Having a strong sense of self will help too.

  14. Very interesting,
    You’re totally right “My advice is don’t think about what will happen after the PhD. You will need to face this at some point, but that time has not come yet.”

  15. This post matches up with my experience right now – coming up to 2 years into a 3 year PhD and it’s like my brain can’t handle the fact I’m over halfway through. Whilst it’s not good to hear you’re going through the same thing, it’s nice to know that I’m not the only one 🙂 thanks so much for being so honest.

  16. Pingback: Monthly Roundup: May 2017 – SGSAH Blog

  17. Great article and perfect timing for me too. Talking with my supervisor today about my current challenges – including a type of brain-freeze at present – she reminded me about reaching out to others in the PhD experience. And so I went to Thesis Whisperer and here you all are!!! Thanks Ümit and others for sharing. Some great thoughts on how to address the blues and sustain ourselves through this exciting AND challenging process. One of my tricks currently is to visualise myself on graduation day. Sounds weird but it works for me.

  18. I just wonder, does creativity is not necessary for PhD students ? I mean, subjectively, I caught the impression that the novelty and ideas for our research is not so important compared to our obedience to our PI’s ideas. Is this also happening all around the globe ?

  19. Pingback: Mental Health in Academia: Lets talk about it. | piirus.ac.uk blog

  20. “Ph.D. blues” are real! They can give you sleepless nights especially if nothing is going right! it is comforting to know and not the only one experiencing the ups and downs of being a Ph.D. Student!

  21. Thank you so much for this post! It was exactly what I needed to hear right now. I should probably bookmark this post 🙂

  22. Pingback: PhD Life and Depression – Heidi R. Gardner

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s