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What No One Told Me About Starting my PhD

Published:
April 8, 2024
April 8, 2024
Read this article to discover the truth about getting a PhD and decide if it's really right for you.

How can you be completely surrounded by people who share the same passions as you and still feel completely and utterly alone? I’ve been asking myself this question regularly since starting my graduate program a few years ago. It is shocking to me that universities attract the brightest, most hopeful graduate students who truly want to be agents of change — yet continue to break them down via brutal standards and systemic issues.

I’m a PhD student who has a pretty remarkable project that takes me to different corners of the globe to study whales. On paper, this is an incredible opportunity. It’s also mostly incredible in reality. I’m just starting my third year, and I’ve met inspirational people from different countries, seen wildlife that I never would have dreamed of encountering, and had interactions that have fueled my motivation to do good in the world.

But there are also disappointing realities that no one mentioned to me before I started my PhD. And to be fair, I didn’t really ask. I came into the program after having spent several years “in the field” — the academic’s convenient way of explaining why you weren’t attached to an institution. I was on a high when I was accepted into my program. This was going to be the next step that was going to change my life and put me on the track towards a meaningful career. I felt so sure of it. Finally, things were lining up for me after the years I had spent stumbling around the world, looking for meaning and a sense of purpose. 

I knew that graduate school would be challenging and even a bit soul-sucking, but I believed in myself, and I believed I could handle it. I had always been high-achieving and good at getting stuff done. Why would this be any different? So I forged ahead. And over the past two years, I have been an active participant in the PhD dumpster fire that has destroyed so much of my self-esteem and mental well-being. 

The PhD mental health crisis

It’s only recently that I’ve spent time diving into why I’m feeling this way and what I can do about it. I’ve learned quite a bit about the PhD mental health crisis from conversations with my cohort and peers, various articles and podcasts, and work with my therapist and psychiatrist. Here are some basic facts:

  • 50% of PhD students experience mood disorders, which is six times higher than the general population. 
  • Imposter syndrome (the sense that you haven’t earned what you’ve achieved and that you’re a fraud) runs rampant among PhD students, particularly those from underrepresented groups.
  • The onus for looking after one’s health is often placed on the individual, even though our universities play a massive role in creating a toxic research culture. As Zoë J. Ayres puts it in her exceptional survival guide to grad school, “Ignoring the issue, shifting blame, and relying on individual resilience, is often the perceived less costly approach (to our institutions).” It’s easier, and cheaper, for them to give you ideas for how to fix it yourself than to address the root cause of the issue. 
  • And what is the toxic root cause? Systemic racism and sexism, academic bullying, poor supervision and high expectations, unhealthy power dynamics — the list goes on. 

I’m not shy about admitting that I’ve required more mental health support over the past two years than the entirety of the first three decades of my life. This simple fact has left me completely flummoxed. I know that this is not my fault. So where are our universities going wrong? And how can we continue watching so many other students fall into deep depression and anxiety while they are simply trying to make a positive difference in our society? 

I started out believing that a diagnosis of depression and anxiety was a reflection on me — that I was inadequate, and that I didn’t have the resilience to survive in this high-pressure academic world. Guess I wasn’t cut out for this. Everyone else seems to be getting along fine. I’m too sensitive, I should be able to ignore it and move on. I need to toughen up.

But this is the farthest thing from the truth. Academia is nuanced with a hidden curriculum that you’re not told about at the onset of your program, and it can slowly knock you down and make you feel gaslit. The various stressors we deal with might actually be manageable in isolation, but when they are all mixed up together and tossed at us hardball style, the tension can send our mental well-being downhill. 

The stigma lives on

Another hard reality: even in this day and age of openness and “break the stigma!” mindsets, I have felt that I cannot discuss my mental illness at work due to a fear of losing future opportunities or being discriminated against. But the reality is that my mental health issues stem from my basic human needs not being met in the workplace. It’s only natural for someone to feel untethered and lost, anxious and depressed, when they feel disconnected and unsupported. What do you do when it isn’t your fault?

When I went to my advisor to discuss this, his immediate concern was receiving my validation that “he wasn’t the problem.” You can maybe see why this was discouraging; it reminded me of a toxic relationship I had been in before where, during my lowest lows, my boyfriend regularly needed me to console him that it wasn’t his fault that I was depressed. What? This is yet another burden placed on those who are struggling based on the lack of awareness around mental health and how it affects the way people move through the world. 

I’m tired of grad students having to take personal responsibility and beat themselves down for “not being good enough” when this is a systemic issue that has long existed in the academic community. While our society has made strides in integrating women into more parts of society, I have still been ignored, left out of conversations, spoken down to, bullied, and made to feel less-than-capable by my colleagues. How are we still here?

I am aware that my experience is just scratching the surface of a very deep-rooted issue, but my goal for sharing is to shed some light on the complicated reality of being a graduate student. This isn’t just true for students at US universities; I’ve read and heard similar stories from around the world. 

What to do about it

If you or someone you know is experiencing mental illness in a graduate program, please know that there is hope. There are many ways to seek support, but it is important to find the way that works for you and your situation. For me, it’s phone calls home and regular sessions with my therapist (and maybe some long cuddle sessions with my dog). Here are some more ideas for where you can build a support network:

  • Join a university club or society. For international students especially, these groups can help with culture shock and navigating a new country. 
  • Spend time with a close friend. If you don’t have any friends in the area, even just stopping to have a conversation with someone at a coffee shop or the grocery store can help you feel a connection.
  • If possible, take time off. Stepping back from your program can be beneficial in resetting your expectations and renewing your energy.
  • Seek university support. Though not all campuses tailor mental health resources toward graduate students, there may be counseling services, therapists, disability support, and self-care workshops.
  • Connect with your cohort. Remember: one-in-two PhD students experience some form of a mood disorder, so you will find that you are not alone in your feelings of being overwhelmed or sad.

I know that these suggestions are again placing the burden on the student to address the issue, but the reality right now is that we need to be able to survive to fight this systemic battle. So do what you can to help yourself in this moment, but remember that there are others dealing with these same concerns. We can and should demand a lot more from our universities; everyone deserves to feel emotionally safe in their workplace. But there are parts of our lives as graduate students that we can control to help us on our PhD journeys.

I’m here to share my struggles and listen to yours. You are not alone, and together, we can make academia a safer, more accepting place for every single person who feels called to do research and create a better world.

Creators:
Hallie Michelle
Published:
April 8, 2024
April 8, 2024
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