The part of the PhD journey that no one talks about
So earlier this week I read a heart-breaking blog post that described a student’s journey of their PhD. This one was different however; it didn’t discuss research. This one discussed mental health. This topic is the ‘taboo’ topic of research as, quite often, you find that people don’t talk about this at all. Students don’t talk about it with their supervisors, with each other, and even don’t admit it themselves if they feel there is something not quite right.
I think this is a really important topic, not only as I have a Clinical Psychology background, but because I have been with those who have needed support, students who have needed help. Students who have asked for help and gotten it. I have been the one who was there through all the pain, when they felt like they could not cope – could not cope with everyday things like planning their studying and finishing an assignment. I was there. It’s what broke me, I suppose, before I left.
Now there are many types of mental health problems that could arise and affect a student. This could be from anxiety, depression, and imposter syndrome (yes, there is such a term!) to things which could be life changing or life ending such as self-harm and suicide. These are the most common ones but they are not exclusive, and there is definitely not a set list. Each student is different, so any psychological-related issue that is a direct result of research or a PhD should not be ignored and I am going to share some of my thoughts on this within this blog entry.
So in the blog entry that I read earlier this week, the writer discusses how they were at breaking point and came to make THAT decision not to do it. I could assume it is not an easy place to be and not an easy question to think of, and to be as close as this writer was to ending it is more common than you think. You will never know unless you discuss the issue, which is one of the most important things to take away from this, if nothing else.
Now I have not been in that situation myself, but I headed down that route. Late 2014 I decided to be clever and get admitted to a hospital as I had a blood clot in my lungs, and suddenly one day in the car park at work, I could not breathe. Luckily I was able to call for help and go to a hospital, but I think that’s where it started. I scared myself stupid wondering if it would happen again and within the first few days of getting discharged from the hospital (and given the all clear) I had myself so frightened that I then had to take more time off work. After seeking help from my GP, he decided that I had scared myself silly, and told me to take time off. I then got a telling off for returning to work the day after getting discharged from the hospital as I was worried about getting behind at work. I should have just taken time off, as I now know! Anyway, to cut a long story short, I did not rest and as a result I wound myself up so much that it started affecting my job.
I think that is where it all started. I had to call my boss and explain what the doctor had said. That’s what made me worry more. Her question of ‘Do you want me to put that on your absence form?’ made me question what on earth she was thinking and why she was asking me that. Then it dawned on me. How could I be an Assistant Psychologist and have what was technically classed as a mental health problem, albeit a little one? Was she questioning my ability to function as a human being or was she just trying to keep it quiet so I could rest? It turns out, it didn’t really matter. Only two months after, I had had enough. My work had slipped and my heart was not in it, so that was it. Gone. Sometimes people say that leaving a permanent full time job is stupid. I disagree. If something is making you ill, think negatively and not love what you do, get rid of it. In my case, it was addressing the problems with my job, and my employer did a nice job of helping me out the door to make me realise what was wrong and help me love what I do again. I think for me, that was the best and worst part – knowing I was leaving a career behind but also knowing that it was the end, the end of my unhappiness and the beginning of something new.
I then moved to a job in the National Careers Service which I loved and thrived on, which in combination with my voluntary research internship, lead me down the path of applying to do a PhD. I think going through that process before getting the PhD was probably a good thing. Now I can recognise if I am not happy and I know I can go to my supervisors and tell them why.
One thing which is really important if anyone ever feels lost in the land of research is to tell someone. Chat, moan, and cry. That pretty much sums it up. When embarking on a PhD, one of the most important things is the influence of the supervisory team. They are not only there to shape the research but they are there as a vital source of support. Your supervisor is not going to look down upon you (or they shouldn’t if they are a good supervisor) for saying you have a problem and you need help. It’s a big step in getting that help and if asking for help is the worst part, then so be it. What could be worse? Dwelling on your worries and stressing over unnecessary things!
One thing that the recently read blog did mention was the training of supervisors to spot things in their students which could lead to problems. These could be spotting signs of anxiety, substance abuse and even if the student is becoming (or feeling) isolated. Research is a very independent thing where the student needs to be self-driven. So if isolation creeps in then this could impact the necessary things like motivation and once it’s too far gone, you will never be able to get it back. I think an important thing is being open with your supervisory team, not necessarily broadcasting all of our issues in every meeting, but if you have one supervisor (or a lead supervisor) that you feel you can talk to, then do it. The moment you don’t is the moment you deny that there are any problems and this could be the beginning of the end of the PhD. I don’t really believe that a PhD supervisor can be trained to spot every sign of a mental health problem, well unless it’s a clinical or mental health PhD supervisor - that might be different. But they work with students every day and will get to know you as a person and get to know when something is not right. A good supervisor should ask you if all is okay, even if they are detecting something that is normal to you.
If a supervisor is not a good option, then most universities do, now, have student and counselling services where you can talk to someone confidentially. But if that doesn’t work, then there are also external organisations and charities like the Mental Health Foundation or Health in Mind (both in Scotland, but you can search others online which are very similar). There are also other forms of support too…
One thing that you might find worries students is the ‘what am I going to do after my degree?’ question. This can be a big worry. Academic and postdoctoral positions are quite scarce and finding one which is suitable may take some effort; so yes, students do worry. My advice to you: make use of university careers and guidance services, discuss opportunities and ideas with your supervisor too. A PhD is a development opportunity as well as a piece of research, so if its anything like mine then the research is just as important as the skills you develop. Form an ex-careers adviser’s point of view, those who ask for help often benefit from it compared to those who it is forced upon. You have more choice and options and are able to guide your own support. So don’t be ashamed to explore options and seek advice - it’s what makes the process of development so important and so rewarding at the same time.
Anyway, I think I have written enough for today. If nothing else, please take away the following message: A PhD is hard, independent and a journey and a half… and it scares me that I am less than two months in. Make it worthwhile and make it yours. Seek help where necessary and work within your supervisory team and support networks to be happy. Heck, it’s going to be a learning curve overall and not everything will be hunky dory but if you know how to deal with the bad times, the good times will only feel better.
For now, that is me. But I do hope you will read this and share it around as the more we know about this now, the less we need to know about it when it’s too late.
Lyndsey Middleton is a part-time, final year PhD student at Edinburgh Napier University. This story was published on November 17, 2015, on Lyndsey's blog (available here), and has been republished here with her permission.