Monday, March 23, 2015

Harder than Rocket Science? Fumbling with Mental Health in Grad School. Part 1

by Sarah KlainAlly ThompsonKarina Benessaiah and Verena Seufert

This blog entry reflects the collective reminiscing of experiences that one or more of the contributors have had during the duration of their graduate student journey.

When we reach the end of this graduate school expedition, we want to look back on it as time well spent. Even though it will not be a giant leap for humanity
a realization most students reach a few years into a PhD programwe want it to be a personal leap of success, a source of pride based on working hard to contribute to making the world a little better. 

Chris Hadfield rocks the space science
We want our grad school journeys to avoid the disastrous fate of the Apollo 13 expedition and be more like Chris Hadfield’s stint at the International Space Station which we see as a mix of cool science, amazing people (come-on, who else but Hadfield can pull off that moustache with so much style?!) and brain expanding experiences, spiced with some nerd-fun and good tunes (e.g., Space Oddity). Such a mix would make the requisite hard work feel worthwhile. 

Making our graduate school experiences emulate the most rad Canadian astronaut’s experience in space is much easier said than done. This educational process has required substantially more endurance, courage, tenacity and pain tolerance than we ever anticipated. You think running a marathon is tough? Well, try doing a PhD. It’s kind of like a marathon that tends to last for, let’s be honest, 6 years or more. A PhD tests your emotional stability, sanity, sense of purpose and self-worth. A PhD inevitably becomes extremely personal. Doing it gets at the very core of who you are and what motivates (and de-motivates) you.

Running up and down mountains has proven far more straightforward 
and often more satisfying than working on our dissertations
The grad student lifestyle can be awesome because we have a remarkable amount of autonomy, freedom and flexibility to pursue answers to the questions we choose. We basically live the intellectual’s dream, get (under)paid to pursue topics we care about, have no real boss to tell us what to do, operate mostly on our own terms and on our own time, while surrounded by other similarly nerdy people.

But there are darker dimensions to this PhD experience. Nearly all graduate students flounder and suffer to varying extents and lengths of time. Sooner or later the grad student life gets to most of us. We’ve been startled when we have conversations with other graduate students whom we perceive as extremely competent. These brilliant students, however, often struggle with self-doubt, anxiety, loneliness and depression. This rather prevalent dark underbelly of graduate school is too often not openly discussed.

Grad student life is more of a roller coaster than we imagined. Most of us have a few shining moments of glory when we feel smarter than we’ve ever been before. But this is tempered with stretches of feeling like we know nothing or at least we are overwhelmed with all that we now realize we don’t know.

If you’re lucky and strategic, you might feel like you are changing the world with your work. More frequently, you will likely feel like your dissertation will never end, like filling a bucket that has a hole at the bottom with water. Sometimes you feel connected to many inspiring people who care and think about the same things as you do. Then there are the days when you’re convinced you’re alone in this world of your little PhD rabbit hole.

What makes a graduate school fun is also what makes it so challenging. The fact that we can work on whatever we want means that our identities gets wrapped up in our work. We perceive our dissertations as a signifier of our value. It’s too easy to think that if my research is not good, then I'm not good.
The freedom and flexibility we have also means that our productivity is our own responsibility. If we procrastinate, we have to take personal responsibility for it. Our academic supervisors tend not to breathe down our necks. They train us, their students, to be independent. Our advisers tend to be exceptionally academically intelligent, insightful and sometimes harsh with their critique and feedback. They are always busy, usually really busy (there’s intense selection processes relevant to who gets hired as tenure track and tenured profs these days. See this story with the following excerpt:"Peter Higgs, who won the Nobel prize for his work on the Higgs boson, recently said that the imperative to publish all the time would disqualify him from contemporary academe.")

Wishing that our intellectual rabbit holes were wormholes
transporting us directly to scientific insight

In contrast to most work environments, professors tend not to demand greater output and faster deliverables. Motivation to complete a graduate degree must generally come from largely within ourselves. We have to motivate ourselves to do work that can be boring and repetitive, like data cleaning or transcribing. Add to this the fact that much of what we do is like searching for a needle in a haystack often without even knowing what we're looking for. We've gone down intellectual rabbit holes (wormholes would be way cooler) involving weeks and perhaps months of reading up on theories and topics that end up not being part of our theses or dissertations. These tangents tend to leave us with little to show for large blocks of time and a feeling that we're not useful.

Going down academic rabbit holes feels kind of like this

The result of this is that many people come out of grad school (particularly PhDs) with their egos grated down, dragging themselves over the finish line on their last legs.

In our time as grad students, we have not seen a single person go through the PhD process without moments of close-to or total-break-down.

Does this graduate school process have to be so destructive? See our next post for navigational tips on this master's or PhD journey, which tends to be through at least a few existential crises.


  1. Great article, ladies! I think that you have captured what grad students and almost anyone may struggle with at various points in their adult lives: how does what I do relate to my sense of purpose, efficacy, value, and self-worth? Despite the benefits of autonomy, the sense of being disconnected from a bigger picture or a larger purpose is exactly what makes coming together to reflect on these things so important. I look forward to reading more about how you have sought understanding, manageability, and meaning on your grad journeys!

  2. You can imagine that it's not always easy as a supervisor to read a frank post like this (especially with the cheese-grater image above). But of course, having struggled with the same feelings for years of my own PhD, it's no surprise. (It's also not a surprise because Sarah ran it by me before posting.)

    One key point is that to a certain extent, the design of the program and my mentorship (encouraging a mid-PhD flail and your own success at conquering that) is intentional. It’s a milder version of the various manhood rituals that send young men into the wilderness for days or weeks. There’s no other way to construct independence in scholarship than to force PhD students to confront the vast expanse of knowledge and possible projects, and to carve out one’s own path through that morass.

    Unlike the survival challenges, (good) supervisors wait in the wings, watching and gauging how and when to intervene, and to what degree. I could 'save' my students such struggles, but to do so would undermine the whole process....

    1. I should note that I realize that the blog post was not motivated by frustration with supervisors (as I've been assured): my point is that as a supervisor, it's just hard to know that our students are struggling.

      This is especially so when we have chosen intentionally to allow some of that struggling (as I wrote above).

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