Thursday, January 28, 2021

Should I stay, or should I go? Mental health, retention, and crossroads (Part 1 of 2)

By Jo Fitzgibbons, PhD Student

I almost quit my PhD last week.

It’s probably the thousandth time I’ve considered leaving my PhD. I’ve been insecure in the decision to pursue doctoral studies since even before applying. Frankly, I will think about it a thousand more times before I finish - or don’t. And although most people don’t talk openly about this inner conflict until they actually pull the plug, I know from conversations with my peers that I am not the only one toiling about this decision, right now. 

How did I get to this point, I wonder? I have enjoyed many privileges in life that have allowed me to succeed academically, and have been incredibly fortunate to have supportive supervisors and professors over the years who pushed me to be the best scholar I can be. In many ways, an academic career seems like a natural fit - it’s something I’m good at and have been well-supported to do. But academic achievement isn’t a measure of wellbeing, and like many graduate students, I struggle with chronic mental health problems. 

I was already burnt out by the time I started my Master’s, and again, still, when I started my PhD. I’ve become physically ill from stress. Most of the time, I feel that I am driving on flat tires: I doubt that my research makes a difference, yet, the world chugs on around me, seemingly getting progressively more dismal, hateful, and barren with every moment that I spend working toward my degree. Personal family challenges have me constantly looking over my shoulder at the East Coast, wondering if I am in the right place, and if it is time to go home. Now, in 2021, we have been dealing with COVID-19 related lockdowns and social restrictions for nearly a full year. Grad school is already a solitary endeavor, but the pandemic has made it feel brutally lonely. 

Image source: Melinda Aley, “grad school memes with relatable themes” Facebook group

On the other hand, the limited experiences I have had in practice have felt gratifying. I’m a license-eligible urban planner, and I’ve done internships with governments and worked as a project manager in nonprofits. In these roles, my deliverables (and the uplifting fanfare over their completion) were only ever, at most, about six months out from the current date (instead of… how many years, again?). I could see the impact of my work on real people in real communities, even if the magnitude of it was smaller than the global sustainability issues I explore in my research. Being paid a professional wage for my labour also, obviously, sounds more appealing than watching 60% of my academic “income” get whittled away on the cost of housing and food alone (that's even after splitting the cost of living with another person, and with more generous funding than many students get). And every year that I spend on my PhD is a year that I am not building the essential applied experience needed to get professional accreditation in my field. 

In other words, I feel like there are lots of “push” factors nudging me to leave, and a few “pull” factors urging me to stay. It’s hard to self-help myself out of this rut because sometimes it feels like nobody understands, even though I know, statistically, that most grad students have gone through this. That’s because all the well-intentioned op-eds, self-help apps or online self-guided mental health tools address only one problem at a time, or only talk about factors from one part of my life (school). Sure, impostor syndrome is something that I and many grad students experience, but it is not the only thing keeping me up at night. My life is an ecosystem, full of moving parts and interconnected pieces. Salmon and I have that in common - there is no “smoking gun” causing us to decline, but rather, it is a matter of cumulative impacts from several stressors. 

My situation is not unique - many students struggle with this, and it has been written about on the CHANS Lab Blog before, in 2015. We have learned a few things about graduate mental health and its relationship to retention since then, and with Bell Let’s Talk Day upon us, it felt appropriate to re-ignite the conversation. Let’s Talk Day takes place on January 28th each year, and is the company’s charitable effort to reduce stigma and normalize conversations about mental health. (Note: I share a healthy cynicism with others about this campaign - see here and here - but ultimately still value the space it provides to speak openly about mental health.)

The journal “Nature” published results of an international multi-language survey in 2019 about mental health and life satisfaction of graduate students. While 38% of students indicated that they were “very satisfied” with their decision to pursue a PhD, the (rounded) remaining 63%, a majority of respondents, sat somewhere between “somewhat satisfied” and “very dissatisfied”. 

Furthermore, 36% of respondents indicated that they had “sought help for anxiety and depression caused by their PhD studies”. The study does not report on how many respondents dealt with these issues, but did not "seek help". The findings echo similar research conducted by the World Health Organization examining clinical signs of mental disorder among students. Concerningly, only 26% of the students that sought help “said they got real assistance at their institutions”. Worse still is that many students (18%) do not feel supported when they do seek help, and 10% indicated that no help was available for them at their institution.

The magnitude of these responses indicates that this is not an individual problem - it’s a pervasive, systemic one. A large majority (76%) of survey respondents indicated that they work more than 41 hours per week, and most attribute this to the culture of their university. Combine these excessive working hours with “publish or perish” pressure, rampant impostor syndrome, a lack of suitable mental health supports, an oversaturated job market where a doctoral degree may even reduce your earnings, and people constantly asking you when you’re going to join the “real world”... are we really surprised that so many PhD students do not see their program through to completion?

Image source:

Last week, it all came to a head for me. I sat staring at my puffy red face on Zoom, occasionally muting myself to blow my nose, and trying to explain through a tight throat and a broken voice to my supervisor, Kai, why I could not do this anymore. And Kai, bless him, spent our whole monthly meeting trying to understand, telling me he believed in me, offering help, and nudging me to see the forest for the trees. He was kind, and his arguments were reasonable: planning practice offers more instant gratification and feedback for my efforts, but as a scientist, I could achieve a wider sphere of influence, make more of a difference on the issues that really matter to me outside of the planning profession. It’s not that I don’t care about making a difference, I had to explain, but those are tall ambitions for someone with flat tires. There are days when I can hardly even drag myself out of bed, much less think about changing the world. 

This was not his first rodeo, obviously: he has talked students down from the ledge before. I had a chance to hear from one of those students during our departmental coffee social, and have known a few other people in my life who made the difficult decision to leave their PhD. The truth is that most of these people (the ones I know, anyway) have felt satisfied with their decision whether they stayed, or whether they left… after it’s over, of course, and it’s all hindsight, it is easier to be happy with what you’ve done. In the words of the late, great Douglas Adams in “The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul” (the title of which is a remarkably good description of how I’m feeling right now): “I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I needed to be.” 

For today, at least, I have backed down from the proverbial ledge. It can feel taboo to talk about “dropping out”, but in stigmatizing this conversation, we’re leaving students stranded and confused, worsening stress, and squeezing them out. Your mental health should not be the price you pay for a PhD. So, let’s talk.

In Part 2 of this blog post, we’ll hear from some of those people about how they made it through (or didn’t) and what life has been like on the “other side”. In the meantime, let’s acknowledge the truth about systemic mental health problems in academia, and support each other openly, and navigate the weeds together instead of alone.

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