The A-Z of the PhD: D-F

The A-Z of the PhD: D-F

D, E, and F follow A, B, and C.

D is for depression, but it could have been for disillusion, deceit, disagreement or even desk (check out #PhDdesk for some of the weird and wonderful habitats of doctoral students). Research carried out at the University of California at Berkeley shows that it is not unusual for PhD students to suffer with depression. In extreme cases students may consider or even commit suicide, and one researcher development officer has spoken out to say that this is not OK. It seems that many think a PhD should come with certain sacrifices, at times this might be any kind of personal or social life and at others it might be sleep, healthy eating habits and exercise. Yet, even though you might think you are gaining time by giving up meals and missing out on the gym or Friday night drinks, all of these sacrifices are more than probably counterproductive to crossing the submission finishing line.

If one in four suffer mental health problems at some point in their lives, it makes sense that some students might start a PhD with depression and others might develop it during their studies. Prospective students need to be aware of this, and of self-care to hopefully bypass or ease the depression and anxiety that comes with a PhD. I think anxiety often comes with not having all of the answers (see E below), but it rears its ugly head at bed time and a lack of sleep only intensifies the situation and works to muddy your head even more. To a certain extent we have to accept that we can't know everything, but there are practical things you can do to help relieve some of the symptoms.

Try to organise deadlines with your supervisors that you know you can meet and if you are having difficulties tell them (even the most successful academics need extensions). Reserve sacred 'me time' (that does not involve anything to do with academia), appointments that you cannot break, this might be a yoga class. Create a healthy meal plan and prepare meals the night before, making too much so that you can freeze it and have a handy meal ready to go. Remember to go out once in a while. Believe me you can be more productive if you are happy, have a full tummy and are well slept than if the opposite is true. Another option is to create a to do list and once it is finished switch off - I always have a list of three things I must do or else and then a vaguer list, once the to do or else are finished I let myself off the hook. However, the most important thing you can do if you are feeling crippled by anxiety or depression is seek help from your supervisors, or on-campus/external therapists.

E (as discussed by doctoral student Ailie Tam) is for Existential crisis! I do not doubt that every doctoral student has experienced at least one existential crisis during the course of the PhD, some I'm sure have experienced several, perhaps even in the same week! To explain, it is firstly important to understand the PhD mental cycle. The beauty of undertaking a PhD is that it provides the opportunity to learn, push through barriers of understanding and hopefully contribute something of value and interest to knowledge. During this process most students oscillate and waver through various emotions that become part of the PhD cycle (or rollercoaster). In a nutshell, I'd say the PhD mental cycle involves a consistent shifting between excitement, confusion and despair.

The excitement comes from discovering something new (to you at least), realising you understand something that previously baffled you or through gaining new empirical or theoretical insights. The excitement comes in bursts usually in between feeling utterly confused, which is how I spent most of my first year, as I grappled with new concepts, theories, methods and academic writing. When confusion intensifies or when panic creeps in about capabilities to undertake or complete the PhD, the student can feel overwhelmed by the feeling of despair. Now usually that feeling passes, replaced again by excitement (thank goodness!) and the cycle continues. However sometimes when suspended by despair, it can prompt a weird and wonderful existential crisis!

It sounds dramatic and usually feels pretty intense at the time, because it happens when something that is perceived as concrete or stable suddenly dissolves, causing a return to some fundamental questioning. The benefit of an existential crisis is it forces a rebuilding and usually strengthening of ideas, so a few existential crises along the way are not only deemed normal but seemingly vital to the PhD process.

F is for funding, and sometimes one of the issues leading to depression, especially if we include the double F: future funding (or potential salary!). Some PhD students have been lucky enough to gain studentships from their university or research councils, if you are contemplating a PhD and currently looking for this type of funding, often publicises these types of opportunities. Dr. Dan Ozarow, who was a fundraising consultant before becoming an academic, has written a handy guide for students looking for funding particularly in the area of Latin-American studies. If you have already started your PhD career check out research societies in your area, many have grants and funding available for overseas fieldwork and/or conference attendance, I know the Royal Geographical Society provides several grants/funds for PhD and early career academics.

The other option as a PhD student is to gain experience teaching. Be warned, universities may try to abuse you as a source of cheap labour and as you need experience lecturing to give your CV a boost this might put you in a tricky position. In the previous post I mentioned that you should start to build your network and once again if this situation happens to you, now might be the time to seek advice from friendly more experienced colleagues. As a PhD student (in hourly work or not) you can also join UCU, the union, who can provide you with formal and informal support. This might be the best advice this post offers, join the union, if not for now for later. Collective bargaining only works when people join the collective and once you enter academia full-time you will want the rights that the union can potentially fight for (like getting more than a 1.1% pay increase).

Next post will cover G-I, special thanks to Ailie Tam and Dr. Dan Ozarow for contributing to this post.


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