The PhD Blues


I have just started to write the first part of my fourth year PhD review, as I like to reflect on each term as it has just ended. It tends to give a slightly more accurate representation of what I was feeling in the moment, rather than me struggling to remember what happened in December, as I’m writing up the post in August. Now, as I’m reflecting back on this term, I have not chosen a great moment to do so, mood wise. The day before writing the start of that post I had a “nice” long chat with one of my supervisors, in which we aired some frustrations with each other. I initially asked for the call after one hell of a miscommunication, which was “the final drop.” Out of this 1,5 hour long chat we concluded we have very different working styles, different experiences (obviously) and that our communications styles don’t match very well either. We also agreed we should have had the call much earlier. In the end we came up with some practical solutions for dealing with our problems, which is the outcome I wanted. Despite achieving the initial goal (at least we have a verbal understanding), some of the things said cut deep. My self-esteem has taken a massive tumble. Again. Without going into too much detail of what was said, who insulted who, and who was right (no such thing in an argument of feelings anyway), the outcome is clear. Frustrations were aired, solutions were found. But what do you do with the emotional residue?


Now I know a lot of PhD students, or just people in general, aren’t super keen on having these types of conversations, or even confrontations. Because this stuff can get very confrontational. So a lot of people just “suck it up and move on.” To the extent that you can move on from something which remains unresolved, that is. I’m not saying it’s healthy, I’m not saying it’s normal and I’m not saying you should feel this way. I’m just saying that lots of PhD students will feel this way. It’s normal in the sense that it is statistically likely to happen to you. Whether that’s a remotely positive thing is a very different argument… But what’s going to happen (read: is very likely to happen to you at least once) is that you’re going to feel overwhelmed, under supported, clueless, useless and just so tired. It’s the tiredness which is increasingly becoming worse and worse, as a result of the other factors. You’re losing focus, purpose and motivation. In the end all you want to do is curl up in a ball, in the dark, talk to no one and just let the day, or even the week, end. This is the PhD blues. And that’s my nicest name for it.

I’m currently stuck in said blues. The past few weeks have not been as productive as I had hoped. Supervisors have been less than complimentary about my work. Progress has slowed down. And my brain is starved for an actual dopamine hit driven by the sense of achievement. It’s not come. I’m depleted. Frustrated. And so tired. As I said before, many people experience this, but that doesn’t make it any easier to go through. And you do need to go through this, because you cannot wallow in this. There is a time limit on the PhD, and for your sanity’s sake, there should be a time limit on your self-pity as well. So let’s get through some practical steps to get out of this blues.


Step 1: feel what you feel. Or if this were AA (not the batteries or the sports drink…), acknowledge that you have a problem. You can’t go on in a permanent state of denial, it just doesn’t work. The mind catches up eventually. There is no right or wrong when it comes to emotions, there is just experience. So figure out what you’re actually experiencing. Give it a name, and give it time. No sense in trying to repress it. Emotions don’t let themselves be repressed well. They rear their ugly, but useful, heads anyway. Step 2: figure out what’s causing your feelings. If you’ve felt this way for a long time, something is up. But what is it? It’s essentially introspection time. Sit down with a cup of tea or something (whiskey if you think it’s going to get rough) and figure out where your emotions are coming from. If your main feeling is insecurity, what/who is causing you to feel insecure? When do you feel insecure? Not everyone is good at this type of stuff, so if you have a friend or family member who is a good listener with a psych. degree, this is their moment to shine whilst you poor your heart out. Step 3: confront whatever is making you feel shit. Sorry for the language, if you’re a frequent reader of this blog you know I curse quite frequently. But you need to confront it in some way shape or form. Now what’s making you feel miserable isn’t always a person, so you don’t always have to have these super uncomfortable and emotionally draining chats that I do. You really don’t. Confrontation can take many forms. You can go in therapy if you feel like you just need to be listened to, that a problem is seated too deep within you for you to get to or you just need to put some things into perspective (I have done that, would recommend). If anger and frustration are your main emotions of choice pick up a sport that’s cathartic to you, just to get some grip on those emotions before figuring out what’s at the core of your frustration and approaching that. You do have to watch out with labelling some emotions though. What can feel as anger can stem from disappointment or fear just as easily. And those emotions are to be treated very differently. I have become increasingly more frustrated with how slow academia is and how slow my supervisors can be and I’m feeling like I’m being “held back”. But really I’m just scared of not being able to deliver good work in time, failing the PhD and being a useless human being. Very different problem that. Kicking a boxing ball around will only get rid of the initial anger, but it can’t fix the fear of not being good (enough). Step 4: confrontational aftercare. This entire process of acknowledging and identifying your emotions, figuring out their root cause and confronting both the emotion(s) and whatever is causing them is one hell of a process. This stuff isn’t nice. It’s also super draining, probably requires a lot of (over)thinking and (over)sharing and just time. It takes so much time. But it will get you to a state where you at least know what’s going on, and that makes the ability to “deal” a lot easier. Now the aftercare part is where you give yourself time to replenish you’re now definitely depleted emotional resources. Because that vat is empty my friend. Yes, you can take some days off, or sleep in, or just do something social instead of work late nights. What I’ve noticed with several PhD students, myself included, is that when things are not going so great, we hide in our work. As if we could find solace there (you can’t for actual issues). So give yourself whatever type of break you feel you need. Don’t fall into this wellness trap either, a good break is whatever you make of it. If you don’t want to leave the house for one whole week, not shower and not speak to anyone to regenerate, you do you (if you do this for prolonged periods of time you might want to get checked for depression). What I simply meant is: you can take time off if you need it. As a friend of mine once said, and she has finished a bloody PhD, “nothing is going to happen if you don’t work for a week. We’re not saving lives.” And she was damn right.


Now I’d argue those are my four steps. I do have to mention something here though: some things, like ANY forms of abuse at the hand of your supervisor(s), is not included within this list! I don’t think you can, nor should, confront that on your own and I don’t think this can be just overcome by confrontation alone to begin with. It is entirely possible that you will have to change your circumstances (switch supervisors, switch institutions, drop the PhD, start a lawsuit). But we are way beyond a “simple” PhD blues then… I think I might have gone a bit too “therapist” on this article in general. But my previous therapist would have been proud, I think. Keep in mind that I am NOT a licensed therapist in any way, shape or form, and that if you have mental health issues you should see an ACTUAL therapist. At least, I strongly recommend it. No stigma there. Being in therapy currently seems a hot item anyway (which is super weird right?!). This could also just be my availability bias. Who knows. Anyway, this article was a struggle to write, but for transparency’s sake I did want to write it. I hope it was somewhat useful, insightful or at least entertaining. And I hope you don’t struggle too much within your PhD or whatever your current employment or education may be. The struggle is real, but there should be more to it than struggle.

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