PhD depression (or just the blues?)


I am well and truly in the middle of my three year PhD at an Australian University. Right now I’m experiencing some of the darkest days of my PhD journey so far. I am just so down. I hate my life. I don’t know what I’m doing. I’ve lost all my confidence. I feel like a total fraud. I’m feeling more and more distanced from ‘normal people’. (Mainly because it frustrates me more and more when people don’t understand what I’m doing or just can’t see the value in it.)

I’m calling what I’m feeling “PhD blues”.

From an outsider’s perspective I have nothing to feel down about. I just had my first ever article accepted for publication in an academic journal. I’m well on track, ahead even, with a clear plan for completion. I participate, go to conferences, speak on panels, and submit abstracts left right and center. The problem is that whenever I ‘achieve’ something it doesn’t feel like an achievement.

Even having an article accepted, for example, in my experience, involves a pretty brutal reviews process in which everything including your ideas, argument and writing is criticized. So it can be hard to feel appropriately pleased about an achievement when the process of attaining it leaves you feeling lesser, little, unqualified, and no longer confident to submit anything ever again. Of course, you have to get over it and get back on that horse. Here are some of my practical tips to get out of the “PhD blues” and get on with it.

Achieve something

Do something that makes you feel like you have achieved something today. It might be as simple as cleaning the kitchen and cooking a beautiful meal. It might be organising your study, or wardrobe. It might be going for a walk or a run. It might be getting creative and making something. Weeding the garden, or in my case the pot plants on our little balcony. Attending to the piles of washing. Deep cleaning the bathroom. Grocery shopping. Putting everything up for sale on eBay. Finishing that novel that has been sitting on your bed-side-table for an eternity and finally giving it a place on the bookshelf. Anything that will make you feel like you have achieved something today. Sometimes just succeeding at being an adult (by doing any of the things mentioned above) is enough of an achievement to make me feel a bit better.

Treat yo’ self

By this stage of my PhD journey I have developed a reward system for myself. Whenever I have achieved a goal or worked particularly hard I reward myself by going to my favourite shopping center, buying a crème brulée late, and allowing myself to browse through my favourite stores. On a down day, treat yourself. Instead of treating yourself for achieving a specific goal, you are treating yourself for making it this far. And that is a pretty epic achievement worth celebrating!

Work on something completely different

I know this can feel like procrastination or a waste of time, but seriously, we both know that on a down day no amount of progress on the thesis is going to take place. Today would otherwise consist of many tears and watching YouTube or Netflix in bed. So instead, today is the day to develop those ideas for an article that has nothing to do with your research, but that you are excited about. It’s a day to write that blog post. Or as I’m trying to do now, write something practical that will feel like an achievement at the end of the day even though it hasn’t progressed my thesis. If writing is thinking, and I think it is, then you can’t go wrong.

Take this one step further and do it where people can see you. I love going to a busy coffee shop and writing. Even if what I’m writing is useless, I enjoy imagining what people are thinking when they see me: ‘Is she a journalist? Is she writing a novel?’ They’re probably not thinking any of those things, but it makes me feel like I’m interesting and like the image I portray is desirable. Look the part, feel the part! Am I right? Going to a busy coffee shop or library can also make you feel like you are part of the world, which I think is important when we are feeling isolated and alone.

Find the right people

I know how much my PhD is responsible for my feelings because life seems okay again when my husband gets home from work and we have some time together. Similarly, life feels okay again when I catch up with a good friend (who understands the academic/research journey). Or my parents, who I’m fortunate enough to say, also understand the academic/research journey. So much of my “blues” is to do with my isolation as a PhD student. The only community I have found is at conferences, and my only connection to those wonderful people is predominantly through social media. The right people are crucial. My hairdresser the other week was NOT the right person, and made me feel a million times worse when she had no idea what a PhD was and questioned why on earth I would want to spend so many years of my life “studying”. “I’M NOT STUDYING!” I wanted to scream. Find the right people and spend some time with them.

Break it down

Finally, after you have done all these things and feel like maybe you can face the world again, break it down. Break the rest of your PhD down into bite site, achievable pieces. Make an ACHIEVABLE timeline. Create a weekly or fortnightly to do list. Try to limit your to do list to one substantial task each week or fortnight. The goal of this exercise is to make you feel like “yeah, I can totally do this”. Next week all I have to do is *insert whatever you need to do next week* and I can totally do that! Feeling like you can achieve next week’s task (with all the tasks mapped out ahead of you until completion) will motivate you to keep going. Breaking it down and creating a timeline can feel really overwhelming, so make sure you’re ready for it – make sure you’ve given yourself some R&R time before you get stuck into planning. And yes, it will take you hours, but it’s not a waste of time, I promise. I revisit and re-create my to do list and timeline every time I’m feeling overwhelmed.

Don’t think about post PhD life

Recently, this is what has really got me down! My advice is don’t think about what will happen after the PhD. You will need to face this at some point, but that time has not come yet. Right now you need to get the freaking thing done! As my Dad has started saying (and as he was once told) “just get it done, it’s not your life’s work”. And as my husband reassured me the other night “the doors will start opening as you publish, teach, and build a network” and those things can’t really happen until I get more done. So the focus for now is getting more of the research and thesis done. Worry about the rest later.

Quit feeling guilty

So you haven’t really got anything done this week? Did you try? If you’re a PhD student the answer is most likely yes. (We tend to be a pretty hard-working, self-disciplined bunch.) Well, either you were tired and needed a break or you actually spent all the time where you feel like you were doing nothing thinking. Quit feeling guilty. Ideas do actually take time to develop and your brain never really switches off. Sometimes you just need to sit on things. I can guarantee that the periods where you are highly productive more than make up for the days (and sometimes weeks) where you feel you have made no progress. So quit feeling guilty and give yourself a break!

I wrote this article after searching “PhD Depression” for many hours. I could absolutely relate to everything I was reading, but I couldn’t find anything to help me get out of the dumps. So here is my experience of what has helped me.

These are my practical tips. Feel free to share yours.

Author Bio: Ümit Kennedy is a PhD candidate with the Writing and Society Research Centre at Western Sydney University. You can connect with her via email at [email protected] or on social media using @umitkennedy. Although the days of her PhD blues have passed, she still uses these tips to get back on that horse every time she is knocked down.