Higher Degrees are Broken

I’m in the middle of my PhD. About two months ago, I cried inconsolably for two hours because I felt I wasn’t good enough. I would never finish my degree, disappoint everyone around me, and bring shame on my family.

Many of my friends are currently pursuing or have recently completed higher degrees. Some have quit PhDs because of mental illness, taken months or years off, developed insomnia or night terrors, and almost all of us have had a meltdown. Most have depression, anxiety, or some combination of the two. Many are medicated.  We’re one failed experiment or bad meeting away from a total nervous breakdown.

All of this is expected and accepted as part of a higher degree.

It was reassuring to tell people I had my first PhD meltdown and hear that it was due about now. Isolation is terrible. But we need to take a step back and realize that if this is typical, accepted, and part of the process, there is a systemic problem.

There is a lot of discussion about what a higher degree is, what it should be, and how to educate for future jobs. The academic and training discussion is an important one to have. So too is the fact that mental illness shouldn’t be an accepted part of a higher degree.

There was a great interview on The Atlantic with William Deresiewicz, who wrote a book about Ivy League schools, elitism, and depression. A lot of the discussion surrounding high achievers can be seamlessly transferred to higher degree students because unsurprisingly, the kind of people that choose to go back to school for a pittance for three to seven years tend to be high achievers.

Basically there are two types of graduate students: the ones who powered through and the ones who got a real job. Neither is cut out for a higher degree.

Powered Through

If you powered through, you probably got straight As, or a few papers out, or did something else pretty great. You might be doing a PhD because you don’t know what else to do (bad idea, get out!), but more likely you genuinely love your work and your topic. You’ve always pushed yourself – a couple of all nighters each year, at least – but it’s always paid off. And besides, with the regular affirmation that comes in the form of being published, or getting another A, or just coming out of an exam knowing you tried your hardest, you know you’re doing okay.

Enter the higher degree. Suddenly you don’t have regular affirmation you’re on the right track. There’s no metric to measure you against your cohort because you don’t have a cohort. You might have just moved countries. You might not speak the language well. You’re good at sprinting, you’re good at semesters. You have no idea how to run a marathon, but you’re terrified of disappointing people around you, so you push yourself until you crash, recover, rinse, repeat. The end isn’t in sight. There might as well not be an end. This is terrifying.

Got a Real Job

You worked for a few years, maybe in research, maybe in industry. You’re self-directed, you’ve got some savings, and you’re ready to knuckle down and get this done. You’re better set up than people who powered through, you spent some time looking over projects, and you know you want to do this.

And now, money is tight, and things aren’t working, and you second-guess your decision. You haven’t written an essay in a while, much less a thesis, and a lot of other people are a lot younger than you. You might be juggling a family with your work and you can’t tell if you’re working too hard or too little. Your relatives, and some of your friends, are probably being a bit critical about your life choices. Some days you agree with them.

So where does this leave us?

It leaves the grad student in a pretty dire position, as they have to be in control of their research, but also the incredible mental toll that research is going to take. They not only need to work hard, but figure out – often for the first time – when ‘too hard’ is. And they need to learn how to ask for help, how to ask for time off, the difference between feeling a bit lazy and being depressed, all of which is a lot to ask of someone who has probably moved countries to do this.

I did the MOOC (Massive Online Open Course) ANU offered this year called “How to Survive your PhD“. I’ve “managed” my depression for almost my entire life, so a lot of the suggestions, tips, and classes covered knowledge I had. But I knew a lot of the thousands-strong cohort were getting significant value from it. Thesis Whisperer (the blog of the organiser, Dr Inger Mewburn) also has many good posts on similar topics.

But is it good enough to expect graduate students to heal themselves? Is it sufficient to simply provide resources when 47% of PhD students and 37% of masters students suffer from depression? By putting the onus onto the individual student, we ignore the unifying feature – that higher degrees have this effect on people.

Unless we recognize that higher degrees are broken, there is very little we can do to help graduate students. It is an incredible waste of talent, time, energy, and money, to allow brilliant researchers to sink into the pits of despair, to have breakdowns and to not to anything preventative about it.

I don’t know what to do. But I know nothing will change if we keep ignoring the fact that these degrees risk destroying the brightest minds out there. Higher degrees are broken. Let’s start talking about how to fix them.

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3 thoughts on “Higher Degrees are Broken

  1. There are a heck of a lot of negative things about doing phds and academia in general, I agree with you totally there. And particularly mental health issues are a big concern (I’ve been there too). I’m not sure it is helpful though to try and categorise people who do PhDs into two groups, or warn people off doing a PhD if they want to do one for this or that reason or if they have this or that personal circumstance. Basically, I think there’s a few too many generalisations in what you’re saying here about grad students and perhaps it is a bit too reliant on personal experience and personal observations that might not actually be generalisable?

    I’ve heard this sort of argument from many others without much consideration of very different personal circumstances, differences between disciplines, universities, countries etc etc. I certainly don’t fit your characterisations of grad students – I was never a stand-out student, I had to work very hard in my undergrad years, I started a PhD because of lack of options and I don’t regret it (at least not yet!), I have had mental health issues caused by PhD-related stress but I have also gained a hell of a lot of self confidence and various skills I didn’t have before etc etc.

    So, in other words, I think we can point out common problems, and argue for a better system, but we should still acknowledge the vast diversity involved with who does a PhD, why they do a PhD, and potential negative and positive outcomes.

    1. I think part of the issue is that the people who come out of PhDs okay tend to be quite outspoken about all the great skills they gained but realistically, there’s a large amount of suffering that could be avoided, and should be avoided.

      My “boiling it down” is a set of ideas I’m still working on but comes from both experience and stories from a lot of people. I know the people in my Honours year who continued on to a PhD because they didn’t know what else to do can really enjoy it. I also think it’s objectively the wrong decision, even if it turns out well eventually. I’m also very protective of baby overachievers because I’ve watched a lot of them crash and burn, and possibly don’t see the people like me (who SCRAPED their way into honours) suffer from stress as much – which of course, doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. It’s also very Anglo-centric/West-centric, as are the statistics I refer to, I would love to learn if the rest of the world has these issues.

      I also didn’t intend this to be a comprehensive totally objectively true piece. Starting the conversation is what I really want to do, and will (fingers crossed) be doing so on forums other than my blog. As with all discussions in academia, disagreement is often constructive*, but at least it means people are paying attention!

      * p > 0.05, “promising trend”

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