A new study by a team of international researchers claims that approximately 50 percent of PhD students suffer from mental health problems, ranging from chronic anxiety to clinical depression. This seems to be news to just about everybody except for postgrads. Even the new kids on the block are beginning to understand just how arduous this journey could become (myself included). After at least 18 years of education, from nursery to graduation, we’re all academic adults now. Quite suddenly I’m seeing many of my friends scrambling for shelter. Everyone’s looking to find their niche in academia, set up shop, and feel like they’re producing something of value, rather than merely something that will give them a new qualification. That’s hard to wrestle with.
The deeper down the rabbit hole you go, the more specific and nuanced your research gets, the more it feels like your work might not matter in the ‘real world’. Sometimes, it can feel incredibly difficult to find the value in your own work. Doubts start piling up long before someone else questions why your work is important, or asks “is that really what you’re doing?” Long, long before diving headfirst into relevant literature and coming out more confused than you were before you started reading.
It’s no wonder that mental health is one of the first things to give way in postgraduate study. In undergrad, when I was having a rough day, when I couldn’t understand anything I was reading, when I didn’t like my ideas, and when I couldn’t remember why I wanted to take a paper, I felt like I had a safety net in my friends. They would know what the readings meant, they’d tell me that my ideas were worthy; they’d make studying more fun. Now we are alone. Lots of people are studying in the same area, but nobody is researching the same thing as anybody else, nobody is reading the same material, and the community feels much smaller.
When study becomes your 9–5 (often more than that), it’s difficult to identify with anything other than your work; it’s the focus of your life, it’s most of who you are and what you do. But life isn’t about what you get, it’s about whom you become in order to get it. So, take a break. Meet other people. Engage in this massive community we have. Look after yourself. Get help if you need it. Don’t put yourself in harm’s way for a qualification. Don’t sacrifice your well-being; it’ll never be worth it.