Content note: this post discusses depression and suicide and disordered eating
Over the last couple of weeks, a discussion has opened up in the media about mental health problems in academia, in particular amongst PhD students. Some point to a culture which normalises mental health problems, accepting them as a feature rather than a bug of the system. Others point to a lack of time, with 60-hour weeks being fairly common. Other factors may include perfectionism, and an environment that just doesn’t care.
Maybe all of it is true. Maybe some of it, maybe none of it. We don’t know, because there is little formal evidence, beyond a few studies indicating higher levels of psychological distress in academics. What I do know is that my own experience chimes strongly with the rest of the anecdotal evidence present. While my experience is squarely in the sciences, I understand that a lot of similar problems pervade arts and humanities research.
Two years ago, I quit my PhD. I was about three and a half years into it, and miles off finishing. It was the best decision I ever made, because it was killing me. I was thoroughly miserable. I seldom ate, and lost a lot of weight, because I had no appetite, just a dull, nagging sense of anxious nausea. Everything that went into my stomach came back up again. I couldn’t sleep, which interacted pretty horribly with my epilepsy as well as my general sense of wellbeing. I pretty much didn’t care whether I lived or died: I took a lot of risks, and my road safety became thoroughly appalling. It wasn’t like I necessarily wanted to be dead, it was more that I didn’t really like being alive at all. I say that as though I had a capacity for liking anything, which I didn’t. I veered wildly between feeling utterly, abjectly miserable and crying in people’s faces; and feeling absolutely nothing except a kind of glassy-eyed ennui. In a way, during that time, I was dead.
Hanging over me were the deadlines. I’d already missed the three years that they say a PhD takes, and so wasn’t getting funded any more. So it was a matter of getting all this shit done while not even being remunerated for my efforts. Even when I was getting paid, it was a pittance. A piddling little cheque which paid the rent, in exchange for my entire life. I’d picked up a bit of marking to do to earn a bit of extra money; on paper, the pay looked all right. In practice, they paid you for how long they thought it should take, rather than how long it actually took. Whoever had calculated that it only takes 15 minutes to mark an undergraduate lab report has clearly never seen an undergraduate lab report, let alone marked one.
Most of the work itself is not fun. Research is heavily romanticised, but in truth, much of it involves staring at spreadsheets, or staring at endless rows of code, or staring at an experiment like a watched pot that never boils. It is tedious as all fuck, and nine times out of ten you are not admiring the pattern that has emerged, but, rather, literally or metaphorically tearing your hair out wondering why the fucking thing isn’t working as it should. The highlight of my days was when I ran Monte Carlo simulations on my data. I could actually take a break for once, letting the computer crunch the numbers while I could spend a few hours sitting outside, trying to remember what my life was like before it became this dull grind.
Everyone I knew was as miserable as I was, everyone I knew was up against the same constraints. We’d keep ourselves going by reminding ourselves why we were doing it: that we were studying something genuinely novel that interested us, and we’d be advancing science by keeping on forcing ourselves into this hellish situation. It rang hollow with me, and I’m sure it rang hollow with the others.
The thing about PhDs is they are a scam. On paper, they are studying a topic that you love, and becoming an expert in it, and generally contributing to human knowledge. In practice, what actually happens is the university gets a research assistant for three years, to work on a project that they want studied that is in some way related to a thing that interests you (but is actually whatever they could get funding for). The university doesn’t have to pay a penny for this research assistant: in fact, they get paid to have you there! I imagine it would be a whole lot easier if everyone just admitted that this is what is happening, but nobody does. And instead, the whole structure gaslights and emotionally blackmails PhD students. It shifts all of the problems we encounter as employees into personal failings: clearly we’re not interested enough in this topic that we supposedly chose, and if we cared enough, we’d want to do the work.
I’d describe a PhD as taking something you love and systematically sucking all of the joy out of it, leaving you a hollow shell forcing yourself to go through the motions. If that sounds a lot like depression, it’s because it is. It’s so indistinguishable from depression, that I am left wondering whether in fact depression is a feature rather than a bug.
The whole system needs radical overhaul in order to stop the relentless march over the edge of despair. Either treat PhD students as workers, and pay them fairly for the work they do and allow them to organise against the litany of occupational hazards they face; or treat a PhD as a topic one loves, and give freedom in how it is researched without the constraints of arbitrary deadlines and appeasement of funders.
Of course none of this will happen, because the problems in our universities are the same as the problems outside of our universities, and capitalism is playing the cunt once again. It demands efficiency, and it turns out what’s in place is one of the most efficient means of producing knowledge.
Getting out was difficult for me, because I had internalised the lies about what a PhD is. It was difficult because when someone walks away from something that is killing them, outsiders sneer, say that they cannot hack it, rather than criticise a system set up to destroy people. It was difficult because I had been in academia for all of my adult life up to that point, and I didn’t have a fucking clue what else I could do with my life, and I’d accumulated very few transferable skills.
But getting out was the best thing I ever did. Yes, I’m still depressed, but I’m eating normally and sleeping all right, and my epilepsy is more under control now. And, most importantly, I’m alive.