*UPDATE* 21 MAY 2013
A lot of traffic has been directed to this particular post by folks using search terms such as ‘phd depression’ and ‘post phd depression’. There is only a single point in this post about those topics and the search data has prompted me to write more about this. Please stay tuned to Graduable.com for a new post soon all about PhD depression. Thanks for being so dandy.
Okay, so there aren’t 21 things in this list. So what? It’s my blog and I’ll do what I want. Really, though, the ’21’ was a placeholder while I collected all the things that I thought PhD students should know and I liked the way it looked so I kept it. I may add more someday, but for now let’s go with the 7 we’ve got below.
When I began this post I put the call out to Twitter for suggestions and I’d like to give a big thanks and permanent #FollowFriday to @stateofcake, @JusticeLawDev, @readywriting, @Undrawn_Blog, @empathywarrior for their excellent suggestions. These Twitterers are in no particular order, like the list below. Please comment if you have any more suggestions or just want to share your experiences because, as you know, that’s what we’re all here for. Sharing is caring, yo.
You Need to Take Care of Yourself
You’ve heard of the Freshman 15, what about the Doctoral Dozen? You likely haven’t heard of the latter because I made it up and it’s none too clever, but useful for my purposes here. When I began graduate school I was in the best shape of my life. Now? Well, I’m working my way back slowly. The thing some may fail to realize about grad school is that, unlike undergraduate education, it’s not all keggers and dorm food packing on the pounds. It is something much more ominous than that: sedentariness. Yes, graduate students sit and read…a lot! Now, I know that this will not be everyone’s experience, but I overlooked the toll such inactivity would inevitably do to my body because I was building my brain up to be the strongest muscle in my body. I’ve got quite a bit to show for the extra pounds now in terms of what I’ve accomplished, but I feel like I really lost the balance I might have otherwise been able to achieve had I known that it was not necessary to neglect my physical self while improving my scholarly self.
That brings me to the next bit about taking care of yourself. You really need to take care of your emotional and mental faculties. Grad school and academia are a real test of your mettle in all sorts of ways and this can manifest itself in all sorts of ways. I hadn’t really been able to work out what this meant until I read this blog post by my colleague, Brycen Janzen, about how much the work of graduate school can be a distraction from other issues that may be going on. I definitely have experienced that beginning in the summer of 2012 after I finished my PhD coursework. Like Brycen, I have no hard and fast answers but rather a word of caution that you need to look after yourself and be aware of what your work is doing for you and what it cannot do for you.
Your Vision of Academia is Likely Different From the Reality
Wouldn’t it be great to be a professor someday? This thought has passed through the mind of, I’m gonna say, every student entering graduate school as well as any student who has taken an obsessive interest in a topic at university. Everyone knows, however, that few ever go on to be professors. What everyone likely doesn’t know is the reason that few of those ever do so. There’s this thing going on in higher education right now that does not bode well for the job prospects of newly minted PhDs. There are a number of departments, especially in the Humanities, that are either downsizing or downright being disappeared. Of those departments that are remaining somewhat stable, many of the jobs on offer are not the tenure track positions that most academics long for. Rather, many departments are awash in a Wide Sargasso Sea of part-time help in the form of sessional lecturers and adjunct profs. Hardly the dream of idealistic wide-eyed grad students looking to embark on a journey of the [insert appropriate cliche here].
While this is a bad thing, the worse thing is that many grad students are ignorant of the state of the current academic job market. I admit that I was when I began grad school. I decided to get my MA because I felt that teaching high school was only going to be able to take me so far in actually creating new knowledge. I kind of thought that an MA would be a worthy experiment to see whether it would be something I was into. Well, a few years and one academic blog later and I think I have my answer. The fact is, though, that I had no expectations for the process and was subsequently ignorant of the academic job process as well as the prospects for new grads. I suppose I was one of the lucky ones because I didn’t know what I didn’t know nor did I much care. In keeping with the heading of this point, I would simply tell you that unless you think the academic job market is an eight-year plus slog of part-time session teaching in less than ideal places until you finagle your way into a department that has an elusive tenure track job opening, chances are good that your vision is likely different from the reality. For another perspective, my UBC colleague Lucia Lorenzi has a vlog post discussing this very thing that I found well articulated as well as thought provoking.
Prepare to remain, upon graduation, underemployed if you wish to work in academia.
How to Read
This seems like an obvious thing. You already know how to read, that’s how you made it through school and/or life until now. Well, when I say you need to know how to read, I really mean you need to know how to read and analyze well, especially academic texts. I have lengthier posts on how to read academic books here and here. While it is not something that I have necessarily figured out all the answers to yet, it suffices to say that it is more than an important skill to be able to read well. I would say that reading is to the grad student/academic what skating is to the hockey player: it is the fundamental skill which allows the game to be played. On a sidenote: Go, Canucks, go (if the NHLPA and the owners can come to an agreement thus ending the lockout)!
It’s Okay to Change Your Mind/Projects/Supervisors/Whatever
Yes, you are allowed to change your mind (perhaps less literally than the above pictorial representation) about many aspects of your PhD. I know that, for me personally, I applied to my current program with a particular project that I’ve pretty well completely abandoned at this point. This necessitated my changing my supervisor and entire supervisory committee to accommodate my new project. And, you know what? Nobody tried to make me feel guilty about it. Not one member of my committee, department, or cohort said anything negative about the switch. I had been anticipating all sorts of things that never came to fruition in changing my mind about where my interests lay. The thing I learned from this experience is that you are meant to be selfish when it comes to your research and your project. Any supervisor and department worth their salt knows this and will do everything they can to ensure your success as a student and scholar. This has been my experience and that of at least one other colleague, Lucia Lorenzi, who has changed both her project and supervisor in order to make her work something that speaks to her strengths and interests in a way that her earlier project, presumably, did not. She pointed out something else important: the fact that your supervisory committee won’t (shouldn’t, anyway) take you changing your project personally.
Sometimes Finishing Leads to Depression
Since I am nowhere near finished my PhD, I can’t really comment on how this actually works. I can, however, empathize with the concept of completion depression for any kind of post-secondary degree. There is definitely a sense, whenever you complete a degree, that now you are expected to do something with the last four years, or however long it took you. I did not necessarily feel this way after my BA since I knew I was going into an education program to become a teacher, but after my MA there was definitely a sense of depression that I had simply wasted my time doing all these degrees. Even more so than the time I had already ‘wasted’ was the knowledge that I was going straight into a PhD program to spend even more time being an unproductive member of society and going further into debt. I imagine that the sense of depression which seems all too common amongst newly-minted PhDs is all of this with the job market stats heaped on top. The other thing that I imagine happening is that many of us, when we finish our PhDs, unlike the BA, are well into our adulthood and thus have the problems that come along with that. Undergraduate degrees are but a stepping stone into the world of grownupism but they don’t get you all the way there necessarily, even for late bloomers like me.
So, while I cannot speak from any sort of personal experience about post-PhD depression I can definitely understand the sources whence that depression came and tell you that I both look forward to and fear the day I wear that ridiculous hat and walk across that stage to accept my new title of Doctor of Philosophy. If you are a PhD grad who has experienced the post-PhDepression, I would invite you to comment on this post because I have done such a poor job of elaborating on this topic. You can also send me a message on el Twitter.
Have a Life Outside Academia
I felt that I might be crossing a personal boundary by posting my own photo that represents my life outside academia with a bunch of cats. Andy Samberg is even more without shame than me, so I use his image instead.
The important point here is that you are not defined by your work. It may feel that way at times (see: all the time) but the truth is that you have a life outside of your work and that is something good to do for yourself. Whether you hang around a bunch of cats while wearing pink PJs or are just really into rock tumblers, hobbies are a fantastic way to give your rippling muscley brain a bit of downtime. The other thing that’s important about your life outside of academia? People. I remember spending so much time reading and writing during the first overwhelming months of grad school that I became scared of natural light and other people. Also, I turned into kind of a know-it-all jackass, but you don’t have to because now you know you shouldn’t do that. Cherish your family and friends if you have some. If you don’t, find some. This segues nicely into the next point.
Getting to Know Your Cohort is Really Important. They’re Not (always) Your Enemies
I don’t come from a necessarily competitive graduate program. What I mean is, within any English department and graduate school cohort, there aren’t a number of people working on the same types of things. If anything, the work of many academics and grad students is complementary and sharing is encouraged. I can’t really speak for other kinds of disciplines, but I have heard apocryphal tales of cutthroat programs and research sabotage. That world is completely foreign to me.
Regardless of the kind of program you are in, chances are good that you are not in it alone. You will have matriculated with a number of other individuals who also want a PhD. These people are your cohort; they are the ones with whom you will be taking classes and forced to socialize at department things. They are your colleagues. You work with these people. They could, I suppose, also be your competition. It is in your best interest to get to know these people. I speak from extensive personal experience in having supportive cohorts. Many times your cohorteers will be a wonderful sounding board for your ideas, complaints, jokes, things you can’t discuss with department heads, among many other things. Some of them may even become your friends (see above point about not having friends). Whatever your cohort becomes, they will be the ones who understand best what you’re going through at any point in your academic career. Go have a drink with them. If you’re a teetotaler, have iced tea or a Snapple. Nobody’s organizing an outside of school social event? Get out your email pen and you do it, then! What do you do if someone in your cohort wishes to systematically destroy you and your research? I don’t know, but at least you tried making friends with them, right?