In response to a lot of traffic directed to my blog based on search terms around PhD depression, I decided that I ought to devote an entire post to that topic since it is not something that I tend to give too much thought to daily, even though it permeates my entire experience of graduate school and especially my PhD. I want to begin this post by clarifying my use of the term ‘depression’. I am using it in the sense of feeling shitty about being a loser who has made a poor life choice by attending grad school, not in the clinical sense of the term. I am lucky that I have never been clinically depressed and I do not (and would not) intend to speak on behalf of those who are. I know little to basically nothing about that kind of depression and I would welcome anyone who does know about it to share useful resources that may lead people to useful information on the topic. This post on Dr. Karen Kelsky’s The Professor Is In might be of some use. Otherwise, all I know is that most universities have centres for health and wellness that might be good places to start looking for appropriate information. With that being said, I’ll get on with what I think is important to consider in the kind of depression and experiences I’m talking about.
On an average day I feel pretty good about what I’m doing and what I’ve accomplished thus far in my life. I’m not the youngest person at my stage of the PhD game — after all, I am old enough to remember when Will Smith was known for being a rapper — though I am also not the oldest. My age doesn’t get me down because I am so willfully immature. However, there are times when I’m sitting at home during the day, when all the grownups are at jobs, and I think to myself “What the hell am I doing?” and a wave comes over my body as though somebody has just told me some horrible news. It is in these moments when the thousands of things that are so messed up about this choice — the lack of money, the lack of job prospects, the feeling that this is a pointless endeavour designed to make you suffer at every turn, &c — rush into my head and I just sit there for a moment, book in hand, and feel really sorry for myself. Not sorry, embarrassed. Infantalized even. I used to be a guy with a job, I made a good living and I was good at what I did. I have developed strategies to recover after these moments of immense doubt. The first thing I do is marvel at the things I am allowed to do with my time. I know a lot of grad students fantasize about the day they become professors so that they are able to work on whatever they want, but this is not the way that works, by all accounts. In fact, it seems that grad students have way more freedom to pursue their research interests without having to worry about not being the right fit for their faculty. That’s been my experience, at least. I started out doing something completely different in the field of Victorian studies and now I am studying Victorian pornography and that has been more than okay with everyone, from my former supervisory committee, my peers, as well as my new supervisory committee. It’s not as though I changed from doing a geology PhD to a Victorian literature one, but the change was stark enough that I needed to do a lot of work to switch. Nobody (and I mean nobody) gave me any hassle about my choice because it was my research and my interests that mattered. This makes me feel better when I get down on myself.
Imposter syndrome.* Yes, that is somewhere we’ve all been. It’s similar to the loser scenario described above but with that special extra twist where you feel like you aren’t good enough to be allowed to do what you’re doing. As though there are countless people who are way better, smarter, and more deserving than you out there who would not simply be occupying the space that your sad face does but rather doing amazing rock star academic things. I first encountered this inferiority complex-related issue in my first year of my MA and it persists, though it is definitely less frequent as I come to realize that I am becoming the expert in something. “Become an expert and get over your imposter syndrome” is probably the worst advice you could ever take, since I doubt imposter syndrome ever goes away. There are all kinds of things that will trigger it (discovering someone’s already written an article about the thing you were writing one on, a peer speeds ahead of you in getting things completed, &c), some you will see coming and some you won’t. The thing I’ve experienced with my bouts of imposter syndrome is that I can usually look around and list all the reasons I am better than everyone (kidding). Really, though, it doesn’t hurt to have a serious think about why it is you feel like you are an imposter. I joke that I have tricked a lot of people in my path to getting where I am; in all honesty, I think if I’d been tricking that many people, I’d have been found out by now and/or run out of steam. So, if you’re in grad school and feel like you don’t deserve to be there, think of the folks who put you there, are they imposters too? Probably not. Those folks know what they’re doing and chose you over lots of other people. Unless your school is a sham. That’s a whole other kind of imposter syndrome right there.
In the interests of brevity, which I pride myself on with this blog, I’m cutting this post off here. There is much more that needs to be said about this topic and you can expect that I will post more about it in the future. As always, I welcome all comments, questions, and experiences with this topic. Luckily, the kind of PhDepression that I encounter can be more often than not tempered by simply taking a step back, doing something unrelated, or just telling myself to chill. Oh, and not to mention caressing my book collection. That always makes me feel better, smarter, faster, stronger.
*A few great articles on imposter syndrome.
The Chronicle of Higher Education
The Professor Is In