Why depression won’t stop me doing my PhD


Hello everyone and happy blog one-month-iversary! I’m sure that some of you have browsed through some of my posts and thought “Why does she even bother? Why is this self-confessed depression-prone girl with self-worth problems who hates to deal with criticism putting herself through the stress of a PhD?” It’s a good question.  There are many reasons why I am not giving up on my PhD, despite the difficulties I am currently facing. Some of them are mine alone but I think that some of them are shared by anyone who faces mental or physical health problems.

Depression is something I have, it is not who I am. Much as I would love to wake up tomorrow morning without the weight of depression tethering me to my bed, that’s unlikely to happen. It’s something I have to deal with every day of my life, but it will not stop me from doing anything that I want to do. I will not let depression define what I am capable of doing. I refuse to believe that I my work has less value than that of someone who hasn’t experiences mental health issues. From the conversations that I have had, I think that this applies to a lot of people who experience mental or physical health problems, disabilities and chronic illnesses. We want to succeed in what we want to do, despite our conditions, not be written off because of them. We’ll probably come up against obstacles, it might take us a bit longer, we might have to take the scenic route, but we want to get there in the end.

I know how far I’ve come and I know I can do this. If I only could show you who I was  in 2007/2008. You wouldn’t believe it was me. You would think that there was no way that nervy, twitchy, anorexic, agoraphobic girl who was too scared to ride the subway would ever be able to make it through finals, to get a degree, to present science shows to a hundred kids at a time, to do a Masters, to teach in a lab, to plan a wedding or run a half marathon. But you know what? I did. I did all of those things and loads more and I am all the more proud of them because I know how hard they were. On my good days, I know that I am capable of doing a PhD. I am excited about my research, about getting out there and doing interviews, about teasing out the themes from my data. I am not ready to give up on this project. I’m not saying that it’s going to be plain sailing, I’m not saying that I’ll triumphantly return to my desk after this particular bout and that depression will never affect me or my work again, but I am saying that I can do this and I want to do this.

Making my PhD work for me. The idea of returning to work is something that I have been thinking about recently as I have started to feel better and my bad days have become less frequent. I initially approached my time off with the mindset that I would recover, get back to normal and get stuck back into work again with the same patterns and stresses as before. However, some really interesting conversations that I have been having around the unrealistic separation of academic and pastoral issues (Hi @ zaranosaur and @lines-of-flight!) have really challenged me to think about my mental health issues as an inextricable part of the way I approach my PhD work. Depression pervades everything I feel and do so it stands to reason that I need to structure my research in a way that counters its effects. Maybe monthly supervisions and the freedom to work at home (hide in bed) are not the best for me. Maybe I need more frequent supervisory contact and some sense of accountability for the time I spend in the office and the work I produce. Maybe I approached my first year in the wrong way and should have tried to structure my PhD in a way that would work for me from the outset, but this isn’t easy to do. Starting a PhD and developing a relationship with your supervisor can be pretty intimidating. There is the assumption that they know best and that the structure that they suggest is the most effective. It’s hard to speak up and ask for a way that works for you. This is made additionally difficult but the fact that you may not know exactly what works for you. I know now what doesn’t work for me, but finding a structure that fits and supports me is still a process of trial and error. This process takes time which, unfortunately, is in limited supply when doing a PhD. I’m not asking for a free ride here. I’m willing to put in the work. All I want is for my department to meet me halfway and help to build an environment that allows me to do that work. I don’t think that sounds too unreasonable, do you?

Being the change I want to see. I am not the only person who faces these problems in doing a PhD. I am not even the only person in my department. At the moment, I just happen to be the one making the most noise. I could have decided that a PhD wasn’t for me, slunk off, licked my wounds for a while and then applied to be a Biology teacher. That could easily have happened except that, instead of being sad, I got angry. I got angry that so many of the issues experienced by PhD students are framed as personal failures. I got angry that having some sort of breakdown is like a rite of passage for PhD students. I got angry that I was part of a culture that hides its problems and doesn’t talk about the mental health and wellbeing of its members and I decided that I wanted to change that. And things are starting to change, in little ways. Some really exciting things are happening and I can’t wait to tell you all about them, but that will have to wait for another time.


Onwards ever upward. My wise yoga teacher (Hi Laura!) was talking yesterday about overcoming obstacles in our practice and in our lives, but that we are proudest of the achievements that we have had to work the harderst for. The path of any PhD student is littered with snares, traps and quicksand. These obstacles can be even more insurmountable when you are dealing with a mental health condition but, despite these obstacles, I’m going to get there. Just you watch me. 

7 responses to “Why depression won’t stop me doing my PhD

  1. Really great post with important and helpful messages! Especially looking back on how far we’ve come, I definitely need to do this more.

    As someone with some very similar struggles, I know that I’ve found having a reasonably structured routine very helpful. My other half works full time, so we both get up in the morning, I use exercise to get me going, and treat the PhD like a full-time job. Then evenings & weekends are for us. I’ve also found working on campus (as I’m lucky enough to have access to a shared office) very useful to get me out the house & get me working. It’s also a good way to talk to other humans. I have set up a weekly Shut Up & Write group as well, which is another great way to boost productivity, accountability, wellbeing.

    Finally, I just wanted to say that I really believe that your point about ‘being the change’ is so so important. Well said.

  2. Thank you for positing this. Now in my fourth/’writing up’ year, and recently diagnosed as suffering from depression, I have only just realised that the way I have worked throughout my PhD has in no way helped me handle actually writing the b*stard thing and the myriad of self-doubt and criticism which I carry with me as a result.

    You’re right, things need to be done to promote awareness and help figure out how working routines can be adapted in order to help individuals.

  3. Thank you for writing this. As someone with M.E/ Anxiety Disorder and depression, but who also looks rather ‘well’ and is happy and upbeat a lot of the time (hence adding to the misunderstanding) I know I am going to be facing an uphill battle throughout my PhD and indeed career.

    My black dog comes and visits, then goes again, it is just a part of me. However your post has made me realise whilst I will openly talk about M.e and chronic pain, even panic attacks and anxiety, talking about my depression is something I am wary of. I have no idea why.

    So thank you for sharing. You are not alone, and as readers, we are not alone.

  4. Pingback: Conditionally Accepted | Acknowledging The “One-Body Problem”·

  5. I love this post! My thoughts put to words. It’s so important to remember how far you’ve come and how resilient you truly are. Instead of framing yourself through the eyes of an unsupportive, critical other, be your own champion. Great post.

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