Crossroads: PhD, is it for me?

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See you at the crossroads crossroads crossroads! Oh Blazin Squad. Wasn’t that a weird time in everyone’s lives? Anyway… I thought I’d talk to you today about something that I have been struggling with lately. I’ve been away from my PhD for 5 months now and I’m feeling much better. I’m pretty mentally stable, I’m bored and I’m ready to work. Being off is no longer helping me. In fact, it’s hindering me. I reckoned that I can’t be the only student who has ever been in this position, so maybe writing about it will help other people to talk about it too. 

The next logical step is for me to get back to my PhD, maybe part time at first until I find my feet but every time I try to think about going back, I feel a bit sick. There is no way around it. I feel WEIRD about going back. I feel weird because I know that the work that I was handing in before my time off wasn’t the best I could have produced (in fact it was a bit crap) and I know that I floated through my mini-viva and advisory group in a weird dis-associative state and I can’t really remember what happened but, in my defense, I was on the edge of a fairly spectacular break down. I feel weird about going back into the building and I feel weird about contacting my supervisors and  I feel weird about the state that I’ve left my work in and I’m worried that I’m too far behind and that my project is unworkable and that I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m worried about relapsing and, as my own particular brand of depression seems to be cyclical without any obvious triggers, I’m scared that I won’t be able to prevent it.

I think that there is a real problem with this open-ended “go away and get better” strategy that we apply to mental health issues in academia which is that there is rarely a re-entry strategy. It’s been months since I spoke to anyone from my department besides my student pals and, to be honest, I feel pretty abandoned. It’s difficult to make that first step, initiative that first contact after so long and, at least this is how it feels to me, beg to be taken back.  So I’m left on my own to make this difficult decision about my future. Do I go back to my PhD?

I basically have three options. Option 1 is to go back to my PhD, option 2 is to get a job and option 3 is to get a job for a while then apply for a Masters in stratified medicine (there is an option 4 which is to continue sitting on the sofa watching Law and Order, but that’s not a real option.) I decided to do what I do when faced with any difficult decision, make a list of pros and cons. (That’s a lie. The only difficult decision I have to make these days is what to make for dinner and in that case I wander round the supermarket until inspiration strikes on just make my husband decide.) So here it is:

PROS OF GOING BACK TO MY PHD

  1. I still think my area of research (public engagement) is really exciting and I’d love to continue with my project.
  2. I like talking to people and I think I’d really enjoy my data collection.
  3. A PhD would help me get further in a career into social research of public engagement (and possibly genetics, somehow, one day).
  4. I am capable of doing a PhD (with reasonable adjustments and support)
  5. I miss the mental stimulation of academic work.
  6. I miss my student friends.
  7. I’d like to learn how to analyse qualitative data.
  8. I think I could do a lot to improve support for student health and wellbeing.
  9. I wouldn’t have to look for a job! Hooray!
  10. Money.

CONS OF GOING BACK TO MY PHD

  1. I feel WEIRD about going back in the building, contacting my supervisors, looking at my work etc etc.
  2. I might relapse. I might not be able to cope. I don’t believe that a PhD is more important than my mental health.
  3. I would have to seriously rethink my project and have some fairly uncomfortable conversations.
  4. I might fall back into my old unhealthy way of working.
  5. I think that academia can be a pretty unhealthy atmosphere.
  6. I’m realistic about my chances of landing an academic job.

Well…it sounds like there are more pros than cons, but unfortunately they aren’t all equally important. I’m trying really hard to get back to a place where I move on in some way. I’m making a timetable for every day, keeping busy with yoga, reading, half-marathon training, book reviews for an online science magazine, and later this week I’m going to make a start on the nice pile of books about public health communication books that I got from the library so that I can get my head back into a space where I can think about my project again. I’m also keeping an eye on the job pages and applying for things here and there. Who knows where I’ll end up, but I can’t stay on the sofa forever.

Well, that’s enough soul searching. I’m going to go and run some hill reps.

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7 responses to “Crossroads: PhD, is it for me?

  1. Negotiating admin related to suspending your studies when experiencing mental health difficulties can be a nightmare! It’s hard to face, and easy to be overwhelmed by. Information relating to disability support (which includes long term mental health problems) is not always widely known by all university members and people might not be aware of how much help is available to them Of course it will vary between institutions, but support should be available for a student wishing to return to uni after a long absence – a neutral person acting as an advocate between student and department, ensuring that everyone’s expectations are known and agreeing a return to work plan. I’m not feeling massively eloquent today but I would encourage people to check out disability support services available at their university and see if this could help make returning from an absence a more manageable and comfortable experience.
    (I know we chatted about this, posting a comment so that others might benefit from reading this too!)

  2. Thank you for sharing this! I am intrigued by option 3, probably because I too have thought about a similar shift. Looking forward to hearing what you decide! No matter what, I bet you’ll do great!

  3. Very long comment here, sorry :p
    Whatever you do, never promise you’ll never be unwell again. While I hope that’s true, that is not something you can be sure of. If you decide to get back to your PhD, tell your supervisors you’re feeling better, promise you will do your best, but you can’t promise you will never be unwell again, it’s like promising you won’t get the flu, it’s mainly out of your control. But unfortunately, number 2 on your list of cons is a reality whether you get back to your PhD or not: you might relapse with the stress of a new job, or sometimes without a reason. I am sorry to tell you that but it is the harsh reality. Now what you can do is adapt your working habits to deal with the stress, to minimize the risk of relapse. Be sure to exercise regularly and do something for your brain daily, like meditation or a creative hobby.
    My advice: if it’s possible for you, try working a little on your PhD at home, on your own, before contacting anyone, just to see if you can get your enthousiasm back. Even if it’s just reading literature. That way you can be a little more confident if and when you really get back.
    I know exactly what you feel. I was in this situation. Except I’m in my sixth year (yeah, six years of PhD, but a lot of this time was passed with various illnesses and many depressive episodes) and I ‘just’ have to write up my dissertation and defend. While I am not sure I want to end up in academia, at this point it seemed silly to quit with all the work already done. But writing is sooooo hard.
    Anyway. I chose to work at home because I could not stand the 2 hour commute every day and it felt really really weird coming back to the lab, especially since my fellow students had all finished. But it was a possibility only because I am in the writing phase. And working from home is very hard, I actually moved back with my parents to be sure and have regular hours and meals. I find it very difficult to work, every word I put on paper is a victory. My primary supervisor is not very good at handling the situation, but I try to make do with it.
    I was very fortunate to win the Happy PhD course ( amberdavis.nl ), I have just started it but it seems there are some good ideas in there.
    I don’t have all the answers. I don’t have any answer at all actually, I am in the same boat as you, but I wanted to share my thoughts and what I am trying to achieve. Someday, maybe, I will write a guest post with more of my story, if you agree. But I have not finished my PhD yet, should I wait ?
    Anyway, you have a difficult decision to make. I wish you strength. I hope I helped, or at least I did not make things worse. I will keep you in my thoughts — and any reader in the same position, because I am sure we are not alone here.

    • Thank you so much for your lovely long reply! I’m sure you are right that we are not the only people going through these sorts of dilemmas! I really like your point about taking time for exercise and hobbies. I think it will be so important for me to maintain this sort of work/life balance when I do get back to work. Of course I’d be delighted to host a guest post from you and hear more of your story any time that you feel like sharing it.

      Love Jessica

  4. It’s an interesting and difficult dilemma. I was off for two months because of horrible stress that was wrecking my physical health. I came back a month ago and all the worries you describe about relapsing, both mentally and into old unhelpful habits, are very familiar. mentally, I’m still doing all right, but the habits have been making an appearance this last week or so. :-/
    The feeling Weird about going back is also familiar. For me though, walking past my building and feeling panicky was a sign that I was not ready to go back. I also dreaded the christmas party because it was going to be the first time I’d see a lot of people from the lab in a month, most of whom I hadn’t told why I was off. So beforehand I enlisted the lab mates I had told so that I knew they were on my side. It wasn’t anywhere near as bad as I expected and everyone was supportive.
    As for coming back, I spent a week going to the library and doing small bits just to get into the swing of the work and to see if I could start developing some more helpful habits. I also made the most of the counselling service group sessions, which was quite useful but not earth shattering. My only cock-up in coming back was not properly informing my supervisor that that’s what I was doing. Or rather, I told one, but not the other and assumed they’d find out. Funnily enough he didn’t appreciate that!
    Maybe before you go begging for them to take you back (and I wouldn’t frame it like that!) is to test the waters and see what they think. Would it be possible to hit up student support services and see if they’ll mediate for you, or witness a face-to-face meeting back? You also say “with reasonable adjustments” – do you know roughly/exactly what those look like? Talk them through with a counsellor AND a senior dept member/person in charge of post-grads/etc. and then ask for them and see what can be negociated?
    Another option, as part of that first contact, would be to raise the possibility of coming back part time, at least for a bit, to ease yourself back in. Two or three days a week for a month in uni/the office, and the others at home, perhaps?
    Finally, con .3 about having to seriously rethink you project – is that such a bad thing? Are you early enough into the project that there’s allowance for it? Certainly in the life sciences, it’s pretty much expected that what you do in your first year won’t end up in the final thesis. I’d also remind yourself that the five months out is exactly that – time out. It doesn’t put you any further behind in your final deadline or money, because they gave you an extension to account for it.
    Good luck!

    • Thank you for your comment. I’m really really glad that I’m not the only person who feels WEIRD about going back! Your advice about meeting with a tutor (we have PhD convenors) to discuss the sort of support and adjustments available is really helpful and I think it would be good to have some sort of plan of action ready for when/if I go back. I hope your time off was helpful and that you stay well for the rest of your project. If you fancied writing a guest post about developing healthier work habits, I’d be delighted to host it!

      Love Jessica

      • It’s always so helpful to know you’re not the only one – in so many contexts! The feeling weird thing on my part was mainly down to dreading how people were going to respond to me coming back and what they were going to say or ask – basically the entire content of your most recent post. I had to come up with some stock phrases as to what I would say if they asked questions I didn’t want to answer. I didn’t have to use them fortunately but they were there just in case.

        Glad my suggestions were useful. I really hope there’s someone more supportive and more senior than your supervisor on your side for figuring this out with you.

        Thanks, it was. I’d forgotten what it felt like to not be stressed and on the verge of tears all the time. I’d forgotten what it felt like to have motivation and drive too, and those things have come back, at least a bit. 🙂

        I would be VERY interested in doing a guest post at some point in the near future. Drop me an email? (hatfullofness AT gmail DOT com)

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