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
- I still think my area of research (public engagement) is really exciting and I’d love to continue with my project.
- I like talking to people and I think I’d really enjoy my data collection.
- A PhD would help me get further in a career into social research of public engagement (and possibly genetics, somehow, one day).
- I am capable of doing a PhD (with reasonable adjustments and support)
- I miss the mental stimulation of academic work.
- I miss my student friends.
- I’d like to learn how to analyse qualitative data.
- I think I could do a lot to improve support for student health and wellbeing.
- I wouldn’t have to look for a job! Hooray!
CONS OF GOING BACK TO MY PHD
- I feel WEIRD about going back in the building, contacting my supervisors, looking at my work etc etc.
- I might relapse. I might not be able to cope. I don’t believe that a PhD is more important than my mental health.
- I would have to seriously rethink my project and have some fairly uncomfortable conversations.
- I might fall back into my old unhealthy way of working.
- I think that academia can be a pretty unhealthy atmosphere.
- 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.