Guest post: Sleep, tears and chocolate

Hi PhD and ex-PhD pals! How are you all doing? It seems like writing about my decision to leave my PhD has caused some of you to reflect on your own reasons for leaving your PhD or why you decided to stick at it. Today’s guest post comes from the fantastically brave @DepressedPhD. I want to thank her for sharing her story with us. 
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After reading a couple of posts by courageous people who quit their PhD, I began to wonder why I did not. I had plenty of opportunities to realize  the pressure of the PhD life was not for me. But somehow, I didn’t see it.

When I began my PhD I was feeling great. Depression and bad times were behind me. My Master’s degree had been my best year ever and it had been anti-depressant free. I was excited to begin researching in a prestigious lab with people I had worked with before during internships.
When depression came back after a year, I didn’t want to see it. I began crying all the time, and finally went back to my psychiatrist and asked for help. I talked to my advisors. But I didn’t even take time off.

Things got better, then they got worse. I began sleeping 14 hours a day and nothing could wake me up.
When I spiraled down into a deep depression again after a doctor suggested I stopped the antidepressants because they could affect my sleep, I did not quit my PhD. I did take a month off to get back on my meds though.
I somehow managed to get back to work. I still slept way too much, alternating a day at the lab and a day recuperating in bed.

Then came the time to write up the dissertation. I couldn’t concentrate, words would disappear from my brain as soon as I tried to form a sentence. I did not quit.
I began to fear every interaction with my advisor. I had panic attacks at the thought of going to the lab and meeting him.
I had to go to the hospital to get better. It was one of the most difficult things I had to do in my life. I still did not quit. I actually wrote a couple of pages from my hospital bed.
I got out feeling better and full of hope. After a month out, all this was gone. And I now switch to the present tense… Writing still is torture, worse than the psych ward. I am distracted by the health problems of my loved ones. And the pressure is unbearable. I sure wish I had quit my PhD a long time ago.

So why didn’t I ????
It’s not that I feel quitting is bad, I have done it before. To be honest, it just did not occur to me. It was not even an option in my mind. There is kind of an unspoken rule around me (is it my department, my friends, my country ? I don’t know) that once you begin your PhD, you finish it. The only person I know of who quit was kind of a joke in my lab (“he just disappeared one day, maybe he’s locked in a basement doing data entry”).
Last summer one of my advisors said he was proud of me because I did not quit. It surprised me because I had NEVER thought about quitting. Not until he told me that, at least.

So why don’t I quit now ?
Well I have spent the last five years of my life working on this project. And in my mind the dissertation is just a report, what’s important is all the work up until then. And I did all that work!
Plus, I know my advisors have stood up for me more than once to allow me to go on working, to get me funding. I know me not finishing would reflect badly on them. And (this is going to sound childish) I want them to be proud of me.
And I still want to work in research. I love doing it. I hate writing about it, but I could find a job in research where I could manage. I know it will be difficult to get a job in research after my PhD but no PhD kinda means no chance at all. How do I ask a lab for a job and tell them I worked for five years on a PhD I did not finish ? or how do I not tell them ? Weirdly enough, I feel it would be easier if there was much more work left to be done.
And anyway, I am barely able to get out of bed in the morning, how could I work a regular job ?

After I began to write this, I read this post and it was spot on. This was actually what was going on in my head ten years ago, when I quit some other kind of studies. I still struggle to not see it as a failure even after my mom told me she was proud of me for quitting — she told me that a couple of months ago, was she trying to tell me to quit my PhD ? But quitting once doesn’t make it any easier the second time around.
The truth is I want to finish my PhD because I want to work in academia, despite every horrible thing I know about it and everything I have experienced. I want to do research, and I don’t know how to do that without a PhD.
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Don’t forget to show @DepressedPhD some love! There are so many parts of her story that are so similar to my own experiences, from feeling great when I started out on my PhD to refusing to see what it was doing to me and how depressed I had become. What do you think about the idea that it is easier to walk away from a PhD in the earlier stages? Do any of you lovely readers fancy sharing your own experiences of quitting or not quitting? As always, I’m delighted to host your guest posts. Hope you’re all doing ok!
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2 responses to “Guest post: Sleep, tears and chocolate

  1. I think it is easier to quit earlier on; I’m still slogging through as a postdoc even though I often don’t know why I’m here; or what else I’d do. The culture is one of ‘stay in no matter what’, which I think does need to change; the pressure is enormous…that’s not a made up feeling, many of us feel that way. I’m not sure how best to deal with it, but leaning into the fear does seem to help. (I also went through panic attacks over meetings with my advisor(s) ).

    In @DepressedPhD’s case, it would seem to make sense to finish the Ph.D.; I’m sending positive thoughts her way that that will happen; she’s obviously a tenacious and strong person (as I now see anyone who’s struggled with their mental health). Keep writing!

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