Feeling numb and hopeless

J

Thank you in advance for reading. This is my first year and I’m going to have a milestone presentation very soon. But all I can see is I will fail. My research has not constructed yet. I see no light in recruiting any participants I need. I know people always say you could have a life outside a PhD but I don’t see I have or can achieve anything outside the academic world. I saw this as the last opportunity for me to get my career on track but I’m gonna fail once again.

During the pandemic and depression since the last year, I’ve been isolated, broken, done nothing but my study (which produces zero output). Instead of getting out of the PhD and thinking about another path of life, I want to quit it all and don’t want to experience or try anything else. Working on a PhD and keeping myself sane is equally exhausting.

If anyone experienced this and have a thought on how to cope with this? If it’s time to quit or it’s still normal?

T

Hi, jw5,

Perhaps you may wish to take a break from your PhD? Maybe ask for a suspension of your PhD and see a therapist to treat your depression. The pandemic itself is horrible, let alone doing your PhD and recovering from your depression during this period. It sounds like it is all too much for you to cope at the same time.

Take your break, receive treatment and think about what you want to do. You can go back to your Phd, or quit. But at least you will make your decision with a much clearer mind then than you will now.

J

Thank you Tru. I have already taken a 6 month break months ago…I thought it would be a game changer but now I seemed still being too weak to cope with the challenges…I have regular meeting with my counsellor. I have tried some techniques, like exercises (I can’t do it regularly though), diary, deep breath, meditation etc. However almost everyday I experience a collapse once. I’m afraid that one day my partner would lose his patience and love to me. I can talk to no one since most of my friends either think PhD is a silly option or something easy…I feel so guilty to the people who care about me but I’m giving too much burden to them.
sorry for my negativity, just try to find a way to get out of all these feelings.

A

Hi jw5,
I would like to put in my own two cents. You have great fear and pessimistic view towards your research and relationship, you feel like you have responsibility to lots of different parties, and guilty for not good enough. I experienced the same thing too. I think it is important to examine the basis of these feelings with other stakeholders, namely your supervisor, your partner, etc.

Is your supervisor/school seems to be decent and care about (at least respect) your welfare? If so, do discuss your progress, your worries and insecurity with your supervisor. It may turn out that they are more confident with your prospect than you think. On the other hand, if they are nasty or unhelpful (especially for a first-year review, if they are not confident in ensuring you pass), you know it is never too late to stop the damage. The same applies to your partner. Maybe talk about your concerns, ask how he feels right now and what his boundary is in terms of housework, finance responsibilities, how and when to vent, etc.

Guilt is a powerful thing. For me, what helped was time, and logical reasoning. In many countries, PhD is a student, not an employee, and your supervisor is paid (by you or by your sponsor) to educate you. They want you to graduate and they really appreciate that you take ownership of your project and ask for help. They have seen all sorts of obstacles in academia and in their students. There is no shame in not knowing enough and you are entitled in more resource than you believed. First one or two years are difficult, when you feel so inadequate. If you choose to stick it through, it will improve with experience, when you see you are so not along feeling this.

The same goes to being in a relationship. Proper communication allows you to establish what you are contributing and receiving in your relationship. Your partner seems to be supportive of your PhD career and depression so far. To keep thinking you are a burden to him is somewhat undermining the fact that this is his choice too. Guilt is so draining in a relationship, and you probably want candid communicating and mutual understanding instead. Personally, knowing my partner was okay (emotionally and financially) with whatever path I chose (even if I choose quit and stay at home) really helped me push myself through. Maybe your psyche is different, but it will help to know.

J

Thank you Martian for your sharing! You’ve got me exactly right that I’ve put some much guilt on myself and it is killing my well-being, health, productivity and probably slowly my relationship. You remind me that my family, including my partner, never blame me even for a sec. My partner put it very clear that he is ok whether I work, study or stay home as long as I’m happy and healthy. He doesn’t prefer me to continue because he worries about me, however still being supportive when I’m carrying on. What actually kills me is about the judgment from those do not matter that much in my life. Yes following the logical thinking, it should not be at the top priority.

I was so afraid that quiting or failing the PhD at my age would be a big failure like the end of the world. Maybe no matter if I quit or continue it will be an experience I can learn from? So it’s not a 100% failure or waste of time?

A

jw5, I'm glad you find my sharing helpful.
I don't think quitting PhD is a failure/waste of time at all. If you dig in this forum or some subreddits, lots of people will tell you the same. Being accepted in a PhD programme is an achievement. Quitting early in your PhD can simply be a decision to leave a career path that is not suitable to you. Also with COVID, there are many ways you can tell your story in a positive way in job interviews.
You mentioned this PhD is to get your career on track. I was pretty much in the same mind set when entering my PhD, and felt pretty guilty about not having a 'real' passion in research. Obviously I am not familiar with your field or your situation, so my experience below may not be at all relevant. What I learnt through my journey is that I had a lot of belief about my career that didn't match the reality at all. I could have been more candid with my supervisor about my fear, used my enrolled student identity to get some internships, and started job searching early so I understood what the market actually wanted. I could have looked into others' experiences online so that I knew I wasn't alone. I think my guilt, shame and fear at the time made me too afraid to do research about my future and talk to people. Now looking back, I think what was in my head messed me up more than my mediocre academic ability. You've got counselling -- that is already a good start.
Overall, I'd say you are in the first year so you still have enough time to explore all possible outcomes and make a decision. You have good support system and many practical options. Trust yourself that you will be fine either way.

J

Thank you Martian. I tried to consider about the PhD stuff without driving in too much emotions these days. Although I still feel terrible and empty for the high possibility of dropping out or being kicked out, I can see there’re both pros and cons in staying or quiting. I will have a meeting with my supervisors soon and believe that it will help me in making a decision.

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