Thoughts of a PhD student at his wit's end

posted
08-Nov-18, 12:51
edited about 3 seconds later
Avatar for Zimmerman
posted about 1 month ago
Hello everyone,

I am about to enter my 3rd year of a well-funded, "prestigious" PhD programme in life sciences. On paper the project is going reasonably OK, could be better but not a disaster. I like the city and am in a great relationship.

Over the past two years I have struggled almost on a daily basis: my suitability for lab work, my place in research, and my overall mental wellbeing.

This time last year (heading into year 2), having reached almost breaking point, I reluctantly started a course of anti-depressants for about 9 months. During this time I was forced to take a leave of absence for about 3 weeks in the hopes that I could recharge and find out if I was to continue.

Today I sit in my kitchen, not for the first time, unable to face going into the lab. Unfortunately, bouts of severe low mood are becoming increasingly frequent again. Some of the thoughts that have been entering my head can be terrifying. My life-long passion for sports has dwindled and I'm finding it difficult to get enjoyment from exercise, instead I am reverting to smoking and drinking.

I'm wondering how I got here. I like science and was initially attracted to medicine, but I was never fully comfortable in the lab environment. Being honest, my reasoning for doing a PhD was not purely research-based, but perhaps more career-orientated. The old adage rings true "getting into a PhD is far easier than finishing one".

All at the same time I feel stupid for feeling like this, like a failure for not grabbing life by the bullhorns and pushing through.

I'm afraid if I leave the PhD I will eventually feel the same in another environment. Sometimes I have the feeling that I am not cut out for life.

Is this pain and hurt a necessary evil in the pursuit of a PhD title? Am I just not approaching it the right way?

Will 2 more years of struggle be worth it?
posted
09-Nov-18, 21:17
edited about 16 seconds later
Avatar for AislingB
posted about 1 month ago
Hi Zimmerman,


Sorry you are having such a hard time. You're not alone in this as you'll see if you Google something like 'PhD damages mental health' or 'PhD depression anxiety'. I would really urge you to go back to your GP but also to seek help from your university counselling service, or your GP may be able to refer you to counselling. I had some cognitive behavioural therapy for anxiety caused by trying to do a very stressful full-time job and a part-time PhD. It gave me some strategies to help me cope with things like not feeling able to leave the house or deal with difficult tasks at work.

In the meantime, be kind to yourself and try to spend time with people who are kind to you. Would you tell a friend who was feeling like this that they were stupid or a failure? Hopefully the answer is no, so there is no need to beat yourself up either.
posted
09-Nov-18, 21:44
edited about 50 seconds later
Avatar for Cookyy2k
posted about 1 month ago
Unfortunately I think it is par for the course with a PhD (certainly for a STEM PhD). It really shouldn't be but it does push people to the limit for a prolonged period which we are just not built for. As you'll know with your background a little stress for a short time is there to drive you, but for a prolonged period anxiety and depression are the all too predictable results. I had never suffered from anxiety or depression in my life before my PhD, 3 years in an panic attacks had become a regular thing. We were pretty open between the students in our lab and we'd semi-jokingly compare our breakdowns that week. There was no real official support structure unfortunately and our supevision was fairly unsympathetic. My lab has a 56% non-completion rate, everyone but one of those who left while I was there was due to the mental health demands.

Only you can decided if it is "worth it". Though as you say it is a prestigious position (which comes with added stress to perform) and you are a good chunk of the way through. I found that sitting down and writing a pro/con list worked amazingly for me when I felt like quitting because I always came up with significantly more pros. That is a good one to do alone as you can see not only the reasoning but also are you more positive or negative about completing your research.
posted
10-Nov-18, 11:15
by monkia
Avatar for monkia
posted about 1 month ago
I am in the same situation may be worse, the problem is the environment is not encouraging, I wish if there is a supportive supervisor, I can feel all your thoughts. Honestly, began to feel that academic route isnot based on merit, but other qualities. I dont know how to advice, because I am suffering from chronic anxiety, depression, OCD, and bi-polar disorder, I am struggling to sleep for years, and I am struggling also to look sane in front of people, but inside me I feel lost because of the severe lab vibes, and i found there are other students have the same situation.
posted
10-Nov-18, 13:23
edited about 3 minutes later
by rewt
Avatar for rewt
posted about 1 month ago
Hi Zimmerman, you are not alone. Most PHD students go through the same.

Quote From Zimmerman:
I'm wondering how I got here. I like science and was initially attracted to medicine, but I was never fully comfortable in the lab environment. Being honest, my reasoning for doing a PhD was not purely research-based, but perhaps more career-orientated.

So what that you did a PhD for other reasons. Embrace that reason and make it your own. Not everyone is married to research and you don't need to be to finish a PhD. Most people will go into industry after finishing and do

Quote From Zimmerman:

Over the past two years I have struggled almost on a daily basis: my suitability for lab work, my place in research, and my overall mental wellbeing.

A PhD is not all about labwork, sure it is important but it is a means to end. You are doing labwork to discover X or investigate Y. It is just one skill a PhD student needs among; ability to analyse literature, critically analyse literature, design experiments, analyse results, communicating those results, time management, writing skills amoung others. I don't like lab work either but I do it to get results so I can do other things. So don't be down because you aren't great at one thing, try and be good at one other things a PhD student has to do.

Quote From Zimmerman:

All at the same time I feel stupid for feeling like this, like a failure for not grabbing life by the bullhorns and pushing through.

I totally know the feeling. The only advice I can give is, is stop thinking and do. If you zone out and do some tasks, you break the procrastination cycle. You may start feeling more confident and can do more. The first step is always the hardest.
posted
13-Nov-18, 09:52
edited about 14 seconds later
Avatar for Dr_Crabby
posted about 1 month ago
There was me thinking I was the only one about to have a total breakdown with this PhD. I can relate to all these comments but the thoughts/feelings have come on so suddenly that I just thought I was going nuts!!
posted
13-Nov-18, 19:24
by pm133
Avatar for pm133
posted about 1 month ago
Quote From Dr_Crabby:
There was me thinking I was the only one about to have a total breakdown with this PhD. I can relate to all these comments but the thoughts/feelings have come on so suddenly that I just thought I was going nuts!!


I don't know anyone who got through it without being broken to some extent. Those of us who got through it are carrying the scars - hidden or otherwise. Many of those who seemed to have got through it OK broke down during their postdoc years. The entire system is brutal and quite frankly this is a broken system.
posted
14-Nov-18, 10:03
edited about 21 seconds later
Avatar for Dr_Crabby
posted about 1 month ago
I am a distance learner too so I don't know anyone in the same year or anything and I only have 1 supervisor. I don't have enough time to step away from it but I'm really struggling with it at the moment.

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