Why did my PhD make me so depressed?...
I am sitting here now, post-PhD, in a dressing gown, in a bed, in a room, on a Saturday morning, applying for a job. It’s my holidays, so no job to go to, nowhere to be at any particular time. This day is all mine. It’s a lovely feeling to have this expanse of time stretching out ahead of me. And while I can’t fill it all as I please – because there is work to do – the way in which I get to do that work is lovely: dressing gown, coffee, snacks in the fridge, my laptop, and me. Heaven.
This is exactly what it was like writing the PhD. These are all the components of those few PhD years: comfort, time, spaciousness, and just me and my thoughts and whatever I feel like doing that day.
So what went wrong?...
I wonder this because I did enjoy a lot of the PhD time. Especially in the first year, I was radiantly happy. I took walks around my sunny neighbourhood in the middle of the day. I enjoyed coffees with friends, and talked to them about my PhD. I got up in the morning and read books and worked. I had lots of dinners with friends, involving wine and good food and music. I went running round a local park. These are all the things that you are supposed to be doing, according to the Procrastination Bible, to have a healthy and productive working life: look after yourself, spend plenty of time with friends, earmark time for exercise. All this makes you more productive when you do sit down to do some work.
Something, somewhere, went wrong. Something must have gone wrong, because I didn’t stay happy, and my days didn’t stay as nice.
Some things which went wrong, I think, include some of these:
- I had a progress review looming in the summer of my first year. This put a kind of pressure on me: the piece of writing which I produce for this progress review has to be ‘really good’, because academics will read it and will decide on the basis of it whether I should be allowed to continue or not. Instead of thinking ‘it only needs to e good enough’, ‘it’s only my first year’, I began to think ‘It needs to be better than it is; I should have worked harder’. Somehow, I allowed myself to feel guilty about all the time I had spent enjoying myself alongside the PhD. I remember, on the morning when I sent off the progress review piece, feeling rotten because a colleague was sending along an entire PhD bibliography with her piece, and I didn’t have one, because I just hadn’t bothered to do that kind of extra work. Somehow, this made me feel bad.
- After the progress review – for which I worked quite hard – I should have celebrated by going on holiday. Instead, I found myself thinking: There’s only more work after this. I have just got over this big hurdle, and, as far as I can see, there’s no rest for me; the next hurdle (Chapter 2) is looming, and, according to my schedule, I should be getting on with it. I never really stopped to celebrate that first success, and never gave myself any time off as a reward. (In retrospect, I now see: I would have done better to have taken a month off and gone off travelling.)
- I started teaching classes in my second year of PhD. Suddenly, there was extra work to do (preparation, marking, meetings, talking to students). Instead of seeing this as part of my job, and cutting myself a little slack (‘I have worked today already – I prepared for my classes and I taught – I can have a break’) I found myself thinking: ‘I haven’t done enough work today/ I haven’t done any PhD today/ I have nothing to show for today’. A beating-myself-up attitude.
- I started saying these negative things to myself more and more. ‘I haven’t done enough today’; ‘What is wrong with me?’ and ‘I just don’t know what I am going to write in this chapter.’ I can see now that, as I wasn’t having enough holidays and weekends off and generally not enough free time, my brain never really had the chance to lie fallow anymore. I found out much later that, if you have frequent breaks and rests and go off on long walks, or swim - in short, if you clock off once in a while - your brain has a chance to relax, and while it relaxes, ideas which seemed confused and knotty suddenly somehow unravel and start sorting themselves out.
- In conclusion: take breaks, and watch what you say.
‘Language is powerful. There is a direct correlation between the words that you use and the life that you have.’ (Barbara Stanny)