Saturday, 19 April 2014


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)


  1. Dear cloud nine. Thank you for your wise words. I am so glad I googled "i hate my phd" and found your blog, because if I hadn't, I doubt if I would have finished. I think doing a PhD is a very anxiety-provoking exercise because it is a series of unknowns, and it requires an ability to live with uncertainty for an extended time period. I feel as if I am now in a recovery phase, and am resting and not engaging in my old pattern of filling my days up with numerous "shoulds". I graduated last week, so I am now officially Dr jacknohinz. I want to thank you for the significant role your blog played in allowing this to happen. All the best from the Antipodes!

    1. Dear Dr J,

      CONGRATULATIONS! ... You did it!...

      I have finished my corrections and, save for one small thing that I emailed my examiner about (and am still awaiting reply), I too am DONE, and have made all the necessary bookings and arrangements to rent the appropriate plumage and celebrate with my nearest and dearest, at a graduation due to take place this summer. Very exciting!

      Thank you for all your comments on this blog. They helped me a lot, too, you have no idea how much. I especially loved the midnight message on the 30th September - very timely indeed - it was amazing to know that someone somewhere in the world remembered that I would be up late that night all alone, struggling with a massive deadline and in need of a bit of support!

      Take it easy, now, and keep doing the good deeds!

      Dr C.

  2. Dear Dr Cloud-Nine,

    I’m stoked to hear that you have (almost) finished your PhD corrections! Congratulations! I recently got my examiners reports back, two weeks ago so I’m glad you were able to get them done before then!

    The day my corrections were due back was a very stressful day. I spent the whole day stewing and stewing and working myself up into an anxious frenzy! You see, two months before I submitted my PhD my supervisor’s, supervisor (my grand-supervisor?) read the partially completed draft of my PhD and had some correction to make, but he also said it’s probably not a phd and that it would need a lot of work before it could be considered a phd (I hadn’t written the most of the discussion section so the comments were justified). He said I could submit it as a Masters now. Then my supervisor said I should really think about submitting it as a Master since she also didn’t think it was good enough for a phd. Fortunately for me, a very kind post-doc stepped in and really helped me out with getting some good discussion points and reading my draft discussions. This post-doc told me I had worked to long and too hard on this thing just to give up and submit it as a Master (Note: there is nothing wrong with a masters thesis, it’s great in its own right, but when you have spent 5 years trying to get a PhD well a master just doesn’t cut it). This post-doc was terrific and one day will make a great PhD supervisor! In the next two months, we were able to get something together that could be submitted as a PhD. But I had my doubts following this whole master’s debacle.

    Amazing, the first examiner said everything was fine! Only minor corrections and fixing a few plots – there were tears of joy! The second examiner’s report came back a few days later saying it was great and an enjoyable read. He actually had quite a few thoughtful comments to offer but gave a tick of approval. I was relieved but also slightly underwhelmed that day. It was over (well I thought that then, I’ve still the corrections to do). The beast was done. I was expecting a colossal amount of work still to do, another mountain to climb... just something more that this monster of a phd had left to throw at me, but there wasn’t (well only a little hill to climb). It was a weird feeling.

    I’m able to enjoy the break though a bit more now, it took me a few days to even tell people because I almost didn’t believe it myself and was waiting for one of the examiners to say “oh wait, actually I read it again and it’s rubbish”. It hasn’t happened yet and now I don’t think it will, it’s almost over... except for those corrections!

    So now I’m sitting here (on a very miserable day) and procrastinating doing my PhD corrections. There seem to be far more fun tasks to do, write to you, clean my bathroom, apply for jobs (PS: thanks for the advice of putting the phd on the second page of my CV!) Note that last two activities are never fun when I actually have to do them!

    Maybe I should try a tomato!

    So again congratulations for getting your corrections done!! We may procrastinate but we get there eventually! :-)

    1. Dear Dr Argggggg!... CONGRATULATIONS!... :)

      Your message pinged on my phone just as I was about to jet off on a little mini-holiday, and I couldn't easily reply, but I kept smiling for you all the way to the airport, and then all the way to my destination. (In fact, I seem to remember that I actually punched the air when I read it, to the mild alarm of my fellow travellers.) WELL DONE! You did it!... It's funny how these things cause us so much stress, and there we are, absolutely convinced that everything we wrote is awful and that the world is about to end, and then one day the examiners just cast their eyes over it and they're like 'Yes, yes, it's fine. Well done. Go away.'

      Congratulations again!...

      ps. I have NEARLY got my corrections done... (aaargh...) just one small thing to do that my examiners suggested I do, and I haven't got round to doing it yet. I'll just go clean under the oven first and then I definitely will do it...