PhD Students and Mental Health

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Recently, there have been numerous stories in the mainstream media and in social media about the mental health problems suffered by PhD students.  I’ve been intrigued by the stories partly because I research the history of mental health, partly because I supervise PhD students and want them to do well, but also because my experience as a PhD student was so very different.

The three years I spent on my PhD thesis were easily the best three years of my life up until that point.  I really did have a wonderful time and, had I never forged an academic career after my viva, I would not have regretted a moment.  In fact, that was my plan all along.

Unlike many PhD students, who go straight from BA to MA to PhD, I was 32 when I started my PhD at the University of Exeter.  The notion of completing a PhD, which would have baffled, bemused, and bewhildered the 22-year-old me, gradually came to me as I hit my early 30s and crashed into something of a early-career crisis. I had been working as a careers advisor for a few years and, while my job was rewarding in many respects, the very nature of my job forced me to reflect on whether it was really satisfying me.

When the opportunity came to come to England from Canada in the form of a Wellcome Trust Doctoral Studentship, I saw it not so much as a career change or a way in which to accelerate my previous career, but a career pause.  I wanted to do well – and ultimately did – but I had absolutely no expectations of a career in academia.  Spending three years in a new country, studying something that fascinated me and meeting new people – that would be reward in itself.  And as I came to the end of my studies in 2009, in the midst of the Great Recession and with every academic opportunity seemingly slipping through my fingers, I wasn’t happy that an academic job didn’t seem likely, but I still basked in the glow of what had been a great ride.

And it was a great ride, but not just because of the academic stuff. I promised myself prior to coming to England that I was going to make the most of these three years.  I was ready to work hard, but play even harder.  My week tended to break down as follows:

Monday – get to my cubicle in the Amory Building for 9 and try to work until 5. Take a break for lunch and maybe go to the gym.  If I felt burnt out or jaded, stop.  Attend any seminar series going unless it seemed tremendously dull.

Tuesday – repeat.

Wednesday – meet up with my friend Tindy and go on a bike ride into the Devon hills. Work during the afternoon until about 5.

Thursday – Work between 9 and 4.  At 4, go sing in the World Music Choir for a couple of hours, then go home or to a film at the Picturehouse with my friend JJ.  Or head to London for the day for research at the Wellcome Library.

Friday – instead of working on thesis, work on abstracts for conferences, articles or other things, like the postgraduate journal, Ex Historia. Then go play football on the Flowerpot Field down near the Exe.  Drink and be merry at the Mill on the Exe thereafter.

Saturday – go on a walk with the Out Of Doors Club.

Sunday – do some volunteering with the Exeter National Trust.

I also took every opportunity to go to every conference and workshop I could, seeing much of the UK and many other countries in the process.  Of course, Wellcome Trust funding came in handy for such travels.

I say that I usually worked from 9 to 4 or 5 (depending on the day), but I know for a fact that many days I wasn’t really working for more than 5 hours.  I didn’t see the point.  I was making good progress from the outset and saw pretty quickly that after about 5 hours, I simply got stupid and needed to stop. During my third year, this routine changed a little as I took on some teaching (unpaid, if I am not mistaken), but I was often only putting in 25-hour weeks.  Despite that, I managed to submit after about two years and eight months.  I don’t say this to brag, but mainly to emphasise that it is the quality of the work you put in that matters and that having a good work-life balance makes most people much more efficient.

I should also say that my progress was aided by three indispensible factors.  First, I managed to get a good start on my PhD by doing a thesis-based Masters and by doing a good deal of preparation prior to coming to England.  This made the 3-year, thesis-only approach of a British PhD much more sensible than spending the first two years of my PhD studies taking classes and preparing for comprehensive exams, as is the way in North America.  I had seen my wife go through this and shuddered, but do think that this model might be prefereable for many British PhD students who do not have a solid PhD research proposal

Second, I had a brilliant supervisor: Mark Jackson. I left every meeting with Mark feeling elated, positive, and knowing exactly what I had to do.  I was fortunate in having a superb supervisor, but it wasn’t just dumb luck.  I had researched potential supervisors very carefully in the year leading up to my PhD, knowing that it was essential to a good experience.  I had met a few possible supervisors, too, and came away not particularly impressed.  I even flew over to Exeter to meet up with Mark and present my research at a conference prior to even applying.  This gave me the confidence that Exeter was the place for me (a cycle up into Dartmoor helped on that score) and that Mark and I would hit it off.  I know that many others are not so lucky.  Indeed, I got a sense of what a bad supervisory experience could be from my second supervisor, who shall remain nameless.

Third, I developed a great support network of friends.  Most of these were not in History.  Although I got on with most of my fellow historians, my closest friends were in Classics and Sociology and a smattering of other subjects.  These were the people I played football with, walked and cycled with and sang with.  I also had my wife, Michelle, who I dragged along with me, despite the fact she was stil undertaking her own PhD studies at the University of Alberta.  The first couple of years weren’t easy for us, and amounted to the only sort of mental strife I experienced.  But, as we travelled throughout Europe together and as she began to make friends and her own career took off, things got much better.

In June 2009, on a bus to Exmouth with a close friend from Canada, I got a call from Mark Jackson.  He said that my Wellcome Trust Fellowship application was successful.  I had had to wait 3 months for this news, as the recession had wreaked havoc with the Trust’s finances, forcing them to limit their spending. As nothing else that I had applied for had been successful, this was my last kick at the can.  I had decided that, if the Wellcome Trust didn’t come through, I would head back to Canada, possibly to my old job and possibly to start my own business (if you can complete a PhD thesis, you can run a business).  I had come to terms with this likelihood, but I was overjoyed that things turned out otherwise.

I write all this not to undermine what other PhD students are going through, but rather to indicate what I think made my PhD years so enjoyable and fulfilling.  I know from personal experience that things do not always go so swimmingly.  During my mid-twenties, my goal was to become a teacher.  It did not go so well.  I worked too many long hours, had no peer support network, had lousy supervisors and eventually got unwell.  I stuck it out and eventually got my degree, but I knew that it was not the career for me.  A litany of failed job applications for teaching jobs sealed the deal.  I went into my PhD studies not desperate for a job, as I had been during my Education degree, but eager to have a fabulous three years.  And I did.

If there are any take-away points from my experience, I think they are the following:

  • Don’t do a PhD because you want to get an academic job (even though they do exist); do it because you’re passionate about something and want to devote yourself to it for three or four years.
  • Take the time to prepare.  Take a year off – the three years between my MA and my PhD not only allowed me to prepare, but also fuelled my desire to continue my studies.
  • Once you know what you want to do, go whereever is the best place to research that topic, which will be where the best supervisor is (and hopefully also where you’ll enjoy living).  Meet your supervisor and ensure that you will get along with them.
  • Don’t drown in your PhD research: go to seminars, join clubs, develop hobbies, take breaks – have fun!  Then, if the PhD turns out to be a disaster, at least you’ve had a good time.
  • Finally, if you can complete a PhD thesis, realise that you can probably do anything else you set your mind to.  It is a hell of an accomplishment that only a small fraction of people can hope to achieve.  Take pride in that.

I have written this in the chance it may help people thinking about or going through the PhD process.  Maybe it won’t help everyone, but at least that has been my intention.  Ultimately, completing a PhD is not for everyone and there is nothing wrong with that.  Life is too short to think otherwise.