We’re All Mad Here…

Ridiculous stereotype, or inescapable destiny?  No thanks.

It seems that today, social media exploded with an article about the ‘culture of acceptance around mental health issues in academia’.  At least, the little niche corner of social media that I occupy… which is populated mostly by other postgraduate students studying in a bioscience-related field, and that says something in itself.

Apart from highlighting and forcing self-reflection upon aspects of my life, and issues relating to this that are touched upon within the article, many of the supposedly stereotypical academic viewpoints are harrowing echoes and near-quotes of my own supervisor’s blunt and scarring words.

Sometimes we laugh at ourselves, making light and finding solace in solidarity.  It’s good to know that we are not alone.  PhD Comics by Jorge Cham hits home for many.  But the comics are still often shared as a message of ‘not-really-okay-ness’.

“Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham http://www.phdcomics.com

Currently in the final year of my own PhD and desperately scrambling to produce enough disparate bullshit to prove that I’m a legit scientician, I cannot possibly document every single mental and physical strain that I’ve experienced over the last 3 years.

I’ve worked 36+ hour days.  I’ve gained and lost weight.  My winter colds now last 2 straight months, at least.  I’ve been depressed.  I’ve had trouble sleeping.  I’ve lost motivation.  I suffer from chronic, constant headaches with no discernible cause.  I caught myself drinking daily at one point during my second year.

With the end date looming, I’ve started having panic attacks at the thought that I might actually fail.  This is the only thing that I’ve ever known I want to do, and despite having made it this far, I still face the very real prospect of not completing, or at least completing with poor prospects, which would ruin me, but have precisely zero repercussions for my supervisor, because there is ultimately no accountability higher up.

There are no other career paths out there that I can imagine taking.  Believe me when I say that if I could see myself in any other job, I’d have quit this hellish PhD and be there right now.

I am here for the love of science and discovery.

It should not be considered normal that we are working continuously, to the detriment of everything else in our lives.

It cannot be okay that we approach our supervisors and are faced with the attitude that “Prescription medication and diagnostic labels are dangerous and unhelpful and you shouldn’t take pills to solve your problems.”  These are damaging opinions and I paraphrase, but they are very real.

You may have a doctorate, but you are not my doctor.

This may seem like it has been a personal story (and it has been) and it may not be everyone’s experience, but from the storm created by the Academics Anonymous article today, and from subsequent discussions that I’ve been a part of and observed, I can tell you that it isn’t unique to me.

This is a problem that is endemic in academia.

We all sacrifice for what we do.  Particularly when we set out to specialise in our field, we give up parts of ourselves in the process, but it should never, ever be our mental or physical health and relationships with the people we love.

When I quote the Cheshire Cat in the title of this post (if we can overlook the insensitivity of it), it’s because when I read parts of that article this morning I felt momentarily reassured to find out that this was a larger problem than just mine alone.

And then I was horrified,  utterly horrified at the scale of it.

Because actually, it seems that it isn’t a ‘culture of acceptance‘, so much as expectance, when it comes to some of the insane things that we endure in order to come out with a PhD.  A lot of us will be changed forever in ways that are nothing to do with professional development.


5 responses to “We’re All Mad Here…

  1. Brilliant blog post. No one I know doing a PhD has had an easy time, yet it seems it’s just “accepted” that all PhD students will spiral into depression/severe anxiety at some stage.
    You’re almost there sugar plum, just a few more months till you can give a certain somebody the finger xxx


  2. Pingback: We’re All Mad Here… | On The Mend - trying to stay positive blog·

  3. I’ve just completed my PhD and the consequences of the culture of acceptance & expectance will be with me for a long, long time. The sad thing is that I considered myself the lucky one among my colleagues, some of whom have appalling relationships with their supervisory teams. In some areas of research, it really seems that if you don’t spend ALL your time, 24/7, on the PhD you are a failure or a lazy scrounger / waste of funding. I find it a bit rich, coming from people who last stepped into a lab, actually did first-hand research or wrote a paper themselves decades ago.
    I wish there were more support opportunities for students, but I think there should be some support for supervisors too. The fault is never on one side alone and sometimes supervising a PhD can be as a learning process as doing a PhD.
    I wish all the best to you, Catriona. I read you are near completion, so thank you for sharing your experience and comments!


  4. The lack of accountability really hits home – if you come out with zero publications then its your fault and the track record of the lab isn’t taken into account – after all correlation isn’t causation right? The same goes for student who drop out, had three PhD student leave your lab, clearly all of them weren’t cut out for research and as a PI you can rest safe in that knowledge.
    However, bad supervision, throw away pet projects, using PhD students as guinea pigs for new areas of research, can essentially consign someones scientific career to the dustbin.
    I’ve witnessed students who didn’t jump to their supervisors ready tune forced out, colleagues supporting each other over the student welfare. I’ve seen students who, due to their supervisor, have doubts about continuing the PhD and rather than offer them alternatives the supervisor with their ego bruised has rallied his colleagues and forced them out – after all those colleagues will probably never see the once-PhD-student again but will see their colleagues regularly.
    Institutions continually favour the status quo and rarely have I ever seen support given to a suffering post-graduate student, and on those rarefied times I have witnessed such actions are because another academic with a strong sense of student welfare or morality, stands up, speaks out and helps them.
    A system that relies on the fickle vagaries of individual benevolence to support, back up or help students is not a system that works their benefit.

    “What, after all, was the point of civilisation if not the well-being of citizens?”


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