Glyn Morgan 😷 Profile picture
May 14, 2018 30 tweets 6 min read Twitter logo Read on Twitter
It's #MentalHealthAwarenessWeek so I thought I'd lay out some personal truths based on my experience of nearly a decade as a PhD student, part-time worker, and academic early career researcher (ECR). Let's talk stress, anxiety and depression. #phdchat #ecrchat #phdlife (thread)
First off the disclaimer: I'm playing life on its easy setting, I'm white, male, a British citizen, cisgendered, roughly middle class. I make no claims to authority on the topics I'm about the talk about, nor that my experiences are exceptional. I am privileged in many ways.
(second disclaimer: I haven't really given this much thought beyond the decision to do it, so there's no guarantee anything here is going to be worth reading, but I think - I hope - it might be useful for someone to get a sense of "it's not just me", which might help)
Doing a PhD was the hardest thing I've ever done. It taxed me financially, mentally and medically. My own sense that I might not be good enough to carry my project through, or that the project itself was crap, was often nearly crippling.
(context for anyone who doesn't know but wants to: I did my PhD at the University of Liverpool in English Literature, studying the Holocaust in non-,mimetic (ie non-realist) British and American novels. I did it part-time over 8 years)
I actually had a reasonably good peer-group of fellow PhD students both in my Uni and in my wider network, which I developed through going to (and hosting) conferences. This was invaluable. As was the support of family and friends.
Nonetheless, the feeling that you're a colossal fraud takes its toll and no amount of reassurance will sufficiently ease it (you always think - yeah but I *actually am* not good enough, this time imposter syndrome is accurate. It's not).
This sense that I was constantly failing versus some invisible standard I'd unwittingly set myself, plus the pressures of research, writing, the other stuff you have to do like teaching, conferencing, publishing, and then working part-time took a big toll
I've never been a very good sleeper but the various things playing on my mind (and of course they come loudest in the quiet times) kept me awake at night, woke me in the night, & sometimes stopped me sleeping all together. I'm no coffee junkie, this was pure adrenaline & anxiety
The insomnia took its toll and I developed irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), sorry if you're eating, but that meant for about 6 months I didn't pass anything solid. I lost some weight, I felt even more tired, the various meds & remedies didn't seem to really make any difference
There were multiple occassions where my PhD led me to burst into tears: after supervisory meetings, in discussions with my boss at work, at home in front of my computer. Thing is these emotional outbursts weren't the low points.
The low points are when you're so tired, so emotionally spent, so isolated, under-fed, under-hydrated, that you cannot bring yourself to open your laptop. You feel like everything is wrapped in a haze of smog, you're somehow cut off from the world, its numbing.
This numbness can turn on a dime, one good win (a breakthrough idea in the shower, an article published, great feedback for something you wrote, just a nice afternoon with friends) can make it all seem silly and distant, but those wins feel few and far between.
Depression comes crashing back. And you know you shouldn't but you dwell on it, you wrap yourself up in it until it almost chokes you, you wear it and wallow in your sense of feeling shit because fuck it. (I realise I've switched to 2nd person but its easier for me to articulate)
Takeaway from this? - You're not shit. You're amazing. You got this far and you'll go further - Everyone really does go through some variation of this YOU ARE NOT ALONE - You have a lot to do but don't isolate yourself, make sure you schedule something with other people ...
... even if it's just a coffee or lunch, or a board game night, or a couple of drinks in the pub. Being with friends and loved ones helps. Deadlines can be moved, especially internal ones. Most supervisors and senior academics will understand.
Part 2. The PhD was the hardest thing I've ever done. Guess what, being an ECR is easily the second hardest. In some ways its harder. At least as a PhD you have a support network built into the establishment, you have a supervisor etc. As an ECR you feel cut adrift.
That sense of being aimless, not knowing what you're doing with your PhD? As an ECR that's tenfold because there's no longer anyone guiding you along. I'm lucky that I made some great friends as a student and many wonderful people have become my mentors
(even if they probably aren't aware that I think of them in that way)
And imposter syndrome? I thought it was bad when I was doing my PhD, but after 30+ rejections for academic job applications (and a handful for non-academic jobs!) with no feedback available, after spending days even weeks on the applications. That really knocks my sense of worth.
All the while I'm trying to publish, publish, publish, and working in a part-time job from which I gain ever dwindling amounts of satisfaction. Not because it's not a great job, but because it's not what I want to do. Not what I've spend 10 years training to do!
There have been multiple moments in the last year where I have not been my best self. That familiar numbness has returned. I've had sleepless nights. My IBS even came back (hoorah...!). I try not to let it show but you know what guys - it's fucking hard!
I am so so so so lucky that I have supportive friends, many of whome are in the exact same boat, or are only slightly further ahead on the academic conveyor belt, as well as those aformentioned mentor figures. Thank you all.
And that's not even mentioning @Beket_Aten my partner who as an ECR who recently finished her PhD is equally broken in her own ways but she's been an absolutely essential part of my psychological stability (such as it is) for so long. I don't know where I'd be now otherwise.
I think I've lost sight of why I'm writing this thread. Okay. Basically. This life is hard, no matter how good you are (or others think you are), and it wears you down. Being with other people & talking to them really helps me so anyone reading this who wants to unload: go for it
Spend some time with others. Don't be afraid to share the low points. I know that you feel like you're moaning all the time and everyone is secretly rolling their eyes bored about your woes. I CONSTANTLY WORRY ABOUT THAT!
At the same time, personal time, your own headspace, can be valuable. Unplug, go for a walk in a park or up a mountain, read for fun, do what you need to do to find some sort of safe core in your mind from which you can sally forth for the next battle because there will be more.
ECR life is brutal. I've seen friends not make it. I might not make it. For th moment I have to believe that I can & I will. So do you. Be with those people who make you feel good about yourself & what you do. Stay in touch with communities & networks that make you feel connected
I'm still going through all this. Still working it out. Still trying to be healthy whilst also pushing on with everything that feels like it needs doing, so I have minimal real advice. But someone has to make it. Why not us?
I hope this hasn't been as completely self-indulgent as it's felt like, and that someone reading it finds it helpful in some way to know that we are all going through this. Thanks everybody x

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