It wasn’t until a friend died that I suddenly realised time was precious. Through the grief, a transformative experience occurred within me. In my mid-thirties, I flung myself back into education at undergraduate level to pursue a new career in healthcare. I relished every opportunity and for the first time in my life, I felt that I had direction. More than that, I had a purpose.
However, I was acutely aware that there was still something missing. I knew that deep within me, there was a piece of the jigsaw in my psyche that didn’t quite make sense. The more I looked for it, the more it would hide, like trying to remember a dream when you wake. There were vivid flashes, but it quickly slipped away. That was until my undergraduate final examinations.
If you had asked me then, I would have said everything was fine. My grades were great, I had made friends on my course, and yes, that purpose in life that had been missing before was now burning brightly. That was when things began to happen that I couldn’t explain. There were missed instructions for assignments, despite my diligent attention. Conversations began to play on a constant loop in my mind. I would show up for seminars early and I couldn’t understand why no one else was quite as eager as me. Yet, I was going to the gym more than ever and I was on the verge of an exciting new career. How could anything be wrong with me?
I am 2 years and 11 months into my 4-year PhD. I was once told that a PhD could feel like running an obstacle course of a marathon distance, but I could say the same of figuring out and managing a chronic illness. It turns out I have had to do both in parallel. I had been experiencing health issues for 3 years before the symptoms worsened during the 2nd year of my PhD. This still impacts my life and ability to work today. In this post I will explain how I have tackled the challenges brought about by my health issues in relation to my studies.
We all know the running grad student gag: anxious, depressed, poor. We’ve seen the episode of ‘The Simpsons’ where Bart imitates a grad student. The thing about stereotypes is that they sometimes highlight very important truths. In fact, graduate students are 6x more likely to suffer from anxiety and depression when compared to the general population, resulting in what has been labelled a ‘mental health crisis’ within the academic community. Not only do many graduate students suffer from anxiety and depression, but they have to write a thesis during this highly pressurized time, and survive the ‘publish-or-perish’ culture in academia in order to graduate. Many graduate students surpass the writer’s block associated with anxiety and depression and become successful and thrive in academia, but sadly, some do not.
Like many of my peers, I suffer from anxiety and depression. I’ve experienced periods of incapacitation and hospitalization; simultaneously I have a Masters, am almost finished with my PhD, and am a published author. Fun fact: my family and my friends never suspected I was incapacitated as I kept smiling, making people laugh, taking care of my appearance, turning in my work, being ‘deceptively’ successful.
In the first episode, the Voices of Academia concept and the team are introduced.
Academics Dr. Marissa Kate Edwards, Dr. Zoe Ayres, and Emily King (PhD loading) open up about why academic mental health advocacy is important to them and why it’s necessary. They also share some of their own wellness suggestions and how you can get involved with the blog or podcast.
As members of the academy, we are constantly being evaluated: with exams, viva, job interviews, grant applications, tenure dossiers, etc. During each stage of our academic journeys, our peers, superiors, and sometimes our competitors pass judgement on our work, and by extension, ourselves. They judge how impactful our proposed research is; how many patents and publications we have generated; how satisfactorily we have completed program requirements; how well we have taught and mentored our students and trainees in the classroom or research laboratory. In other words, our worth as academics is repeatedly judged by our productivity. This is, of course, the easiest method by which to assess our worth, but it is also the most impersonal; why, then, do so many of us ascribe so much of our personal worth to these altogether impersonal metrics? As academics, what exactly are we really worth?
If you don’t know me, it’s easy to read my academic biography and see a career of highlights. You’ll see a long list of awards starting from my undergraduate career, fully funded scholarships for graduate school and postdoctoral fellowship positions at MIT and Harvard. I began my independent research career at the prestigious IBM T.J. Watson Research Centre, then moved to the University of Windsor to take up a faculty position and am now a full professor with a thriving research group in wearable electronics. On paper, it seems like I had everything figured out, but the real story is far more complex. In academia, we idealize success and hide challenges – particularly mental health challenges. These “hidden” stories are closely intertwined with professional biographies but rarely told together. In the full story, the biography of an academic becomes more relatable and, well, more human.
I am destructively depressed; I sometimes think about hurting myself. These are my medicated thoughts – perhaps you’d call them ‘secrets’? An insight into my secret life; information I cannot share with you at work, on conference coffee breaks, or at lab-group festive lunches held at mid-price eateries of least offence. This may be an uncomfortable read for some – it’s uncomfortable, but it’s true. Welcome to my secret life as a Bipolar PhD student.
I’ve been an anxious person for as long as I can remember, but it wasn’t until late high school that I started to develop depression, and I was not formally assessed for my mental illnesses until the penultimate year of my MPhys degree. Armed with a diagnosis of Generalised Anxiety Disorder as well as Major Depressive Disorder (which are often comorbid), I was put on anti-depressants (which I still take to this day) as well as starting therapy. Both of these treatments have helped me somewhat, but I continue to have a lot of trouble just navigating life without getting overwhelmed and still struggle to understand the social world around me at times.
For me, graduate school was supposed to be the next exciting life step after receiving my undergraduate degree, yet I could never have prepared myself for the mental fatigue and instability I would endure and continue to endure.
Since my doctoral degree began back in 2017, I have always felt like a “problem child”, whether that be in my lab, in my committee, or in my department. I typically point a finger at my imposter syndrome for making me feel this way; however, some people’s words and actions during my journey have merited considerable attention as to why I feel emotionally depleted.
What I mean by “problem child” is that I feel I cause inconveniences, errors, and unnecessary work for others simply by existing. You might also experience this, and I give a big virtual hug to whoever does. Likely, imposter syndrome is to blame. If you are unfamiliar with this term, people with imposter syndrome experience feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt continually, even in the face of evidence to the contrary. In my experience, this happens regardless of whether I really know what I’m doing, or even when I achieve awards and recognition for my work. Several examples come to mind of times I have felt like an “imposter” in food science.
I’ve always known I wanted to help people, to understand their “whys” in an effort to better understand them. So, naturally a career in psychology was the perfect fit. Yet I had no desire to become a psychologist and wasn’t aware of any other available avenues to realising my goal until I found neuropsychology and neuroscience; since then, I’ve never looked back. Except I didn’t happen upon this career path until I was in my thirties. I didn’t find the career that fit without going through a number of jobs that didn’t fit. So, here I am starting a PhD in my mid-thirties. Inevitably asking myself if I made the right decision. Sceptically asking myself if I’m capable of completing a PhD. And constantly asking myself if pursuing a PhD at this point in my life is even worth it.