Many PhD students take the view that if you’re not doing overnight experiments, missing meals, or binge drinking, you’re not doing it right.
"Some people choose to have a social life while they’re doing their PhD. And that’s OK. But I’m not," one of my fellow PhD students tells me.
Who else is supposed to help you? Your supervisor? “A blemish on my career,” is how one academic referred to their experience of supervising a student who developed mental health difficulties during their studies.
Mental health problems are often not perceived to be anything to do with supervisory inadequacies. It is important to remember that academics who are PhD supervisors did not make it to their current rank because of their exceptional supervising skill. They got to that position by being an excellent researcher, and winning some cash.
In my 3.5 years as a PhD, I’m okay with admitting I’ve suffered most of the issues brought up in this piece on the Guardian Professional series by an ‘anonymous academic’. I’m okay with admitting it because I’ve survived, and it’s made me stronger. I better maintain the anxiety of the PhD because I’ve learned my coping mechanisms - through therapy! But it’s the 3rd and 4th paragraph… I wasn’t strong enough; no one was there for me, and that’s not okay.
I’ve had 5, FIVE, changes of supervision in 3.5 years. If you’re not familiar with the PhD this is very rare, definitely destabilising. Most were political economists leaving my University for one that thinks more highly of political economists. One of those changes scratches those 3rd and 4th paragraphs raw; it doesn’t help that this academic later won an award for being a mentor to women. I’m not ‘trashing’ this person, on the contrary; they are wonderful. Rather, what I’m drawing out is the feeling that I, ME, am the blemish on their supervisory record is, in itself, a feeling that had me grappling with … let’s just call it negativity.
I always knew I wasn’t alone in this feeling, but the anonymous academic is right - all this, is not okay, and even worse perhaps, in Britain where therapy and even emotions have such social stigma. PhDs are adrift in a sea of poor support mechanisms, and it’s not for want of facilities like counselling centres of ‘academic support networks’. It’s the social stigma; as PhDs, we’ve been isolated as ‘good enough’ to merit one of the highest academic distinctions. We’ve always been able to help ourselves or do it (well enough) on our own. Asking for help is asking for public acknowledgement that we aren’t good enough, that we don’t deserve this high merit, and that we’re vulnerable - in life and the job market.
When people ask me what happened with my old supervisor, I say we had differing opinions on how to approach my PhD. And I think that’s the best way to say it, because how else is someone supposed to cope with a PhD student who has, in one year, gone through the death of my (almost) entire family, street harassment that resulted in physical assault, and the separation of my spouse because of immigration? My supervisor was trained to supervise PhDs, not nervous breakdowns, and I wasn’t the same person after all of that as I was when I started my PhD, when I was ‘good enough’. I wasn’t ‘good enough’ any more; I was broken, and there was such a risk in admitting it. My old supervisor and I are okay now; if there wasn’t such a conflict of interest I’d entertain them serving as my internal examiner.
But the truth is, on the day of my VIVA (how much more overbearing/pretentious can the PhD get when the examination is Latin for life), I’m going to be reliving every moment of my PhD when I didn’t feel ‘good enough’, when I was vulnerable for fear of admitting it, and that’s not okay.