Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Ph.D. Depression

Ph.D. depression = ???

Yesterday I googled the phrase "when to quit your Ph.D." I am at a low point in my feelings about my own research and commitment to the Ph.D. program and was looking for some "objective" advice from a blogger or columnist to tell me what the breaking point should be - what is the rule for when to throw in the Ph.D. towel?

I didn't find the answer to that question, but I found a lot of desperate PhDs struggling with the same question as me and searching for each other by posting on forums and blogs. Just finding them - and realizing that there are a lot of us out there struggling - made me feel so much better and picked me up out of my own self pity long enough to inspire me to take a proactive approach to making my decision...and hopefully help some people out on the way. That's why I'm starting this blog.

The thing is, even though a huge percentage of us feel this way (according to the data collected in the Ph.D. Completion Project 31% of us will leave our programs by year 10 and only 57% will have graduated), we're not talking about it with each other. Since no one wants to talk about it publicly, I'm starting this site as a community for us to discuss privately...and also as a journal for me to work out my own decision. I'll post my thoughts on my journey through this prestigious and frustrating process of obtaining a Ph.D., any useful information I come across and maybe some polls to see if I can get some quantitative evidence of our situation to prove or disprove my theories on it (still a researcher at heart). I hope you'll share your stories, talk to each other and help me create a supportive community for our fellow PhDs. We don't have to go through this alone.

So what is Ph.D. Depression? That's to be decided here as we go, but here's a working definition I've come up with for now:

A series of symptoms that resemble the symptoms of a Major Depressive Episode but are constrained to aspects of one's life that are directly affected by the Ph.D.

Some examples of how the symptoms for a Major Depressive Episode could be constrained exclusively to the aspects of life directly affected by the Ph.D. are:

-A depressed mood when thinking about research, but not in other aspects of one's life

-Diminished interest or pleasure in learning and research but not extracurricular hobbies (maybe even an excessive increase in extracurricular hobbies)

-Increase/decrease in appetite or weight gain during deadlines and other work-related stresses

-Insomnia/hypersomnia during the week, with regular sleeping during the weekend or holidays

-Psychomotor agitation/retardation, fatigue/loss of energy only while working

-Feelings of worthlessness or excessive or inappropriate guilt in relation to one's own intelligence or lack of productive research

(I think this is an especially important feature because the defining characteristic for most of us pursing a Ph.D. has been our exceptional intelligence and/or work ethic...which just doesn't seem to be that exceptional any more)

-Diminished ability to think or concentrate, or indecisiveness when relating to work - with possibly an over abundance of these resources relating to games, non-work related websites or hobbies

-Recurrent thoughts of Ph.D. death (being let go by one's advisor) or Ph.D. suicide (leaving the program)

If you want to check out the symptoms I've based this on, see the DSM IV definition of a Major Depressive Episode. BTW, this blog is meant to establish a supportive community to help combat the loneliness associated with both obtaining a Ph.D. and/or deciding to stop pursing the Ph.D. It is not meant to be a substitute for professional medical help. If you think you're experiencing a Major Depressive Episode, please contact a mental health professional.