PhD – Patiently headed Downhill?

It’s not a secret that grad school might be dangerous for mental health. In recent years people started to talk about it openly, numerous studies on this topic have been done (eg. on suicides or depression). The awareness of mental health is rising, which definitely makes it easier to get help when needed. However, this isn’t the full story.

A few years ago I started to consider a possiblity of pursuing a PhD. So I googled around – big mistake. Phrases such as “grad school mental health” returned thousands of websites suggesting that the coming years will be filled with pain and tears. Basically, in the best case scenario I’d quit before obtaining my degree; in the worst, I’d commit suicide. Not the most optimistic view. I decided to give it a try anyway, but I’m sure many potential students resigned from their dreams, worried about their future.

But the reality isn’t so dark. In fact, my experience with grad school is completely opposite. I started my PhD course struggling with a serious mental illness, so if Google was right, I should have gone completely downhill. However, pursuing a PhD at Imperial was a major factor in my recovery. And I’m sure that everyone can have such a positive experience – but that requires some effort. Here’s what I learned during my time at Imperial.

Last year I took part in the musical with our Musical Theatre Society. So much fun!

PhD is NOT your life. Research requires a lot of time and energy, but spending all days and nights in front of the laptop/in the lab is a straight path to mental problems. Remember the famous “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”? Our brains have limited thinking abilities (at least mine does), so after long hours of trying to prove the same bloody inequality or debugging the code you might be better off going for a walk with a friend or rehearsing a play with your favourite society than trying to understand a difficult paper. Trust me, I’ve tried.

Speaking of societies, make sure you have a hobby. A non-academic hobby, within a society or on your own, as long as you truly enjoy it. For example, when research is too much to handle, I go to Blyth Centre in Blackett and play piano. Or go for a run. Or call a friend. Chances are that after I return to work, I’ll get a new idea.

But if I don’t, it’s not the end of the world. In fact, more often than not I don’t know what I’m doing – or my supervisor shows me that I had absolutely no clue, even though I was so proud of my “achievement”.

PhD is a constant failure. Which doesn’t mean that you’re a failure. Research is all about trying a thousand of things that don’t work only to succeed for the thousand first time. That’s why it’s crucial to have something outside of academia, so that we don’t base our value on our results. If I did, I would seriously feel like the most stupid person in the world, because whatever I try, it fails – until it doesn’t. By the way, these moments when we actually manage to fix this annoying bug in the code are worth all the struggles. Seriously.

Nutrition (pizza!) and friends – a recipe for happiness in the maths department

Ok, so you know now how important free time is. How do you spend yours? Playing computer games? Watching Netflix? Fine, as long as you make sure to spend some time with friends and family. PhD can be a very solitary job, especially in subjects such as maths, where we don’t even need to leave our bed (no labs needed). No matter how introvert you are, you need people as well. You need to talk to someone, laugh with someone, cry with someone. For this reason I strongly recommend to work in the office, even if you technically don’t need to. But my office mates make my days brighter, it’s great to know that someone sitting next to me is going through the same thing, struggling as well, but not giving up. And that it’s only one hour till noon when we’ll go and get lunch together, exchange the lastest gossip and let our brains rest for a few minutes.

Ah, lunch, I almost forgot about another important thing – take care of your body. It’s easy to forget about nutrition, sleep or exercise. I definitely don’t mean eating salads, going to bed at 9 pm and hitting the gym every day, because it’s just another way of putting a pressure on yourself. Eat whatever makes you happy, sleep when you’re tired and move when it feels good – just don’t forget to do that, no matter how much work you have to do. We’re not just brains, we’re human beings.

And when things get hard, ask for help. Yes, it’s difficult to say “I’m struggling, could we talk?” – but that’s the only way out. THE ONLY WAY. Talk to a friend, a family member, your supervisor (yes, they care about you as a person, not only about your results – at least they should) or a professional (remember about free counselling services at Imperial). You’d be surprised how much a single conversation can change your life.

Pursuing a PhD can be a great challenge for your mental health – but it can also a great experience that will help you thrive. PhD doesn’t need to mean “Patiently headed Downhill”. It can turn into “Perfectly happy Days”. It’s all up to you.

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