This article was submitted by Jade Goodman, a student in the school of Clinical Psychology.
When I started university in 2011, I didn’t think I’d still be here now. I don’t think many of us did. For me, a PhD wasn’t something I considered doing until second semester in my honours year, with the thought of post-university life looming over me. Only then did I hastily, and somewhat half-heartedly, put together my application and a PhD proposal, on top of finishing my honours project.
For me, the prospect of a PhD represented an opportunity I did think I’d have – like unlocking a level in a game you never thought you’d reach. And because I’d (mostly) enjoyed the game so far, I thought: why not?
My first year of PhD life was fairly positive. I had supportive supervisors and a great team of PhD students and academics around me. I focused my time on the big picture, planning an ambitious body of work. I enjoyed the creative and innovative side of research that came with designing experiments and found that I was excited to nut out the detail involved in this process.
However, this excitement and passion didn’t preclude me from procrastination or imposter syndrome, and at times I felt I wasn’t making much progress. Even though I knew that my PhD structure was different to the others in my lab, I couldn’t help comparing my progress to theirs. All the while, trying to adapt to this new form of study – one where there were no semester breaks and the only real due date was three years away!
Despite these small moments of uncertainty, my first year was prosperous and ended with me successfully completing my Confirmation seminar 10 months in, leaving me feeling very optimistic for the year to come.
In my second year, that small sprinkling of doubt became a storm. Everything I had loved about research in the first year (creating and envisioning the big picture) now seemed scarce and my days filled with technical hardware/software issues, data collection, troubleshooting data issues, data cleaning, and statistics. I wished that I could thrive on these details, as some of my peers seemed to, but I did not.
As my doubt in my ability to manage the issues and tasks that arose grew, my productivity decreased. In turn, this fuelled my self-doubt, creating a hellish cycle that was not only bad for my PhD progress but really bad for my mental health. In my experience, the effect that PhD life has on mental health isn’t something I hear spoken about among my peers, and was certainly not something advertised to prospective students. So, during this time I felt quite isolated and was constantly questioning if PhD life was really for me.
This started to change for the better when I started talking to people about the difficulties I was having. At first my husband, then a friend, then my parents, then a fellow PhD student, then my supervisors. Each time I spoke about how difficult I was finding the PhD, the easier discussing it became and the more support I received.
Upon reflection, I wish that I had spoken to my supervisors earlier. But at the time I had convinced myself that my confession would result in their disappointment and resentment. As with many of the biases that anxiety causes, thankfully my fears weren’t realised.
In reality, my supervisors offered me the greatest support. They reminded me of all the good work I had put into my research and spoke about how we could make changes to my thesis and to my working arrangements to help me better manage (and complete) my PhD.
I am now beginning my third year as a PhD student, and honestly feeling more positive than I have in this entire journey. I have a brilliant support network around me and I’m starting to see the light and the end of tunnel (you know, the one at the end of a really long rollercoaster).
I wanted to write this to send the message to people who are struggling, that speaking up can make all the difference. Sometimes it just takes a little help – and that’s okay! It’s okay to reflect on the negative side of research, it’s okay to rally support for yourself when you need it most, and it’s okay to prioritise and speak out about your mental health.