Mental Health for Doctoral Students

The process of getting your doctorate is challenging enough: juggling family, work and school, personal time, projects for your courses, finding a good advisor, understanding new information, and learning scholarly writing skills.

But there is a steady undercurrent of challenges that are hidden from view. The hidden social and psychological challenges will impact how you feel, act, respond and survive your doctoral journey. Let’s talk about mental illness.

Imposter Syndrome

As I’ve said before, working on a doctorate of any kind is not for the faint of heart. When self-doubt and your self-esteem is constantly under threat, depression and anxiety sink in.

It’s a slow process. You probably had good grades in undergraduate school. But suddenly in graduate school, your grades are average. You begin to doubt your intelligence, start to feel the “imposter syndrome” and wonder if you have the mental capacity to finish your doctoral program.

Have you seen this? A picture of your brain in graduate school:

According to the article, graduate school is the first time students feel like a failure. Some students described it as “…a deep, pervasive anxiety that seeps into every day of your life, a constant questioning of your capability, intelligence, and whether or not you are cut out to be here.”

A former student said “It took me many years to realize that ‘normal’ for many grad students means deeply – and secretly – depressed.”

I had many moments of the blues, doubt, fear, questioning. But in my heart, I knew I would finish. No idea how I knew that, I just believed it would happen.

For me, graduate coursework was easy. I really wanted to understand public policy and was ready to learn new material. My undergraduate grades were average but I excelled in my doctoral program.

Sometimes I wonder how I made the shift in my learning process… but I’ll save that for another blog.

It’s Not You – It’s the Culture

Students should understand that academic bureaucracy has existed for centuries. If you think that faculty, advisors, and the academic system are in your favor…think again. Everyone is busy, you and your needs can very easily get lost in the bureaucracy.

Remember that it’s not you. Sometimes it’s the luck of the draw – who you get for an advisor, committee member, your access to resources, even your research topic.

Many students in graduate school are overachievers. They have high hopes and expect to repeat the academic success of their undergrad years.

Not. Graduate schools has many intangibles, uncertainties, open-ended challenges, and circumstances beyond your control. These situations contribute to anxiety and depression in students. Again, the systemic issues in academia only fuel the high drop out rate in graduate school.

A blog described the PhD culture as a system based on extreme loneliness and a focus on weaknesses and criticism, rather than on support for the student.

It’s hard to think about success when you feel trapped and afraid in a culture in which you live day after day…

Survival Tips

The ongoing wear and tear on your mind and spirit can be devastating. Here are some suggestions to survive your doctoral program:

  • Remember your due diligence. Talk to other students, explore support services at your school of choice, look at students reviews of faculty before you apply.
  • Take care of yourself. If you experience mental health concerns, find help and talk to someone. Graduate school should not drive anyone to suicide.
  • Think about your life after a PhD. Do you really need one? Should you work a few years before you apply to graduate school? How does a PhD fit into your life plan?
  • Learn to let go. Letting go means flexibility in your learning process. There will be very few situations you can control in graduate school. Let of your control monster.
  • Think about HOW you learn. Do you want to learn in a brick and mortar school, or online? How self-directed are you? What is your learning style?
  • You are not a failure. If you don’t reach your academic dreams, you are still a success. At least you’ll know what you don’t want. Be good to your mind and spirit.

Sources: Why Do So Many Grad Students Quit?

This Is Your Mind On Grad School

Imposter Syndrome Is Definitely A Thing

Be well and best wishes.

Dr. Bessie

I’m not afraid of storms, for I’m learning how to sail my ship.
~~~ Louisa May Alcott ~~~


Author: Dr. Bessie DiDomenica

Food Policy Researcher • Resilient Agriculture Advocate • Public Speaker • Public Policy Wonk • Writer • Teacher • Social Entrepreneur • Associate Editor

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