Saturday, June 15, 2013

Grad School Burnout: A Letter From a Psychologist to a Depressed and Anxious PhD Student

Dear burnt out grad student,

It seems to me, admittedly without really knowing you at all, that a lot of your identity through high school and undergrad may have been based on a vision of yourself as one who excels...and this means particularly that you have been judging yourself by the easy-to-understand, nationally and internationally recognized standard of "high marks" and praise from others.

Now you are in grad school... finally in the program that you have worked all these years to get into and you are not feeling so great. You are struggling and there are a bunch of reasons why this might be so.

You may be, for example, telling yourself that you are not now and probably never really were smart enough or driven enough to make it "all the way". The PhD suddenly feels like a sort of trial by fire and you feel you are failing the test miserable. That is even more peculiar because suddenly there are no tests... and no exams... or at any rate not the kind you have been used to "aceing" up to now. Even more perversely, those around you may still seem to be treating you like you are doing all right... leaving you with a strong sense of being an imposter.

It is highly unlikely that these self-recriminations about your intelligence or your drive are really true, but one of the reasons why the PhD is a watershed in your education is because the standards change from "what you can learn" to "what you can create or contribute". The emphasis shifts from what you can cite back speaking as a student, to what you have to say as an "expert".

Becoming an "expert" essentially means developing a sense of "personal authority", developing a feeling that what you have to say about a subject is valid and important. This is a developmental process. It does not emerge instantly when you get accepted into a program, start teaching a class, publish a paper or present at a conference. Instead it evolves slowly out of doing all these things and getting used to doing them. Often I find that for someone like you there is a long-standing ambivalence about one's right to an opinion, perspective or point of view which can be traced back to earlier experiences in life.

And what is this business of control and perfection? When did you develop the belief that you couldn't just cope with things as they happened but that they had to be controlled in advance? Was there a chaotic or demanding family in your past that proved to you that things could easily go wrong if things were not controlled?

Paradoxically, the perfectionism which torments you and gets in your way is almost always a "defense" because this kind of perfectionism stems from a wish for total control of the situation. It is an attempt to defeat anxiety-causing chaos, uncertainty and randomness.

It is worth struggling to lay aside unhealthy perfectionism because the benefits of putting down that burden are real and important. Tackling perfectionism and increasing your capacity to calmly tolerate ordinary uncertainty and imperfection can result in better physical health, less psychological distress and warmer, richer personal and professional relationships. Putting it aside can actually lead to higher and more genuine self-esteem and more flexibility, curiosity and creativity which can be applied to your thesis project.

But maybe you should not be going through this all alone. If you are suffering, anxious or depressed it is likely that your ability to see your situation clearly is impaired. It may be a good idea to seek out a supportive counselor to assess your levels of anxiety or depression and perhaps to help you work through various emotional or cognitive blocks which stand in the way of your enjoying your creative academic project.

I recognize that you are suffering and you are worried and you wonder whether you should continue...whether it is really worth it.

Yes it is!!!

In a psychological survey by well-known psychologists studying the development of positive human qualities the question is asked, "Have you ever carried a multi-year project to completion?"

This is an important question because embarking on and seeing through a long involved project like a PhD is a genuine human challenge which contributes, not just to the sum of knowledge in a given domain, but to the development of "character" in the candidate.

If you ask me, it is worth doing for that reason alone.

All the best,
Susan Meindl

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