Getting a PhD: Doing it depressed?

A PhD student wrote:

"[Because of the workload/deadlines] I'm feeling overwhelmed and I've entered a depressive cycle. I feel depressed about having to do the work, so I put it off by working on other little projects or through garden-variety procrastination: surfing the web, catching up on e-mail, reading the newspaper, etc. Then the deadline pressure builds up to the point where I just break down and sob quietly about all the work I have to do..."

 Apparently this is quite a common feeling (really good post; this one too, and could I add that being an international student also adds to the "impostor syndrome", but I've found helpful tips here and here).

Pause and reflect: It's not all doom and gloom
A few weeks ago I attended an interesting workshop aimed at improving PhD student morale. It was a good mix of very new and not-so-new students from various departments, and our facilitators asked us about what expectations people generally have of us as PhD students and how we actually feel about our research programmes so far.
A housemate of mine usually asks me, "since you're a PhD student, I'm sure you have a lot of plain papers [or glue. Or cellotape. Or pens]. Could I get one?" :) More seriously though, it is generally agreed that people tend to think PhD students are very knowledgeable.. In reality, we're learning a lot about a specific field, and trying our best to stay informed about other fields. In fact, I am discovering that PhD students tend to feel a bit stupid sometimes, but try to hide it. Someone went as far as saying that "research makes you feel stupid- If it doesn't, you're not doing it right" and another person observed that one of the reasons why some people end up leaving research is because they feel they aren't good enough... hmm. Some other people also imagine that PhD students aren't very social... In reality, it is true that some of us are not that social we can find the balance between work and play.

During the workshop I noticed that most of the responses we gave about how we felt about our research were mostly negative, which is quite like Toothbrush mentality (as in, you've heard the joke about the Toothbrush complaining to the Toilet Paper that he has the worst job in the world?). So in the spirit of positivity here are 5 things that I like about research:

1. Learning invaluable life skills ranging from project management and effective communication skills to thinking things through more analytically.
2. The flexible work hours.
3. Opportunities to attend seminars given by notable people (industry reps, policymakers, key researchers) on diverse topics that engage your mind.
4. My research field is practical and should be very useful in my home country. I also appreciate the mix of diverse laboratory and desk-based work involved. Not much chance for monotony.
5. Research is relevant: As a follow-up on #4, finding out that research is addressing real problems makes all the difference; finding out the larger context of my project helps me appreciate my research and ask more critical questions... in a way, it makes me "own" it/become accountable to it because I find that doing research for research's sake or because of the 'Dr' title depresses me very much. So to help me get a better idea of the wider significance of my research, I try to imagine policymakers and industry people in a boardroom discussing the country's problems and deciding on how to solve them. This is how I like to visualise it:

Policymaker A: "Our energy situation sucks"
Policymaker B: "Yes it does. Our country is at the mercy of external influencers. Let's sit up"
Policymaker C: "Agreed, but we're not too conversant with the technicalities... let's set up a research grant for some university people so that they can brainstorm ideas and get back to us... the outcome should be something socio-economically feasible for the country, as well as environmentally friendly"
Energy Company Representative: "Good idea! Let's do that"
Policymaker A: "Yes, no pressure at all, Mr. Energy Rep...we'll just fine your company heavily if you don't deliver as soon as possible"
Energy Company Representative: "..."

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For your reflection: As a prospective or current PhD student, what do you like most about research, and what are your plans for staying motivated?





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