How doing a PhD messes with your head

So here’s the thing about a PhD.

It seems like an excellent idea. You decide to commit several (or many) years of your life to becoming a researcher. Or maybe your dream is become a professor, just like that amazing prof you had in undergrad. Maybe you love writing and want to make a career out of reading, writing and teaching subjects you are passionate about. You did well in your master’s program and start thinking about going on. Everyone around you tells you how smart you are and that you should do a PhD.

So you apply and against all odds – you get in!

That’s when things get weird. At least they did for me.

To be fair, I work in a profession in which getting a PhD is uncommon. But I was completely unprepared for the variety of rude and intrusive comments I received from various people in my life and even people who didn’t know me at all. Comments like “Doesn’t your husband mind?” and “I guess you don’t want any kids” and “What are you going to do with a PhD? It’s not like you will get a better job”

If I had a dollar for every person who said “Oh, I thought about doing my PhD!” I could have paid my way through school. I had very little support aside from my family and a few close friends so that made me feel isolated. Once I started the program, it became evident that it wasn’t a great fit. Then I dealt with some huge life changes and complicated medical issues, so ended up transferring to a completely different program that fit my needs and goals. I am so much happier and even though the journey has been bumpy, I know I am in the right place now.

Lately there have been a lot of articles floating around about mental health and academia and my advice to anyone who is considering a PhD to really think it through before jumping in. It is essential to have a strong support system both in and away from the university. Have a back up plan. Make sure you maintain some sort of life away from school because it will save you when things get rough. PhD work is far more independent and self-directed than any type of educational program leading up to it. The skills that served you well in undergrad will not usually lead you to success in a PhD program. You have to be motivated, dedicated and able to withstand a boatload of criticism. This may or may not mess with your head and crush your spirit. Being confident enough to pursue your goals is part of the journey but at times, it’s tougher than you can imagine at the start.

The best reason to pursue a PhD is because you can’t imagine doing anything else. But when it works, it is the most wonderful and life changing experience!


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