New Achievement Unlocked: Desk Sobbing

This is something that happened to me a few weeks ago, so I thought I would share it. The last weeks of a PhD, as it turns out, are incredibly emotional. I expected stressful, difficult, tiring – all those things, but I did not expect the sudden drops into despair and misery, or that the guilt thing could get any worse than it was already…

A new PhD low has been achieved. This evening, I found a dark hidey spot under my desk, and I sobbed. I cried harder than I have in a long long time. What had happened? Simple really. I was asked if I wanted to go out to dinner in a few days. See, the tears make perfect sense, right?!

It was that Guilt bastard again, pouncing on me immediately after such a kind offer had been voiced. The presence of the Guilt means that you cannot win in such a situation. If you say yes to going out to a lovely dinner, you have the overpowering Guilt that you won’t be working on your thesis during those few hours. If you say no, that goes away, but you have other Guilt, punishing you for not spending time with family and friends.

It’s a ridiculously powerful, totally isolating feeling. I cannot imagine what my other half thought when he found me, red-faced, damp and snotty, curled up under my desk. It’s a wonder he didn’t just leg it. I just felt like I couldn’t win. And yeah, at the end of the day, it’s only a couple of hours out of your life, whatever choice you make. And it’s a pretty banal choice, at that. But when you’re in the last weeks of a PhD, how you spend your time becomes really, REALLY important to you. Well, insomuch that you must be at your desk AT ALL TIMES, or your old friend Guilt rears its ugly head again.

And this isn’t the only time I felt like this; it’s merely the most extreme. A couple of months ago: “Shall we go to Amsterdam for a long weekend?” – Total panic. Utter, complete stress, similar tears… And of course I went, and it was great, and it was a break I really needed. A few weeks ago: “We should really book our train tickets home if we’re going.” – Mind chaos. Should I go? Should I stay in London where I have my study set up nicely and all the books and papers I could want? And of course I went home, spent a much-needed weekend back in beautiful Norfolk, and discovered a much better working setup as a result of the tiny desk I had at home. I returned with a fresh mind, a full belly (thanks to Mum’s delicious homecooked dinners… and lunches… and snacks), and a laptop full of thesis words.

As it happens, I decided not to go to dinner, and on this occasion it was the right choice; I got lots of work done in those hours, and I caught up with said friends and family later instead. The trick is to balance things so that Guilt is at its weakest, though this is something I’ve only recently gotten the knack of.

The end of this PhD has just given me totally weird and extreme reactions to things. It makes sense; you’re tired, constantly stuck in your head working on your thesis even when you’re not physically ‘working’, you’re isolated, working at home. Put it that way, and it’s amazing we function at all. Things aren’t all bad, though. The crazy emotions come a’plenty in the opposite direction too. More on that later.

But I tell you what, crap as this situation was, I found a cracking hiding place – so good that Josh thought I’d actually left our tiny flat. I’ll be using that one again!

I feel the need to note that I am genuinely okay. Just a weird, emotional blip – albeit one of many, but a quite funny (in hindsight) one I wanted to share. But all’s good here now!

If you related to this post, you might also relate to Taming Monsters or The Fear. What upbeat post titles I have.


The Fear


It’s nighttime. It’s here again. That hard, swirling knot in my chest, tying itself up and up again in endless ways, and me along with it.

The panic, the fear, the guilt. Panic of so much to do. Fearing it won’t, it can’t get done. The guilt at not having done more already.

It hurts, almost. I retreat into my head, trapped in an endless cycle of fear, forceful calm, then hopelessness. My heart is beating fast.

How do you stop it? What makes it go away? I’ve felt it before, many times, but I can’t remember just how and why it ends. I’ve a terrible feeling it’s just… Giving in. Stopping caring so much. How many times can I give in a little and let go, stop worrying, and still produce worthwhile work? How many times can this happen before I give up?

Reading this over in the cold light of day, it seems so dramatic. It’s just a PhD, just a thesis, just one document. How can it cause this much grief? Those who haven’t been through a PhD or similar may not understand – hell, even I don’t really understand. And those who are tough and organised and smart and confident (do these people even exist?) may not relate, either.

It’s subsided now. I feel almost silly for having felt that way, having written those words. Sort of ashamed.

But it’ll come back. And with deadlines looming, I know it’ll get worse before it gets better. I know I can hold on until the end. Push through, get it done. But will ‘it’ be enough? I guess only time will tell.

Also see: Taming Monsters & Fears of Failure 

Make Time For Downtime

In today’s fiercely competitive academic world, there is a huge amount of pressure on a PhD student. There’s an expectation that they will be working on their thesis every day, every evening, every weekend. I am by no means the first to vocalise this: there have been numerous articles discussing these academic pressures, and their implications on mental health.

This hidden pressure varies from lab to lab. Some groups and supervisors know that this way of working just isn’t achievable, or sustainable, but in some groups, particularly highly successful ones, the pressure is on. Much of the time this pressure is self-imposed, rather than coming from an external source like a supervisor or lab head, but it’s still there.

So I’m here to advocate the importance of downtime. ‘Life’ time. Time off. Play time. Whatever you want to call it, it’s really, really important, both for your health, and for your work. With reports that 47% of PhD students suffer from depression, and an estimated 53% of UK academics have some kind of mental health problem, downtime is something that should not be overlooked.

Unluckily, I learnt this before I even began my PhD. My Dad died suddenly in the final months of my undergraduate degree. There was no question of not returning to university to finish; he was incredibly proud of me, and I wasn’t going to let him down. But it was a struggle. It’s not something I talk about much, but it taught me a lot of things, mainly that life is short and you should do things you enjoy before it’s too late. Something we should all know, but a mindset I never truly embraced until this happened. During the following months, I was emotionally and physically drained. All I knew was how to focus on my work; revise for exams, write reports, do coursework. This different type of exhaustion was new and unfamiliar. 

Luckily for me, I had an incredibly supportive supervisor. He could tell when I was having a bad day, and he’d make me go home to rest. I was very grateful for that support. It was an extreme situation, granted, but he made me see that it was okay to take time out for myself.

As clichéd as it sounds, time heals. I moved into my parallel reality where things were finally okay, but different. I grew up. And I took on a new work ethic. I realised that you really do need to fence out times for yourself where you can just watch telly, go for a run, go watch your favourite band play – whatever it is that you need, that you want to do, just for yourself. WITHOUT feeling guilty. Defend those times; they’re yours and you need them. Because that downtime gives your batteries time to recharge. Your brain works on stuff in the background, and you get to do the things you enjoy.

This work ethic is something I took into my PhD right from the start. A PhD is such a focused, intense thing, sometimes you do just need to go out and let your hair down, whatever that may mean for you. And that’s okay. It really is. Even if you’re doing something work-related – when I went away for my internship, I was raring to go when I got back from the lab! The three month break away really helped me see things from a different perspective. Maybe find a cause you’d like to volunteer for – it’ll look great on your CV, too!

All of this doesn’t mean I’m smugly sitting here feeling totally content when I go out with friends, or book an evening fitness class. Of course I still get The Guilts, especially in the last months of my PhD. But sometimes I can take a step back, realise it’s irrational guilt, and not feel quite as bad.

I just wanted to write this to reassure any PhD students who may be reading that these feelings are all normal. Everyone feels that pressure to be working 24/7, and everyone feels guilty when they’re not. But, please please do make that time for yourself. It’s your life to live, and your future self will honestly thank you for it.

If you liked this, you might want to read this article, which I also linked above. Though I haven’t suffered nearly as much as the author, a lot of it really resonated with me. There’s some good links to other articles about pressure and mental health in academia too, some of which I used in this post.