Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Morose, pessimistic and self-pitying... sorry...

Caveat: this post is longer than I intended it to be and somewhat self-pitying. I'm sorry for this. Will try to be more objective and less emotional next time. If you want to skim-read it, just read the bold, and italic text.

As a science PhD student there are many things that you should do in order to be a successful researcher:

  • Read: journal articles and critically evaluate them, textbooks for extra information to aid understanding
  • Experiment: design, do repetitively to get reproducible results, analyse and interpret results, explain how they fit into the bigger picture
  • Demonstrate in undergraduate labs, mark lab scripts,
  • Write: quarterly reports, transfer (or upgrade) report, literature review, thesis chapters, journal articles
  • Exchange ideas: attend conferences: attend seminars, present seminars or posters, network, talk to supervisor/other members of research group or dept

I would say that almost all of the above have proved challenging or impossible for me to do at one stage or another. I have put it down to my depression/ low self-esteem. Feel free to disagree.

When I was depressed, I couldn't always concentrate on what I was reading. I often felt stupid and useless, because I didn't know things.

I sometimes found it difficult to do experiments for more than an hour at a time. Couldn't focus, couldn't get motivated, found it difficult to troubleshoot when equipment broke down, gave up far too easily. This didn't mean I was incapable of doing them, but after have many 'issues' I started to lose hope and give up trying. Then came my fear of being seen as lazy. I would hide from other people in the department, so they wouldn't know if I was in or not. This was made easier by the fact I had my own lab room at one point, which was lockable from the inside.

Again thinking ability hindered by feeling stupid and useless. Especially affected my writing. If you have no good results, either because of bad equipment or low motivation, what do you write about? Bad for quarterly reports. Eventually got some results, I could write about, but by this time I'm pessimistic about whether this could continue. But publications in journals are out of the question. It takes all my time and energy to just do the experiments, and work with the results.

Demonstration vetoed by lack of results. Incidentally, I feel I might have been good at this. I've been told by various sources that I can be a good teacher... well we'll never know.

Conferences seemed pointless to attend, when you doubt your results, your ability to talk intelligently, and your ability as a researcher. All those clever people, all seem to know what they're talking about. I seem fuzzy-headed and stupid. Brain full of cotton-wool. Nothing sensible to contribute, just asking silly questions and giving stupid answers. Feelings about wanting to hide resurface. Don't talk to anyone about research, not even friends and family. Forget that I actually enjoy science.

Then: don't talk to anyone about anything, they ask questions. How are you? When will you finish? What will you do afterwards? How is that relevant in the real world? I don't have the answers. I made something up at the time.

Please feel free to tell me I'm just a useless scientist, who should have never tried to get a PhD in the first place. I'm sorry for making you read this far.


  1. Please feel free to tell me I'm just a useless scientist, who should have never tried to get a PhD in the first place. I'm sorry for making you read this far.

    To me, this sounds like your depression talking.

    1. Hi michiexile, I think I said in an earlier post that I don't think I have depression currently. I'll add that I feel very lucky and appreciative that I don't, but it seems to lurk behind corners waiting to spring. I do have very low (possibly non-existent) self-esteem which definitely contributed to the depression during my PhD. I think here, it was the low self-esteem talking, perhaps with a hint of bitterness. I'm not proud of it, but I will own up to feeling a sense of loss for not having made it work out well.

  2. I agree with the above comment. But also this really resonates with me in the reverse.. I'm manic/ hypo but barely functioning. This takes a great deal of time n to.write because of.the.klonopin.

    Also you mention a locked room. Sometimes i feel unsafe.too. Don't know if.that's what you're getting at. But nevertheless, success academic especially is tough.


    1. Hi Duu, for me the locked room was about hiding from others.. I didn't feel brave enough to face them. And if I hid in a locked room, I could pretend I wasn't there at all. All while trying to do some experiments, but losing motivation to really complete them.

      It seems from our shared experiences, that you can feel like you're not functioning in both depressive and manic/hypo states...
      I think the key thing is to not beat yourself up too much over this. It's just a phase and will pass. But easier said than done, when you're in that mood.

      I have to add that I don't really have much experience or knowledge when it comes to bipolar disorders, so please forgive me if I have misunderstood in any way, and feel free to enlighten me.

    2. Again, thank you for commenting, as I like to hear about other people's experiences.

  3. It sounds like a weird thing to say, but this is a wonderful post Chantal. I'm terribly sorry that you feel this way, but I am very glad you were able to express so clearly what it feels like. As with many other posts on D.A., I can feel almost guilty liking a post because of the pain underneath it. But you do express so well what it can feel like and how much it can affect you.

    One little thought I had about "Nothing sensible to contribute, just asking silly questions and giving stupid answers." One thing I've realised over time is that the more one is prepared to look silly the more chance one has of making progress. Being prepared to look stupid can shortcut a lot of misunderstandings and problems. I know that's note quite the feeling you're talking about but the thought occurred to me.

    1. Hi Ian, thank you for commenting. I think I was able to express it clearly, because it was expressed in hindsight. I doubt I would have been able to do express it at all if I was still depressed, and in that situation. I still feel raw over the whole thing though, as I feel like my whole life has been thrown off course by it. I guess that's where the pain and bitterness came through.

      And yes, I agree that facing that fear of appearing stupid, is the way forward, but I haven't conquered it yet, except in a friendly crowd.

  4. It seems to me that the elements of life during doctoral study, well, even if they don't exactly cause a depression, they can provide an awful lot of fuel for depression to latch onto.

    1. Hi C, thanks for commenting. I agree. I don't think doing a PhD actually caused my depression. There were lots of factors.. I think it exacerbated it, and made it last longer than it needed to be. And vice versa, the PhD itself took longer than it should have done, because of the depression/low self-esteem issues.

  5. Thank you very much to everyone who commented. I'm sorry I couldn't reply earlier. Initially, I just didn't want to look at the post any more (too painful). Then, I wanted to say something but didn't have the opportunity.


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