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“Smart people problems.” This is NOT how we should be talking about PhD mental health.

“An iMac computer, glasses, and notebook filled with notes sitting on a desk in Dubai” by 85Fifteen on Unsplash. This is EXACTLY what a PhD looks like, right? Dream on, sunshine.
A few months ago, there was a piece in the Times Higher Education (THE) about mental health issues and PhD students. They entitled it, ‘Smart people problems: we need to talk about PhD mental health.’ But these are not just ‘smart people problems’. And this is not how we should be talking about the mental health concerns of graduate students.

As a PhD student who has only recently become comfortable with admitting (bad word) that I have PhD-related mental health issues to deal with, I pounced all over that THE article.

I agree with the author, Alfredo Cumerma, that ‘no one likes to talk about mental health in PhD programmes, and much less about how the organisational culture in academic departments might affect it.’

In my experience, I’ve found that PhD students are notorious for keeping their mental health locked in a tiny little cage. They’ve probably eaten the key because they are so ashamed to say that their mental health might have suffered as a result of their estimable PhD experience.

So many times I’ve attempted to engage my PhD colleagues in conversations about progress and stress and anxiety and whatever else. Not in an overtly ‘spill your darkest secrets’ way, but in a way that I thought made me sound friendly and approachable and relatable. And, in a way that communicated my desire to establish mutual support networks and a casual exchange of ideas. I’ve wanted other people to share just as much as I’ve wanted to share myself.

No success.

Whenever I’ve broached the issue, most of the time I’ve been hit with an ‘Everything is fine.’ wall. A wall that sends me the ‘Fuck off, I’m not talking about it.’ message. A wall of negative sentiments that our chipotle-dipped Donny Boy would be proud of.

But then again, on the rare occasion when someone does talk about it, I’ve found that few, in general, actually complain about their PhD per se.

Instead, the impression is that their PhD is their muse. It is their inspiration. It’s the thing that they fell in love with that time. It’s the thing that means they’ve given up full time salaries and decent wages and pension schemes and vacations on Martha’s Vineyard.

Rather, what PhD students complain about— with every right to do so, in most cases — is their experience as PhD students.

What are the common PhD complaints?

PhD complaints are many and various. On the whole, we complain about the following:

1. Pressure.

“A side view of an open thick book” by Jazmin Quaynor on Unsplash

Consider this quote from VICE’s Drew Brown:

“There is no higher intellectual pursuit than a PhD. It offers the promise of living a ‘life of the mind’: freedom of thought and inquiry; creative control over your work; middle-class comfort without middle-class drudgery; and above all, a meaningful life in the pursuit of knowledge.”

That, to me, sounds like a lot of fucking pressure. I mean, come on, ‘a meaningful life in the pursuit of knowledge’? What the bloody hell does that mean?

If my success is driven by something so immeasurable as ‘middle-class comfort without middle-class drudgery’, there’s no friggin’ wonder I’m so stressed out trying to achieve it.

2. Misery.

Photo by Anh Nguyen on Unsplash

I’ve never really met anyone who was 100% fully totally absolutely categorically indubitably engaged with what they were doing on their PhD program on a day-to-day basis.

I’ve met people who ‘got excited’ about their original idea and ‘got excited’ about what might become of their research, but on the whole, people are NOT excited about the drudge and ostensible duplicity of the everyday PhDer.

And let’s face it. Why would you be?

For most PhDs, their day-to-day consists of a loose combination of self-guided study, ephemeral meetings with their supervisor, and long hours spent plugging away at the ‘real research’ in the silence and solitude of the library.

The take-away at the end of the day is not tangible. There’s is no progress until things have been done and signed off. We strive for immeasurables all the time, and we get frustrated when we aren’t able to reach them. So you’re stressed out? Go figure.

3. Loneliness.

Photo by Noah Silliman on Unsplash

This is something that I never really understood about #phdlife until I was a couple of years into my program.

I had been through an intense abdominal surgery to save my life. No-one needs the full details, but it was very, very, bad.

When I left the hospital, I received a wanky email from the university saying that I had to explain, IN DETAIL, why I needed to take a few months off study. Fuck you, administration.

Now, the first thing you need to know is that I never asked them to suspend my studies. In fact, I’d tried to convince my supervisor that I would be OK continuing with my research.

How wrong I could be?

I was a broken, weak, frail shell of a human. I’d had to have organs removed and fat samples taken such that I was left chopped up in pieces and stitched back together again in some sort of mish-mash of a human body.

I looked like something you might find stuffed in a charred trunk at the back of a burnt out laboratory.

I could not stand up straight for weeks. If I stretched my back, puss-tainted blood poured from my open abdominal wound and I crippled over in pain.

It. Was. Awful.

Yet here I was, trying to convince my supervisor that I was able to return to studies ‘imminently’.


Try again, sunshine.

For those few weeks after my operation, as I lie there in hospital beds and later in my own, I wondered what I would be doing if I had the chance. I wondered about new avenues for research and I wondered about new ideas. I wondered about how many paragraphs I would have written if I just had the strength to hold my laptop on my knees.

And, in that moment, I realised that I had no idea who I would have shared those thoughts with given the chance.

At the time, I didn’t have my amazing fiancée. And I’ve never had friends that really understood what I was doing. No-one in my family has a PhD.

Moreover, my PhD colleagues were busy ‘drafting’ and ‘submitting’ and ‘conferencing’ and ‘networking’ and ‘publicising’ and ‘speaking’ and all the other crap that comes along with making a name for yourself in ‘the academy’. No-one had time to be a real human.

I felt the loneliest I’ve ever felt in my life.

Unfortunately, I could go on. The list of complaints, regrettably, does not end there. But — like me — you’ve got to get on with your own work at some point today, so let’s crack on to my salient point:

These, intrinsically, are not ‘smart people problems.’

I’m pretty brazen in a lot of ways. I like to think that I’m a well-behaved little Brit, but actually, I get bold about things (as my American fiancée puts it).

Nowadays, when there’s a thought in my head, it’s like little Christopher Robin’s Winnipeg Bear (the inspiration for Winnie the Pooh) has escaped the confines of London Zoo and is wreaking havoc across affluent, non-PhD-needing, North West London.

Let me tell you what I think these problems are.

I think these problems are ‘stressed out people problems’. I think they are ‘sad people problems’. I think they are ‘isolated people problems.’

They are not ‘smart people problems.’

We attach such self-aggrandising bullshit terms to PhD stress that, in reality, we are removing ourselves from the people and the services that might actually be able to help us most.

Want proof? Go Google it. (Other search engines are available, naturellement.)

How many specialist ‘PhD stress therapists’ can you find in your locality? Live in a big university city? Good luck getting an appointment with uni counselling next week, and good luck having a meaningful conversation with someone about your unique situation.

We, as PhD students, need to realise that our problems are common stresses and anxieties applied to a specific and — statistically—unusual situation.

Whilst Cumerma’s article may have been a bit tongue-in-cheek, I really do feel strongly that we as PhD students should not be presenting our day-to-day issues as ‘smart people problems.’

Instead, we need to appreciate that what we are experiencing is only as unique as we like to present it. If we isolate ourselves further by claiming we are suffering ‘because we are smart’, we are doing ourselves more harm than good.