I have suffered from anxiety and depression for over 10 years, and I knew the potential threat a PhD might pose to my mental health before I had even started. It’s no secret that the culture of overworking in academia, alongside experiences of bullying and discrimination, contributes to 86% of PhD students reporting marked levels of anxiety. Some students may also face the question: will I ever finish my thesis at all? In my experience, it turns out the answer was a big fat NO.
I got through the first and second years of my PhD well enough. By the third year, however, I was barely getting out of bed unless I had to go to the laboratory — and sometimes not even then. I hardly engaged with my colleagues, and I cried in front of them more than once. I started skipping important meetings and presentations I had to deliver, and I was constantly making mistakes when it came to my work.
In June 2021 I was admitted to Denmar, a psychiatric hospital in Pretoria, for a duration of two weeks after a mental breakdown. Admission into a hospital brought me into a therapeutic community where every aspect was designed to have a beneficial effect on me. I was protected from the outside world and the environments that have caused me so much unhappiness. Every day I was offered psychotherapy, individually and in groups, occupational therapy, recreational therapy, work therapy and therapeutic attention from various trained specialists. I was encouraged to express myself, to cry for my mental hardships, and to acknowledge that I needed help to heal. Although I was in a protected setting, I exerted myself to the limits of my ability…and so I became stronger.
Did my situation improve after I went back to the laboratory? Unfortunately, no. Even though I received the best treatment and rehabilitation, I still wasn’t strong enough to deal with the academic environment. A few months later, in April 2022, I made the final decision to deregister from my degree. I have never felt as relieved and happy as I did that day. I gave myself a chance to breathe and be free.
Now some might ask, didn’t you waste 3 years of your life? No, I don’t think I have. As academics we may forget that even though you do not have a paper calling you a graduated Doctor of Philosophy, it is very likely that you learned a few useful techniques during the journey. This is my silver lining. However incomplete my thesis was when I deregistered, I had learned how to read scientific papers, write scientifically, (nervously) present my work to others, work under stressful conditions, improve my critical thinking ,and publish my work in journals. Even outside of academia these are useful skills that will allow me to have a better chance of succeeding in my future career. I am glad that I had the chance to learn these.
I left the university with mixed feelings, however thinking back there were many achievements. I was able to generate a lot of promising results that will lead to many publications for the research group that I have left. I attended multiple online conferences, and was accepted to attend international workshops which I was unfortunately unable to attend due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This year I was accepted to attend a conference at the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, USA, to share my findings regarding the discovery of a new virus. I worked very hard to get to that point, and even though I did not get the chance to present there, I count this as a big achievement.
Letting go of my PhD made me realize how important other things were in my life. I used to be completely preoccupied with academic commitments like writing grant proposals and submitting my work to conferences, and most of all pleasing my supervisor. I had no idea what other things I could be doing professionally if I could not be an academic. If I had any time to spend with my family and friends, it had to be planned around my schedule, availability and the mental and emotional state I was in at that current time. PhD took precedence over everything else.
Who you are as a person is more than your research interests and the hard work you have done. This is not meant to reduce the significance of what you have accomplished while getting a PhD, or the degree certificate that some will be able to receive at the end of this road. It is meant to help you realize that there are many other great things ahead of you. You might feel lost at first, but this is usually a sign that you’re embarking on a new adventure, entering an unfamiliar situation. This means more learning, growth, and self-discovery.