We're a little crazy, about science!

Mental health in academia

Five years, that’s the average time it takes to finish your PhD. Depending on who you are and how you think, that may be a blink of an eye or forever. I signed away four years of my life early on so five years and frankly the commitments leading up to it didn’t feel like that long at all. In a lot of ways getting a PhD is a lifetime of work and not long at all. I’ve hit the half way point roughly and I can see why so many people drop out of the program. It’s a lot.

I saw a PhD as a way to improve my societal standing. When I left the Marine Corps, I had very little in terms of marketable skills. Okay let’s be real here, I had no skills. All I had was a high school degree and an incredibly long list of physical and mental health issues. There was no support system, no family, no job prospects. Going into the service was a choice that was one part noble and two parts trying to get away from my life. The military targets low income populations for a reason and it works! For the military at least and in a lot of ways I’m glad I did it, even though I’ll be paying for that choice it until the day I die. It was a life changing decision which was both good and bad. Then again deciding to take the journey to a PhD was a very similar decision.

I don’t know that I talk about it often, but after I left the service and decided to make the transition back to school (an incredibly rough transition, mostly for mental health reasons) it was because I still hadn’t figured out what my life was going to look like. I knew I wanted to help people and had a clear idea of what I wanted to do to help, but had no idea on how to go from point A to point B.

The path turned out to be long, convoluted, and almost deadly. Mental health tends to take a backseat to your education and oddly the further you go in the process the more your mental health gets eroded. If anything I had assumed it would’ve been the other way around and while my Masters degree was (mostly) stress free, both my bachelors and PhD have been anything but stress free.

The weird thing is people buy into the idea. Like oh I had several breakdowns during my degree so you can do it too. Or you only have 24 hours in a day, so no sleeping for you while you work towards that PhD. You need to show that commitment to the program! That’s not a healthy mindset and really I think people push that angle as a way to cope with the trauma and abuse that gets hurled at you during the process to your degree.

I joke about getting my degree out of spite and that’s kind of what I’m doing. I’m angry with the system. A system that glorifies this idea of breaking people. A system that makes a process that is already incredibly difficult and increases the pressure until it’s unbearable to almost anyone without a support system, luck, and a lot of talent. Sure there are success stories and we celebrate someone who came from nothing and now is doing amazing things, but imagine the regular people who came from nothing, but dared to dream of a better life. People who thought a PhD was going to help them get that life, only to be crushed by the system.

How many of their stories do we hear? How many of the failures get to tell the story of why the system failed them. See that’s the thing I don’t understand. In the military the system was hard, incredibly difficult in fact, and while it’s stuffed full of racism, sexism, and just about every other toxic thing, it wasn’t designed with the intent of having you fail. I’m not a fan of the military, but I’m also not a fan of the military style approach to your degree. It’s not sustainable and it’s not healthy.

We have people literally breaking down and having panic attacks because of qualifying exam stresses and that’s not a system I want to celebrate. It’s a system that ignores, purposefully, disability and prioritizes money over education. Getting a degree is hard enough as it is, learning new skills, applying those skills, advancing the limits of human knowledge and adding something to the knowledge we have amassed already isn’t easy and never was. Yet somehow we’ve made it an Olympic style system of abuse and if you make it out the other end, well then at least you get to do it to the next people.

It’s a system that has the benefit of remaining the same because by the time you make it through your so traumatized by it that you don’t have the energy to try to change it anymore. I don’t think I’m going to be the one to change it, but I won’t be another statistic either. I plan on making it all the way and even if I can’t do anything to fix the system, if I go the academic route, I will definitely be emphasizing my students mental health. With any luck those people will go on and do it for the next group and so on. It’s the least we can do for each other.

Anyway, that’s the thought of the day. No particular reason, I’m actually doing pretty good at the moment, but I’ve been reorganizing some of my older posts and realized the system is horrible and the worst part is it’s intentionally horrible. Oh and if you’re a PI and just happen to find my blog, you have a choice to continue the cycle or create something new. That’s up to you though.

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