This happened to me when I was doing my Ph.D. studies in graduate school. In general, I am a very strong dude, emotionally and physically. I had my fair share of tough times in my childhood. I grew up very poor, selling sugar canes in the street of Kigali and doing many other odd jobs to survive the harsh life. Never could I have imagined that after I broke my way out of poverty, and was living and enjoying the good life, that I could have other issues. Despite all the poverty and other challenges early in my life, I had never gotten depressed before. Honestly, I did not believe that It could ever happen to me. The only time depression got hold of me was this incidence I am about to share with you. I was in my third year of my graduate work. It could have been worse but I am very fortunate I acted upon it quickly in the early stages. My life could have been miserable by now.
Admitting to yourself that you are depressed is a big Challenge
Acknowledging to yourself that you are stressed out or depressed is not very easy. It is extremely tough. In my case, if I did not have my girlfriend to constantly tell me that I was changing negatively, acting hostile, and all other stuff, I would not have come to terms with it. I was so proud of myself. I thought I was a tough nerd and could not even begin to comprehend why I had early symptoms of depression. The most difficult thing about depression is:
- Admitting to yourself that you are depressed.
- Explaining to your family and close friends why you are depressed.
Now, deciding to seek help is even a bigger challenge. You ask yourself different questions:
- Do I really have time for a counseling session? I am already busy with my work.
- You keep telling yourself to relax a bit and maybe wait for the feeling to go away after some time.
- You talk to fellow grad students and you get the feeling that everybody is just as worried about their work as you are. In the end, many people ignore the feeling, get over the feelings or they get crashed.
Depression is a big issue in graduate schools. The most recent 2017 statistics show that 1 in 2 Ph.D. students experience at least 4 symptoms related to some level of psychological distress during their career. The numbers are worse in science and engineering graduate programs both in the United States and Europe. As a graduate student, I encourage you to take care of your mental and physical health. At the end of the day, your wellness and health come before anything else. If you have any of these symptoms on a regular basis, talk to somebody and seek help immediately.
The ugly truth is that unless you have evaluated yourself, find out the cause of the feelings, and come to terms with the consequences, it is very hard to make any meaningful progress towards your mental health. That is why depression is a big problem in graduate schools; especially in the STEM fields. As a graduate student, life can be lonely. Work gets busy. You find yourself teaching courses, doing research, presenting your work, writing papers, and little time for your personal life stuff.
This is why I am openly sharing my story for the first time today. Maybe you are in the same situation or know somebody who needs help. The most important thing is to know that you are not alone; that you are not weird; and that there is a way to get back to your full wellness and health. Anyway, this is my story. Hope you find it educational.
After finishing my bachelor’s degree in Physics, I got admitted into a Ph.D. program in Mechanical Engineering. I am not a genius, but I was a good student. Self-motivated, strong work ethic, and many other qualities of an above average student.
- In my first year of graduate school, I was on a teaching assistantship, which is very common at my university. Taking my coursework, teaching sophomore level courses in our department. By the end of the first semester, I had found a research professor to work with and was starting to learn about the research I was going to do. The first year went well. I struggled a bit in class, got a 3.0 GPA ( lowest I had ever gotten), but it was very manageable. Got put on academic probation, but in the 2nd semester, my GPA jumped to 3.70, and I was back on track.
- In my second year, I was both on 50% TA and 50% research. I immersed myself in the research. Loved what our lab was doing. Loved the colleagues I was working with, and for the most part, it was just fine. The workload was intense, combining my grad school coursework, teaching an undergrad course, as a teaching assistant every semester, grading homework, tests, and exams; the regular busy life of a Ph.D. student. During this year, I passed my preliminary exams, both written and oral, which was a huge confidence booster for me.
Lab work at University ( don’t laugh at my pink lab coat please, haha)
During the summers, I worked hard to catch up on my research. In any holidays, I would go to West-Africa, which is where our air quality measurements research work was based. I would travel about 3–4 times to Ghana and back in the States; collecting data; training our field team back in Ghana, and staying in touch with them to resolve any field issues and all that.
Above that, I still found time to enjoy Colorado, taking advantage of the amazing landscape and scenery around the state. I am very big on outdoor activities such as climbing mountains, skiing, hiking, water sports activities and many other sorts of stuff.
My real passion: Outdoor activities on top of 14,000 ft mountain in Colorado, Stand up water paddling in CO, and canopy walk at the largest tropical forest in Rwanda, Africa.
Financially, I was living just like any other Ph.D. students. Living from paycheck to paycheck earning about $ 1,800 during the school year, and $3,500 during the summers, working full-time. I was very satisfied with that. No problem!
My research advisor was a great advisor, the best one any Ph.D. student could hope for. Very helpful, understanding, extremely intelligent, hardworking and overall a wonderful advisor to have. Whenever I was hanging out with other Ph.D. students, they used to tell me how lucky I was to have my advisor. Honestly, hearing their stories with their “so-called advisors” made me appreciate what a wonderful advisor I had. We had two major fundings from the EPA and NSF, so I was not worried about not having the funding or any financial issue for my work. He was already “tenured”, which is a big deal in academia.
Somewhere along my second year, I noticed that the research world was not a life I would enjoy living for the rest of my professional career. I projected my life, 5–10 years, after earning my Ph.D., my prospects to secure a research position at a good university, working my tail off to secure a tenure-track position, writing proposals every semester, competing with professors for fundings, and all that. Research professors are some of busiest people I have ever met. That kind of lifestyle did not look attractive to me. I oftentimes remember emailing my advisor at like 3: 00 am in the morning and he would get back to me right away at 3:05 am, what?
I always wonder how he did it. I oftentimes would reflect on his hard work. I know this is urgent, but you could have waited until the morning, right? But it did not matter as he loved his work. Loved what he did. No matter how busy he was, he just worked quite hard. At one point, he had 5-PhD students with different projects, 2-masters students, and a few undergraduates he was supervising. My advisor was a champ.
What I noticed was that my advisor had found his real passion; teaching students and doing environmental science and engineering research work. So, I knew deep down that I had to find something that I was really passionate about. I know myself that if I like and am passionate about something, I will put my efforts into it. Unfortunately, halfway through the program, P.h.D work did not seem as a good fit for me. So, I knew that it was time for me to reflect hard and think about what career was going to be next for me.
I told myself that although life as a professor was not for me, out of respect for my advisor, I would finish the Ph.D. program, but then branch out to industry first to make lots of $$. Then, maybe later in my 50’s, find some university to teach at, giving students a hands-on and practical experience from the private sector points of view. It was a solid plan, and I decided to stick to it.
Beginning my third year, work got busier and busier. We had just published our first paper of the project, of which, I was a contributing author. I was also working on my second paper, as the primary author, shuffling between presenting our work to conferences, traveling to Ghana for work, and much other related work stuff.
At the same time, outside of work, I was trying to date, starting off a brand new “long-distance” relationship, traveling and exploring Colorado/Ghana whenever I could, doing fun activities I enjoy doing.
Petting a crocodile in Ghana, West-Africa. This pond has about 200 crocodiles in it
The bottom line was that to my regular friends, life was going well. I seemed to be having too much fun. I used to post all my travel updates and adventures on Facebook and my friends would email me asking how I was doing all these stuff back to back. However, inside of me, I was not happy overall. My work life had taken over. I was probably pulling in between 12–15 hours of work each day from Monday to Friday. All in the name of finish up my graduate work, and not “disappointing” my advisor, who had invested so much in me for two years. Thank goodness, I would take it easy on weekends though! to relax a bit and enjoy life.
Remember, once your plan is to go work in the industry, you do not really need a Ph.D. If you are a good student with an independent/strong work ethic, a masters degree would set you apart to a good start, in any R&D areas, whether you want to go to national labs or private companies.
At the peak of my depression, I felt under-achieved. That I was not doing enough. At some point, I would even feel like a loser. No matter how hard I worked, work never seemed to slow down. Each week/month, there was a new presentation to prepare for, new collaborators to meet up with, new major update/progress report to give to my two advisors. All that workload piled up inside of me, without a good reason to stay on course. And then came the ego; the worst of it all;
- What would my peers say If I drop out? that I am a quitter!? fuck that, I am no quitter.
- What about my advisor, and friends? All that nonsense and worrying about other people’s perceptions of me piled up and made my life much more miserable inside.
- My relationship was terrible: I was “ verbally” very hostile to my girlfriend.
- Accusing her to want too much affection/time from me, and to waste some of my time. Although all she wanted was just 30 min to one hour per day to talk and to stay connected.
- She would tell me to that I was being too hard on myself. Trying to do too much, but I did not listen. She was the only person who knew what I was going through really! She would tell me to leave the lab by midnight, but I stayed longer than that on several occasions. ( P.S.: I am very effective and efficient when nobody is around, so I work late at night very often).
- We were on the verge of breaking up, which would have been terrible. She is just a sweetheart. Recently, we just got engaged! She stuck with me and wanted to help me out, but I was terrible at receiving help.
- She would tell me to go seek help, talk to somebody, but I would tell her that it was a grad school thing, very common for every Ph.D. student.
Then, it finally hit me that the only reason I had decided to stay was really to not disappoint my advisor, who had helped me quite a bit. How stupid, right? Here I was busting my ass off for the wrong reasons as far I could tell. I gave it a good month or two to think about it, planned out a good exit strategy, and waited for a good stopping point to leave and allow another Ph.D. student take the rest of the work. Below were my decisions and conclusions;
- Get your masters degree. I got it! I even went to graduation in the middle of winter in December. In my program, it was totally okay to get your masters degree along the way as long as you had completed all the necessary coursework.
- Finish off your work and publish your paper. This process took me longer than anticipated, but publishing in the best journal in your field is not an easy process. But I finally did. I am a published author, or should I say, primary author.
- Tell my advisor ahead of time, to allow enough time to hire another student. I also did that! Although he would have wanted more time, I made sure that the work I was already working was going to get published. In addition, I offered to stay in touch whenever they need something from me. It was the best I could do, and I kept my word, thankfully!
Finally, One day in November 2015 ( after coming back from a conference in Ghana), I decided that it was time to tell my advisor. We were finishing up the fall semester ( 5th semester in grad school), about to go to Christmas break. At our weekly, one on one meetings, I told him that I wanted to take the next spring semester off. I explained the whole situation that I wanted to be off-grid for some time, doing some soul searching and was possibly contemplating a possible career change.
Luckily, after a while, he noticed I was very serious and committed. He noticed that I had given it some serious thoughts and there was no point to convince me to stay. That November 2015, I told him that I will take the spring semester off. We agreed that I will give him a call informing him my final decision by March/April 2016. That way, he has two months to look for another student, by summer 2016, in case I was not coming back. Having a lot of experience in academia, he told me that it was highly unlikely that I was coming back. He facilitated and approved “my leave of absence” for the Spring 2016 semester.
I promise him that this was very personal and I had to be away from the research world for a bit. That December 2015, he allowed me to even go to the graduation ceremony for my master’s degree. Had fun for a few hours and came back to the lab same day to finish off the paper I was writing. Most of the data analysis was done, and literature review of my citation sources was finished, so I was writing the first draft of my paper.
My not-so-exciting graduation picture in the middle of winter!
Fast forward in April 2016, after securing another new adventure for myself, I made the toughest call I have ever made. The toughest decision I have ever made in my life so far. Telling my “ soon to be” former boss that I had found another opportunity and was not coming back. He wished me the best of luck. We talked about how I was going to facilitate the new Ph.D. student coming in. Finished off my paper and getting it published. Handing over all the raw data from our measurements, and being available whenever I was needed. It was tough to make that call, but boy, I was very relieved afterward!
This past summer of 2017, the paper finally got published with the help of a former co-worker. We are co-primary authors along with many other researchers in the group. The best thing is that the paper has been such a great hit, got published in the Environmental Science &Technology ( ES& T) journal, the best one in our field. My co-author took the analysis to another level, with better math lab plots and graphics, which honestly made the paper better than it would have been if I was the only primary author. Today, the paper is making a lot of buzz among our peers, in our research area.
My last paper in ES&T. My last published paper in grad school & probably the last.
Myself, I am as happy as I have ever been. My work is going great! A month ago, I just got engaged to the then-girlfriend, who has been with me through thick and thin, from the beginning. My life is just going fantastic. I am now thinking of a possible career change as a motivational speaker, combining engineering and finance. I am very grateful for my fiancee and the decision I took to leave the research world and prioritize my overall mental and physical health first.
My heartfelt message to all the Graduate Students in similar situations!
Fellow grad students,
- Deciding to quit something you already started is very difficult. I have been in those shoes. I know how it feels. Even today, sometimes, despite how good all things turned out, the thoughts of waiting and finishing up the program crosses my mind way too often than I would like to admit. Can you believe it?
- There is nothing wrong deciding to change directions or to take another path when you notice that you are are in the wrong one. You are not a quitter. You just discovered another path. Get over it, honestly!
- Whenever you decide to change directions, have a plan. Think about it carefully, analyze it and execute on it if it fits your future goals and plans.
- Grad schools are not going anywhere. If you are really passionate, you can go back anytime and complete your studies. Of course, you might have to start over, but it is totally fine.
- Don’t be too hard on yourself. Don’t compare yourself to your peers, too much!
- Remember, you are not a loser. After all, you are in the top echelon of the most educated people the world has to offer. You are in the top 1%, probably. In my programs for example, when we were admitted into the Ph.D. program, only 23 students were given admission in the Ph.D. program out of 230 applicants. Obviously, you cannot make the cut if you are not smart, hardworking, and motivated.
- Whenever you are struggling, talk to somebody. Once a month, we used to gather up all the students at some local pub, and bitch about how the Ph.D. student life was tough. People would talk their advisors and the issues they were having in their line of work, and much other bullshit. In a way, it was very liberating to hear that we were all in the same boat, riding the wave together. Haha! It really did help a bit.
- Seek help early. I am glad that I discovered my issues quite early. Had a caring girlfriend, willing to hear/help me out. That made me act very quickly before it was too late. I think I was still in early stages, but it could have gone worse, definitely.
- If it ain’t fun, it ain’t worth it. I have tried to apply this motto everywhere in everything I do. I love to have fun in whatever I am doing. It has worked wonders for me.
Best of luck to all the Ph.D. students out there,
I have so much respect for you. Peace!
How Academia made me the most depressed I have ever been ( Dailydot.com, Jan. 2016)
Half of UC Berkeley STEM graduate students depressed ( The Science Mag, May 2015)
This is your mind on grad school ( Berkeley Science Review, 2012)
Grad school fosters depression; How to fight it ( Scienceblogs.com, Feb. 2009)