Depressive Moods and Psychology of a PhD Student: What Causes Depression and leads to dropouts or even suicides

The mood and psychology of thesis research students directly corresponds to their progress status. If you are making continuous progress you would be positive, if you are not making progress or are missing the advising sessions then you would be pessimistic. Your pessimism and your disappointment and disillusionment will continue to increase with the time period that you have not been working. Please see my other post on why PhD is difficult and why there are so many dropouts or ABDs (All But Dissertation). 

Psychological States of a PhD Student

This post only explains the psychological states.You can classify your mood from the following table:

The table links the Research Status of a PhD Student and links it with his or her Mood/ Psychological State. And the Perception of who is to be blamed or to be made the scapegoat.

Research Status of the MPhil/PhD Student
Mood/ Psychological     State
Perception of who is to be blamed or made the scapegoat
When you are working and making progress
Optimistic and energetic
Everyone is good
When you are working, but NOT making progress
I am good
Initial state of not working 
There are no issues. I will start to work next week
2nd stage of not working
I am having issues, but will overcome them soon and show progress
Not working for 4-6 months
Fear of being reprimanded.
Why the supervisor is angry all the time? He should be more understandable.
Not working for 6-11 months
Not only the supervisor but the office of graduate studies has problems
Not working for over 1 year
I think the supervisor, office of graduate studies as well as the university has problems.
Not working for 3 or more years
I think PhD is not worth the effort. All PhDs are crap

A quick completion of the MPhil/PhD is simple for those who are willing to put in the desired time and effort. The only reason why people are unable to complete their Thesis/Dissertation on time is that they are not willing to put in the required time and effort. Consequently their moods go from denial to guilty to fear to disillusionment to skepticism.

When you are working and making progress, you are
Optimistic and energetic and Everyone is good.

When you are working, but are NOT making progress, then you are still energetic you still feel you are good and optimistic about future.

During the Initial state of not working, you start feeling
embarrassed. You feel there are no issues, and you think you will start to work next week. You admit your mistake and tell your supervisor that you will complete the work.

During the 2nd stage of not working, you become Guilty conscious. You begin to feel that you are having issues, but will overcome them soon and show progress. You highlight the issues with the supervisor.

When you have not been working for 4-6 months, you become afraid of being reprimanded. You start wondering why the supervisor is angry all the time? You expect him to be more understandable. The supervisor is now beginning to see through your excuses. You are also running out of convincing excuses. Now you are becoming afraid of even meeting the supervisor.

However, if you are not working for 6-11 months you enter a state of Denial. You start blaming. Not only the supervisor but the office of graduate studies has problems. You start projecting your problems outward. You now need an excuse why you are not going to the supervisor. Supervisor is now the bad guy and possibly in cahoot with the graduate department.

When you are Not working for over 1 year, you enter the state of skepticism. You now start feeling that the supervisor, office of graduate studies as well as the university has problems.

Then you enter the stage of not working for 3 or more years. This is the state of Disillusionment. You think and start believing PhD is not worth the effort. All PhDs are crap. All universities are crap. Even PhD is a useless degree. This is just cognitive dissonance. One can see the comments on many of the posts related to the suicide of the KU student.

This is the stage students typically drop out or enter stages of depression. This typically happens when you are an RA, or on scholarship, you do not have emotional support, and you do not have any option of bailing out such as being stuck with the stipends. You are stuck. You keep blaming the supervisor, your graduate office, your university. Then you start blaming your life and all those around you. Anyone giving you an advice appears to you as a tormentor. You can find fault in everyone else except your own self. Unfortunately, the person who can help you the most appears to you to be your biggest enemy.

How to Overcome the Psychological Stress

Not being part of an active research group is a recipe for continuous degradation of your psychological state. The group of peer researchers and coworkers with whom you meet every week or every other week is a great support system. How this helps is part of another post. Suffice to say that a peer support group consisting of friends is necessary to help you out when the supervisor scolds you, and some technical bureaucratic hitch stops your case from progressing. You actually need a shoulder to cry on, to listen and help overcome the phase.

In my experience every PhD student going through a tough program goes through at least one episode during the course of their PhD. Over the last few years I have supervised and helped several PhD students complete their programs. Every one of them have for one reason or other been very close to feeling depressive, dejected, disheartened, angry. Interestingly enough the major trigger had been different issues. Some relating to bureaucratic change in process, change in supervisor, change in HEC policy, some family circumstance, health, job or an unforeseen requirement. These showstoppers may come at any stage during the PhD process. It can be at the beginning of the program for not being able to meet a requirement, at the proposal stage, at the research stage, at the data collection stage, at dissertation submission stage, at the dissertation rejection/major objections by one of the externals, and even after the completion of dissertation for lack of bureaucratic approval from the university or even HEC. PhD students with good faculty mentors and peer support group can make it through.

Even during my PhD at UT Austin, I went through a similar phase when my proposal defense was rescheduled after a disastrous presentation in which my use of transparencies overlays (good old days of projectors and plastic transparencies) backfired. Please note that the proposal defense was happening a couple of years into my PhD. I got severe throat infection, fever and sleeplessness. I was referred to a doctor who gave me some sleeping tablets to overcome it. When I went to see my supervisor a week later, he listened to me and I still remember the chuckle with which he referred me to the co-supervisor saying please help him, he is going through that phase! He gave me some time out and helped me overcome the kink in my research formulation.

[PhD culture is highly charged with politics of power. This is also true abroad. But, there the power fight is on the validity of your philosophical approach vs the opposing philosophical approach. At UT Austin I found the truce in the philosophically opposing camps. Theoretical purist camp vs the pragmatist camp. The truce was that they had decided long ago that they would avoid meddling in each other’s opposing camp’s thesis processes, but would viciously criticize other in their own camps. In Pakistan, however, the politics of power is based on (1) supervisors’ research incompetence or weakness, (2) jockeying for seniority appointments for promotions from asst prof to assoc prof to prof, (3) incentives for chairmanship, or some other prestigious position such as seat on a board, syndicate, Registrar ship etc. (4) using the power to fulfill the publication requirements, (5) lack of formal processes, (6) lack of automation and monitoring software…..But, that is a subject for another post.]

The important thing to note is that the student must hunker down, put his/her head down, take each challenge calmly and coolly. It does not matter even if you have to repeat a significant portion of your work. What is required is a dogged determination to continue, slowly, gradually, one step at a time. The tortoise always wins the race especially in a PhD. Hare always loses. He is too ambitious, too smart, too energetic for PhD which requires tortoise like dogged determination.

A quick completion of the MPhil/PhD is simple for those who are willing to put in the desired time and effort. The only reason why people are unable to complete their Thesis/Dissertation on time is that they are not willing to put in the required time and effort. Consequently their moods go from denial to guilty to fear to disillusionment to skepticism. And finally depression.

Are You Making Steady Progress?

I have observed that not all students often make steady progress. Some seem to be not working regularly and are only working in short duration pulses. This is not the way to work on Thesis research.

  • Working for 30 hours in (say) a short duration of three days is NOT equal to working for 2 hours for 15 days. Small dozes of work administered on a regular basis are much better than short intensive dozes. You can’t get better by drinking the entire bottle of cough syrup in one day or by taking the entire prescription of antibiotics for five-day course in one day.
  • Thesis requires continuous dozes of efforts that need to be administered every 2nd day if not every day. You can compensate for long periods of inactivity by taking a few days leave and by working for 15 hours every day.
  • Thesis requires as much if not more work thinking about the problem (arm-chair time) then work you do by sitting on your desk (desk-time). You must let the ideas that you have read sink in. They take time to sink and digest. When you have read a few papers, take some time out for reflection. Your mind needs to compare and evaluate the ideas with one another. Most of the time your mind does this activity when you are not sitting on your work desk but when you are walking, sitting idle, driving, traveling, or even sleeping. This is like a digestion process or a background process. Digestion of complex ideas requires time for the ideas to sink in and form associations with other ideas that are already present in your mind. You can compare this with operating system processes that work in the background and keep on monitoring the hardware resources, reclaiming resources from dormant processes and dormant files, doing the housekeeping, recovering cached memory etc. Similarly, your mind requires background processes to run and digest the new ideas. Allocate some time every day.
  • Allocate (say) half-hour at night before sleeping or more if you can. Or in morning or any other time that would be exclusively reserved for research. The point is that the allocated time for research need to be faithfully reserved and followed.I have emphasized that you must allocate a definite period of time every day for research. It can either be early morning or late evening, or in afternoon. Whichever one suits you, you must allocate a time of day. Even if it is only half-hour to start with. Gradually as your interest will grow so would this time period also. You must make it a point to leave every thing aside and involve yourself in doing some thing related to the research.Do some thing in this time related to research. You may start with very easy things. You can start out today by writing down the references of the papers that you have selected.If you don’t feel like reading a complex argument in the research paper, you may just go through the abstract, introduction or the conclusions and future work sections.
  • If you don’t want to do that, then you may just start writing your bibliography. If not that why not start writing a summary of some research paper that you have read. If not that, then you may just write down what is coming to your mind about the topic. Even if this is a jumbled list of ideas, don’t worry, you will be able to compile them later. May be you should just organize the papers according to different categories. Why not just start writing a glossary of the important terms that you are working on. In short, do any thing related to the research. Don’t let the time go by without you having done some thing.

Finally, if you have NOT written what you have done today, you have NOT done anything. If you have not written you have not done any thing.

The good thing to note about students making progress is that: They have sufficiently narrowed down their area of research. They have collected relevant papers. Although they still need to collect some more relevant papers. Papers that they have collected were research papers.

How many hours of work are required in a 3-Cr Hr Research Course

You see students typically want to know the formula for passing a 3 credit hour research course without putting more than 50 hours (i.e. 15 sessions x 3 hours/session + 5 exam hours). That is, they typically want to just attend the classes and not study at home and not put in the additional home-work hours. This is not possible. For every, one hour spent in the class, a student must be prepared to put in at least 2 hours at home. That is, an additional 100 hours of home work. (This brings the total time to 100+50 = 150 hours) Only then he/she can pass the course.

If you want to know the way to complete a 3 credit-hour research course by putting in less than the required 150 hours, then it is difficult for a supervisor to guide you. However, if you are willing to put in 150 hours for each 3-credit hour segment, then I can personally guide you to complete the requirements of the IS (3 credit hours) and in the same proportion MPhil Thesis (6 credit hours) or a PhD Disseration (30 credit hours) in a reasonable amount of time.

Please note that this formula of 3 Cr Hr course/semester means about 135-150 clock hours of work in a semester is a standard formula followed in taught courses typically by all recognized universities. Usually, the proportion is more for lab courses, research courses, project courses, clinical courses etc.

You have to make a decision. Whether you want to get a degree without working or you want to get the degree after working. If you want to get through without the requisite effort, then I can not help you. Go seek a third grade supervisor in a third grade university.

[Much of this material was first written in 2005 and distributed to research students as Guidelines for MS Research]
On January 31, 2016 I updated it in my blogpost web blog to bring in the PhD emphasis
I have updated it more for this post keeping in view the controversy surrounding suicide of the KU student. For Other PhD relevant articles google Dr Syed Irfan hyder’s blog

See Also:

What is PhD?

Why PhD is Difficult: 

Starting with your PhD

Reading Research and Writing your Research
Qualitative Learning from a PhD


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