My experience with depression in academia

A painting that is almost entirely a deep turquoise blue, divided by a horizontal line of lighter blue in the middle

Mark Rothko, Untitled (Blue Divided by Blue)

And now for a post on a more personal matter.  I haven’t said much about this publicly, but for the last several years of my PhD studies, I’ve been dealing with a severe case of depression.  I missed major deadlines, failed in my teaching obligations, and thought seriously about dropping out at various points.  For most of that time, I didn’t really understand that I was ill, or that treatment was an option.  Once I did understand that and opened up about how I was feeling, I made enormous progress towards feeling happy and productive again.  I’d like to talk about this experience, and how some common narratives about academic success can make it particularly difficult for graduate students to identify when they’re depressed and get help.  Depression is a very common experience for graduate students, with nearly 40% of students in a number of countries reporting that they feel moderately to severely depressed.  If you’re reading this and it resonates with something in your experience, some treatment resources are discussed at the bottom of the post.

Depression from the Inside

Depression really caught me unawares.  Other members of my family have a history of depression, but I hadn’t been affected by it when I was young, so I always believed that I’d gotten lucky and wasn’t susceptible to this.  I never learned much about the importance of emotional health, and of being open with your feelings.  For most of my life, if I felt sad or stressed, the only coping mechanism I had was to ignore the problem and pretend that I was fine.  This worked well enough for a while.  However, by my late 20s I was facing a series of problems that were difficult to ignore, including a marriage to a lovely man which regardless wasn’t working out well, and some serious doubts about whether the PhD I had embarked upon was actually the right career path for me.  I felt trapped, and ashamed of admitting that I was unhappy, and I grew steadily more depressed over time.

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 class or teach — and sometimes not even then.  I hardly engaged with the class I was teaching second semester and cried in front of them more than once.  I started skipping my own classes and on-campus presentations that I really wanted to attend.  My committee had to reschedule my prospectus defense date after I missed the deadline for submitting the prospectus with no warning.  I scraped through the defense and went off to Ghana to start my dissertation research in my fourth year, only to spend most of my time there moored up in my room by myself.  It took me a solid year of this before I finally thought, I have to tell someone about how I’m feeling.  (I’ll write more about treatment and recovery below.)

In retrospect, it is unbelievably obvious that I had depression.  Any one of the incidents above would have been enough to signal that something was wrong; all of them together could not be any more clear.  So why didn’t I understand what was happening to me?  And why didn’t anyone else call me out on it either?

I spent that entire period blaming myself for being lazy and stupid.  I understood that I felt depressed, but I didn’t think I had depression, because that was something that happened to other people.  I thought that I just needed to work harder on ignoring my problems and forcing myself out of bed, even though it felt like someone had replaced all my bones with lead when I wasn’t looking.  I was also convinced that if I didn’t pretend that I was fine — if anyone realized I was struggling — they would judge me and dislike me and perhaps kick me out of the PhD for being an incompetent scholar, and then I would be both sad and unemployed, which would be even worse.  The idea of going to therapy never crossed my mind, because I thought you should only go to therapy if you had a real problem, and not if you were simply lazy and stupid.

I now know that this is one of the cognitive effects of depression.  It’s easy to end up in these spirals of negative thoughts.  It’s also very tempting to just try to ignore the underlying problems, because they’re always on your mind and you’re tired of thinking about them.  I so badly wanted to just snap my fingers and be all right, and I spent years thinking, “today is the day that I get my act together,” even though the same statement hadn’t worked on the previous day or week or month.

Depression in Academia

Academia can be an especially difficult place to contend with the idea that depression is your own fault.  I was struck by how my feelings of shame and guilt around depression were reinforced by narratives about the determinants of academic success in the American academy.  Throughout my time at in grad school, I received the message that success in the PhD was the product of intelligence and discipline.  If you weren’t doing well in the program, it was because you lacked those attributes, and consequently didn’t deserve other scholars’ time or attention.  There is little room in this narrative for the idea that mental health problems — or structural problems like racism or sexism — could also affect students’ work, for reasons unrelated to intelligence or effort.  Fortunately, there is now growing awareness that graduate students’ personal lives and mental health have an impact on their academic performance, but there remains a lot of work to be done to really dislodge these ideas.

This narrative of personal effort was communicated to me in various ways. For example, it was common to hear that people who left my program before they finished, because it wasn’t a good fit or because they wanted other employment, simply “couldn’t hack it.”  I thought seriously about dropping out at some points, but the idea of being known as someone who couldn’t hack it was horrifying.  When I started regularly missing classes and subfield colloquia, one senior professor commented that I was failing to signal my commitment to the department, and implied that I had been a bad investment for them, which made me feel even more panicked and depressed.  Later, when I had trouble finishing a prospectus draft, and eventually missed my defense date entirely, I got a number of comments from faculty about how I needed to stop flaking out on selecting a topic and just do the work — but no one ever asked if there was a reason that a previously high-performing student was now badly struggling. (To my classmates’ credit, several of them did ask if I was all right during this period.  I wasn’t in a position to give them an honest answer at the time, but it means a great deal to me now that they noticed and cared enough to ask.)

I don’t think any of these messages or actions were badly intended.  Some of them seemed to be born of a type of congratulatory self-regard among certain professors, who tend to emphasize the role of intelligence and effort in their own success, without always acknowledging the role of privilege and luck.  (And to be very clear, I’m a Berkeley student because of privilege and luck as well as hard work.) These ideas are also the product of a fairly decentralized PhD system in the social sciences in the US.  Students are responsible for selecting their own topics and keeping up their own progress.  Advisors are expected to support their students, but don’t tend to closely monitor their work, in part because faculty members are also generally overworked — and often have their own struggles with depression as well.  All of this meant that when depression hit, my own deep sense of shame about it was compounded by the department’s narrative of personal effort, and no one was in a position to consistently observe that I was struggling and ask if I needed help.  That’s not unique to academia, but I do think it can be especially pronounced there.

Treatment and Recovery

I ended up climbing out of the well of depression with support from my family and friends.  After a full year of being miserable, I finally decided that telling people about how I was feeling couldn’t really be worse than what I was already feeling.  I went in concentric circles, starting with my partner, then my family, then close friends.  After much discussion with them, I made some decisions that helped me have more control over the underlying problems in my life.  My partner and I reevaluated whether our relationship was working, and ended up getting the world’s friendliest divorce.  I moved back to East Africa and launched the Mawazo Institute with a good friend, which put me back on track towards the type of career that I really wanted — research-focused, but not within academia.  I took my fifth PhD year off from dissertation work, mostly by accident as I was busy with the move and Mawazo, but also ended up finding that it was useful to have some time away from research in order to regain my enthusiasm for it.  I also started doing a lot of journaling to address some of my continuing mental health issues.  Even after I resolved some of the major problems that had been stressing me out, I still had a lot of negative thought patterns that I’d developed during years of depression, and journaling helped me to identify those and work to reduce them.

It’s now been about a year and a half since I began opening up about my experience of depression.  There have been many points when I felt that I was just complaining without feeling better, or when I did start to feel better, only to get totally knocked out when some new source of stress came up.  But the average trend of my feelings has been decidedly upwards, towards a place of much greater self-understanding and much less fear and shame.  Talking about my emotions has deepened many of my friendships, as I found that people tended to respond to my admissions about mental health not with derision, but by sharing stories about their own challenges.  It’s helped me to have a calmer, happier, and more trusting relationship with my current partner, knowing that I can now communicate openly about any problems that might arise.  It’s improved my performance at work, as it let me address some productivity issues which I hadn’t even realized were related to depression, like what used to be a horrible habit of procrastinating on email.  And it’s allowed me to feel curious about the world again, which, as someone who still hopes to finish her PhD research some day, is very reassuring!

All of this is to say, if any of this post resonates with you: there is nothing wrong with you.  Depression is such a normal experience, and there’s no shame in having it.  Trying to hide how you feel often seems tempting, but it’s usually only delaying an inevitable reckoning.  It can feel pretty vulnerable to open up about your feelings at first.  However, if you can do that with a friend or a therapist who will support you — or with a journal, or in prayer, or in some other way if you’d rather do it privately — then there’s a high likelihood that you’ll start to feel better.  There’s some really interesting research about how identifying your emotions actually reduces the activation of your amygdala (which is one of the places the brain processes fear) and helps people feel better when confronted with stressful situations.  Simply talking about your feelings can help you to feel calmer and more in control of your life, even if it doesn’t immediately fix an underlying problem.

There are a number of different approaches to treating depression.  You might try several of them, alone or in combination, before you figure out what’s most useful for you.  For me, journaling has been incredibly effective.  I’ve had to invest a lot of time in it — anywhere from 10 minutes to several hours per day, over many months — but it’s ultimately helped me develop a great deal of insight into my own feelings, and identify solutions to a range of problems.  Here are some tips on how to get started with journaling.  Speaking to a therapist has also been shown to be highly effective at reducing depression in many people.  I didn’t do this last year because I was traveling a great deal at the time, but I know many of my friends have found therapy very useful.  The American Psychological Association has a good overview of what to expect from therapy, and why some common myths about therapy aren’t true. Medication is also an option, and you can work with a psychiatrist to figure out if it seems helpful for you.  Here’s a useful overview of antidepressants.  There’s no shame in using medication to treat depression, and there’s also nothing wrong with deciding that you’d rather not use medication.  It’s really important to pay attention to your own experience and preferences when you’re seeking treatment.  It can feel really difficult to find the energy for this when you’re already depressed, but I promise it’s worth the effort.

Introducing the 2018 Mawazo PhD Scholars!


I’m thrilled to announce the Mawazo Institute’s inaugural cohort of PhD Scholars!   We received 170 applications for the 10 spots in this programme, demonstrating the high levels of demand for research funding and training amongst Kenyan PhD students.  After a difficult selection process, we chose ten exceptionally talented women.  Go read about their backgrounds at the Mawazo blog!

Tips on applying for a US social science PhD

A row of six people dressed in graduation caps and gowns.  It is a mixed group of men and women, who are black and white(Image via Essence)

I’ve received a number of emails recently asking for advice on navigating the PhD application process in the US.  I’ll share some of my general thoughts here, with the caveat that I did my applications more than five years ago, and can speak most specifically to social science PhDs, particularly in political science.  If you have any other recommendations to add, please do let me know!

Clarify why you’re interested in doing a PhD.  In the US, a doctorate is regarded primarily (if not exclusively, in some fields) as preparation for an academic career.  Personally, I find this frustrating, since the research skills, subject area knowledge, and capacity for critical thought which you build during a PhD are excellent assets in many different jobs.  But there are some powerful institutional incentives which explain this professional focus on academic careers.  Most saliently, the tuition grants and stipends which PhD students receive make doctoral programs a cost center for universities.  Spending money on PhD students primarily makes sense if it’s viewed as an investment in an ongoing supply of future faculty.  It is possible to do a doctorate and then pursue a career outside of academia — which is exactly what I’m doing with the Mawazo Institute — but you should be aware that if you enroll in a PhD program, all the professional development and networking you receive will be aimed at helping you find an academic job.  Some departments even refuse to admit applicants who state that they don’t want to go into academia.  If you really don’t want to go into academia, consider whether you could do an MA, or get additional work experience, in order to build the skills you need to continue your desired career.

Choose a concrete, detailed research question to discuss in your application.  Admissions committees are primarily interested in seeing whether you appear to have intellectual merit — a base of curiosity, knowledge, and critical thinking skills which can be further sharpened with the training of your discipline.  They are not particularly interested in your personal life or previous work experience, unless either of these speaks to the research that you plan to do.  Of course, you can and should discuss your background briefly in your application, but it should build up to the research questions that you’d like to study.

A strong application will show that you’ve done a fair amount of reading in your discipline already, and identified a gap in the literature that interests you. You should also try to draw a specific and detailed research question out of this literature, rather than simply discussing a research topic.  By way of example, “ethnic politics in Kenya” is a research topic.  “How did the recent devolution reforms affect the political representation of minority groups in Kenya?” is a research question.  The purpose of selecting a question like this is not to set your research direction for the rest of your PhD, as you’ll almost certainly change or at least refine your question with further study.  Instead, it’s to demonstrate that you are at least broadly familiar with your field, and can identify a promising direction for future research.

Select universities and departments which are a good fit for your research interests.  There are several factors which affect whether a department is a good fit for you.  An obvious one is your subject area — are there any faculty members who specialize in the geographic region or topic that interests you?  Another is your preference for research methods.  Some political science departments focus heavily on the use of quantitative methods, while others are open to qualitative research or mixed methods.  If you have a general sense of the research questions which interest you, this will help you determine whether you want to seek out training in specific types of research methods.  A third factor is the tenure timelines of the faculty you might want to work with.   Assistant professors are generally given a decision on whether they will receive tenure after several years working at the university.  If they don’t receive tenure, they’ll generally look for a job at another university. This means that if you find a non-tenured advisor who looks like a great fit for your work, there is a small but non-zero risk that they will have to leave halfway through your PhD if they don’t receive tenure. 

The best way to get answers to the questions above is to speak with current graduate students at the departments to which you plan to apply.  Most department websites will list the contact information for current students, and I’ve had excellent luck with cold contacting current students.  (I’m also happy to speak to anyone who’s interested in the political science PhD at Berkeley.)  Current students can give you information that’s not available on the department website, such as which professors are supportive mentors to their students, and which ones are coming up for tenure soon. 

Once you have identified departments which seem like a good fit for you, make sure you mention the reasons why you feel like it’s a good fit in your application.  This shows the admissions committee that you are serious in your interest in the program, and more likely to attend if you are admitted.  You don’t necessarily have to mention that “Rachel Strohm said this professor is fantastic,” but you should be able to connect your research interests to those of two or three professors who you might like to work with.  You should also mention other university resources which seem relevant to your work, such as a rigorous training sequence in quantitative methods, or the presence of an African studies center which will allow you to connect to students working on African issues across various disciplines. 

Consider finances seriously.  Many US universities will offer admitted PhD students a multi-year funding package, which includes grants for the cost of tuition (essentially a tuition waiver), and a stipend for the cost of living.  The stipend is often paid as a salary for work as a teaching assistant (TA) for undergraduate courses.  If a university admits you but does not offer you a tuition grant or a stipend, do not attend.  The cost of higher education in the US is astronomical, and if you take out student loans to cover the cost of a five-year PhD (which is the minimum time commitment for most programs), you could easily end up with $200,000 worth of debt.  The academic job market in the US is very challenging, and many PhD holders who stay in academia end up on poorly paid adjunct contracts, with salaries which would make it very difficult to repay debt of that amount. 

If you do receive an offer with tuition grants and a stipend, it’s absolutely all right to negotiate for a higher stipend.  I did this for a scholarship package I received for my MA program, and for my PhD stipend, and in both cases was offered several thousand dollars more per year.  It may seem selfish, but that extra money can make a significant difference in your quality of life as a graduate student, and the additional cost is negligible to the university.  (Also, the department has already admitted you at this point, so the worst thing they can do is to say no!) 

There are several ways to make negotiating less stressful.  First, prepare your case.  At minimum, you can make a budget capturing the cost of living near the university and any other debt (student loans or otherwise) that you may have to pay, and demonstrate that it would be difficult for you to get by on the amount that was offered.  If you have a better stipend offer from another university, this is also a great negotiating tool.  Second, frame the conversation as a discussion about how to help you be a more productive member of the university community.  You’ll be better able to focus on your research and engage with the department if you don’t have to work an outside job in order to pay your rent.  Third, try to find allies within the department, or elsewhere on campus.  If you’ve already spoken to the faculty member who will be your advisor, or have found another faculty member or an administrator with whom you got on well, explain your financial concerns to them, and ask if they could support your request for a higher stipend.  You can also reach out to the campus financial aid office, or to student groups which might represent your interests (like women’s groups, or groups for people of color), to see if they could offer additional support or advice.  Finally, don’t apologize at any point for asking for more money.  It’s important that you be able to stand up for your own interests, and you’re not harming the department or your relationships there by doing so. 

Teaching obligations matter as well.  Another factor to consider is the work requirements which may be attached to a stipend.  Some universities offer generous stipends and don’t require their PhD students to work as TAs at all.  Others may expect the students to TA throughout their time on campus.  Working as a TA does build valuable teaching skills, and it’s absolutely worth teaching at least two semesters if you do plan to go into academia.  However, teaching is also very time-consuming.  I spent two semesters working as a TA, on top of my regular course load and preparation for qualifying exams, and it was very difficult to make progress on my own research during that academic year.  Generally speaking, if you have the opportunity to take funding which has fewer teaching requirements, this will help you get through your degree more quickly.

Once you’re in a PhD program, make sure to balance your emotional and physical health with your academic work.  This isn’t directly related to the application process, but I’ll add it here because I feel that it’s important.  Anecdotally, most PhD students that I know report feeling a great deal of pressure to subjugate their personal lives to their academic progress.  I’ve heard it said in economics that your advisor should ideally never realize that you’ve left the building during your five years in the program.  A few people might thrive on this schedule, but for most students, this is a destructive way to live.  Your worth in the world is not limited to your contributions to scholarly journals, or your invitations to lecture at prestigious universities.  You are also a person, with all a person’s needs for rest and exercise and friendships and time spent thinking about things that are completely unrelated to your academic work.  Personally, I have found that I am much more productive in my own research when I set boundaries on the amount of time I dedicate to it, and make sure to take care of my own emotional and physical health as well.  (A major part of this for me was realizing that the perfectionist environment of my PhD program was contributing to a severe case of depression that I dealt with over the past few years.  I might write more about this in a future post.)  I think this odd dismissal of the connections between academic productivity and physical and emotional health is beginning to be questioned now, in some departments, but it also remains a prevalent attitude amongst many faculty, and is worth watching out for. 

Nairobi photos

A few snapshots of what I’ve been up to lately in Nairobi!  More photos can be found on Flickr, as always.

The photo shows a colourful painting of a woman in a headwrapGorgeous painting spotted at our lawyer’s office

The photo shows a canyon with two people walking through it, and the blue sky aboveHiking at Hells Gate National Park

The photo shows a record labelled "Editions d'Ivoire"Browsing old Congolese records at Kenyatta market

The photo shows green rolling hills and the blue skyHad an amazing time cycling to Limuru recently

The photo shows a glass of ginger-lemon tea sitting on a black table, with a black and white checked floor visible in the backgroundEnjoying some dawa at Artcaffe Lavington