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First a little background:

I am in the middle of my PhD and recently came down with pretty severe depression. I would not say my PhD work is the cause of it (I am not in a toxic lab), but the immense pressure to always deliver is definitely not helping.

I feel like I am still affected by the general culture in academia and that it is not very accommodating of my struggles with mental illness. Living up to the "student really passionate about their research dedicating their life to it" is pretty damn hard when you sometimes lose control and cry for days, can't get out of bed, and battle suicidal ideation. This makes me frustrated, because I feel like that is not fair and inclusive of people who struggle with mental illness.

Mostly for myself, I started to write a personal narrative essay describing my experience and frustration. Then I had the thought to submit it to Science Working Life — maybe there's someone out there with similar struggles that would feel seen and inspired from reading it?

Now the question(s):

Maybe this is my anxious side all over again, overthinking everything, but if you were me, would you submit deeply personal writing like this? Do you think it could have value? Would you, as a reader, value something like this?

P.S.: To anyone else struggling, you are not alone ♡

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  • What subject are you pursuing your PhD in? I think this is a major differentiator. If it is in social sciences or psychology, I think publishing an essay like that would be to your benefit. But if it's in STEM or business -- absolutely not.
    – Ruslan
    Jul 27, 2023 at 13:53
  • Answers in comments and tangential discussions have been moved to chat. Please read this FAQ before posting another comment.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Aug 3, 2023 at 12:07

7 Answers 7

36

If you do write and publish a personal piece such as this, be aware that (potential) employers, students, colleagues, etc will google you and find it. Some of them may find it inspiring, many won't care/read it, unfortunately a few may consciously/unconsciously hold it against you. If any person/institution is mentioned/implicated it could cause problems for them (and potentially you) as well.

I think it's important to have stories like this out there for exactly the reasons you mention. But unfortunately the reality is that there can be consequences.

If it's possible to anonymise this could eliminate most negative consequences while maintaining the positive ones.

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  • 1
    thanks for your answer! I do see your point, although part of me is a bit reluctant to publish anonymously because I feel like that would fuel the stigma surrounding mental illness... But this at least gives me some ideas about what pros and cons I need to think about before making a decision
    – polyalex
    Jul 27, 2023 at 8:53
  • 7
    I understand the whole "publish anonymously to prevent negative consequences" and I HATE IT WITH EVERY FIBRE OF MY BEING. It is exactly that mindset that allows mental illness to continue to be a stigma.
    – Ian Kemp
    Jul 28, 2023 at 7:25
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    This comment also concerns @Trunk, ShernRenTee, Ben, and anyone else who feels tempted to hint that having been through depression implies being mentally divergent. Science says "Nearly 21% of adults in the United States will go on to develop Major Depressive Disorder at some point in their lives". Other variants are even more common. Why should anyone in academia contribute to hiding that fact?
    – Gyrfalcon
    Jul 28, 2023 at 18:41
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    @IanKemp There are other ways to reduce the stigma – like people who've already climbed that ladder (e.g. celebrities, tenured profs) coming out and doing activism work. The vulnerable don't have to put themselves out there. Yes, this way is slower, but equally, reducing stigma is a means, not an end.
    – wizzwizz4
    Jul 28, 2023 at 22:42
  • @IanKemp Who will bell the cat?
    – fectin
    Jul 28, 2023 at 22:43
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Like atom44, I would expect that you would see the need to protect yourself and your career in writing under an assumed name.

Once you are protected, I would answer your three questions in a resounding affirmative.

There really are things that need to be said about academic pressures on PhD students. One can't rely on universities to raise this as it would bring their own management into question. Nor can one expect mainstream education correspondents to seek it out: it's not the usual sexy off-beat "story" that catches their eyes.

This issue is bigger than something merely of relevance to PhD students or even modern academics. Intense pressure of the workplace, be it on junior doctors, vets having to put down animals far too often, working people on forever-temp contracts, high school teachers in poor neighborhoods and so many more other situations are contributing to an unacceptable annual suicide toll.

It might arguably be better to seek to get it published in a mainstream Sunday newspaper or general interest magazine.

So yes, it's a worthy investment of your time for others' sake. And it might help you to work through the issues you yourself are facing, hopefully leading to a healthier solution for you.

My only other advice is that you do not slacken off sharing your concerns with other important people, i.e. family, friends, family doctor and so on. We all have to get ourself fit first before we start to try helping others.

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    thanks for the input! And yes, I have a therapist, friends, and partner who are informed and looking out for me :)
    – polyalex
    Jul 27, 2023 at 8:55
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The essays themselves could certainly be valuable, so long as they are insightful and well-written. (The peer review process should be able to give you feedback on this so go ahead and submit if you like.) As you say, there could be others experiencing similar problems (or dealing with people experiencing similar problems) who would find your writing about your experience useful. So, in principle, it might be useful to a reader.

You should bear in mind that it is sometimes possible to submit and publish work anonymously (e.g., submit from an anonymous email without your real name and see if the editors will agree to anonymous publication, and ensure that your essays give no identifying details). This might be an option in the present situation, depending on the needs and approach of the journal in question. Anonymous publication for highly personal issues has some benefits and downsides that you would need to consider. On the plus side, anonymous publication would preserve your privacy. The downside is that it might hamper communication with interested readers (though this might still be possible through an anonymous email).

7

I applaud your desire to publish your story, and affirm your sense that the career culture in academia is deeply broken.

But where everyone else has advised you to anonymise your story (which I fully agree), I would advise you to go one step further and obscure easily identifiable details.

The selfish reason for doing this is that if your identity can be deduced from details in your story, then there's no point anonymising your name.

The altruistic reason for doing this is that your story will inevitably include descriptions of other people's behaviour. While you are obviously consenting to (anonymously) tell your story, other people have not consented to have their story told, and they have the right to not be identified in a story which may not represent them in the best light.

Of course you have to balance this against the detail your story must include to back up your experience. But many such details do not make your group identifiable -- for example, "I had to trudge three miles through snow every weekend to discombobulate the widgets because my supervisor would rather fund conference travel than pay for a widget discombobulobot" is both vivid and discreet. Here are a list of identifiable details that I modified from a grant guide on preparing anonymous grant proposals:

  1. Your name
  2. Your institution’s name
  3. Any project codes or names
  4. Gendered pronouns
  5. Heavily referencing your / your group's papers
  6. Current and previous grant results
  7. References to named partners
  8. Specific details of team make-up
  9. Career length of yourself or teammates

You may certainly have to include some of these details -- but try not to include too many.

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    I disagree strongly that people "have the right not to be identified in a story which may not represent them in the best light". If someone has behaved badly, there's generally no legal barrier to you publicizing this in a truthful manner. Whether it's prudent to do so, and whether you're prepared to deal with any backlash or fallout, is another matter.
    – Psychonaut
    Jul 27, 2023 at 6:48
4

Rather than join the anonymization bandwagon (the answer author community here is generally of the "it's terrible out there - people are horrible! Protect yourself!" bent) I would propose the following more nuanced and step-by-step approach:

By all means write the essay! It brings good in several different forms

  1. It can be therapeutic, at least in a palliative care sort of way. I don't think it will provide rapid relief from clinical depression, but it does offer one a window on what's going on that may be helpful. But do it with the help of a mental health professional or counselor so that they can step in if it spirals out of control and you start focusing on those sneaky, nasty destructive or hopeless thoughts that the "depression monster" likes to generate to make us feel even worse.
  2. If the time to publish comes, you've got your writings. You may be in a different state by then and want to add some further perspectives to it, but you've got the contemporaneously written material recorded forever.
  3. Speaking of contemporaneously written material, if ever something happens and you are harassed or discriminated against by your environment, you have this as additional documentation that something is really going on and there's a reason you might be performing differently at the moment.

But continue to question if this is the right time to actually publish

That decision is easier if you fully anonymize, but in the 21st century with the internet, writing style analysis, nosy people who spend lots of time online, etc. is it ever foolproof?

Publishing under your name could potentially have positive benefits. More enlightened coworkers and supervisors, realizing that something powerful was happening without them realizing it may really reach out and be supportive. Of course exactly the opposite may happen as well. Life is full of choices (or a box of chocolates as Forest Gump explains)

My mom always said life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get.

Future readers may be future employers and if they are like-minded or enlightened might really see "extra value" in you. (As you can tell, I'm not of the "everyone is horrible" bent). This could become a lifelong filter that steers you away from employers who are unenlightened when it comes to mental health, and towards people who are. Who would you rather work for, anyway?

But yes, it could blow up in your face as well. Life really is like a box of chocolates and don't let anyone tell you otherwise.

You can also ask yourself if depression is the best time to make impacting decision

The fog of clinical depression also makes it really hard to make this kind of decision. I mean it can make it really hard to decide to even stand up and walk across the room to feed ourselves or take some medicine!

Bottom line: By all means write it! But work with friends and mental health professionals you get along with well on the question of publishing right away vs later.


P.S. To anyone else struggling you are not alone ♡

Indeed! After my first (of several) bouts with clinical depression that didn't respond much to medication subsided, I was able to "write in stone" a messages to myself that I could use in the subsequent bouts.

It gets better. This too shall pass. It's not real even though it feels so real. It's temporary.

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    thank you so much!
    – polyalex
    Aug 2, 2023 at 7:32
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People tend to think that academia is 'above' the rest of the world but it's not. Some may find your work inspiring others may use it against you... just like life. I myself wrote a critical analysis of the entire concept of mental illness, situating it in a cross-cultural perspective. I used Michel Foucault's work as a backdrop but also applied comparative mysticism. The professor in question was not helpful. I don't regret writing that essay, but I was naive in thinking that some jerk would not use it against me. And it wasn't even about me!

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Say you are not using a pseudonym as discussed by five other answers, however without using the proper term. And say a potential future employer dislikes your essay.

Would this hypothetical situation be disadvantageous?

Would you like to have a job in a place where you would have to hide your weaknesses and fight every day to just survive like in your current position?

Or would you prefer only to get jobs in places where people will understand that having the competencies and will to deal with your own personal problems is a strength?

Several top scientists have struggled with mental illness.

You should prefer to always be honest about yourself.

A well-written and honest book will always be of great value, as you suggest yourself in the P.S.

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