I'm a first year PhD student (computer science), and I've felt that I lost this year up to now due to some life difficulties. I'm getting no financial support and I was forced to teach to get some money and pay my expenses. I have another personal problems that took me to a state of depression, where I've spent some months completely stuck in my work.

I want to "be back on the rails" and continue to work on this, but I'm feeling lost. I need to go back to the very beginning and find what a PhD is, and what I must do to advance the state of art with my current (weak) capabilities. At the same time I must to show some results to my advisor with what I already have in my hands.

I know that my "question" is pretty obscure, but I need some advices on how to proceed, from people with some experience in this situation. How can I overcome depression and 'get back on the rails' with my PhD?


Some years later I finally got my PhD. I cannot believe I made it. At the time that I wrote this post it seemed utterly impossible to achieve this. If you are in the middle of a PhD you may try to endure and fight until the end. But if you are wondering about starting a PhD, please make sure YOU ABSOLUTELY LOVE your topic, otherwise you'll end like me when I wrote this. I didn't like my research area and the topic I choose. Everything else seemed to be way more interesting. I wanted to do everything instead of reading papers and conducting my own research. I felt unproductive and useless, and at some point my advisor started to complain about my lack of results. It was my fault since the beginning since I didn't followed a research area that I could have joy with it. I should have choose something that matched my abilities and preferences, for instance, I'm pretty good with programming, but my math skills aren't great, and yet I tried to enter a field that is dominated by math and advanced statistics. I couldn't do what I do the best, neither I was able to catch up with the involved math.

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    Not quite the same question but very good answers here: academia.stackexchange.com/questions/2219/…
    – crypton480
    Commented Sep 9, 2014 at 16:59
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    I don't know what your specific question is. What are you looking for guidance on?
    – aeismail
    Commented Sep 9, 2014 at 17:12
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    You should specify at least the country. In the US, the primary activity of many grad students for the first 2 years is passing courses and preparing for quals - the 1 year you've lost is almost meaningless. In Europe, losing 1 year out of a 3 year program can have significant impact.
    – Superbest
    Commented Sep 10, 2014 at 1:32
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    I'm from Brazil. In the first year we take some courses, and in the following 3 years we focus on research. Commented Sep 10, 2014 at 1:53
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    When a person is discouraged about his academic research activities, he may not be depressed at all and he may be so energetic in his non-academic life. On the other hand, when the person is depressed, he is upset with his daily life and his academic activities. He is always sad and upset. He has negative perspective in his life. I think the question is not duplicate to that post at all.
    – enthu
    Commented Sep 10, 2014 at 20:22

8 Answers 8


Depression is very common amongst graduate students and faculty. So know that you are not alone.

About 60% of graduate students said that they felt overwhelmed, exhausted, hopeless, sad, or depressed nearly all the time. One in 10 said they had contemplated suicide in the previous year. -- AAS Science Careers

However, there is very little that the community on SE can do to help you. We are not therapists and cannot provide a therapeutic relationship.

Know that there is no shame in seeking help. Your university almost always has a mental health clinic with free or subsidized service. Whether you prefer talk therapy or psychopharmaceuticals (or both) is up to you and your insurance plan -- but please do go seek help from specialists.

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    Totally agreed here. Psychotherapy has been very helpful to me as a graduate student personally, and I know a few others who have sought similar help during grad school. There is nothing to be ashamed about for treating mental illness including (and certainly not limited to) depression or anxiety, just as there is nothing shameful about getting a physical illness treated. Unfortunately, because so few people talk about actually going to see a therapist, it can seem like nobody does it. In fact many graduate students seek such help, and departments often (and should) encourage them to do so.
    – Alex
    Commented Sep 9, 2014 at 19:54
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    Depression is very common amongst graduate students and junior faculty — and senior faculty.
    – JeffE
    Commented Sep 10, 2014 at 0:18
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    'Depression is very common amongst graduate students and junior faculty' Do we have data showing that it's more prevalent in that group than in any other? I agree with the rest of the answer though.
    – Cape Code
    Commented Sep 10, 2014 at 1:04
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  • Amended answer to respond to comments.
    – RoboKaren
    Commented Sep 10, 2014 at 3:07

Ok, here is my (partial) take on the matter.

I completed a PhD, also in Comp Sci, but in theory rather than software. In retrospect, I believe it may not even have been a good idea to do so. I'm not suggesting that you quit, though; nor am I going to write my long personal story since it is, well, personal and long. So let's just make some suggestions:

  • Ask yourself this: "Is my self-esteem, my sense of self-worth, based on me succeeding academically? As a student and now as a researcher?" If the answer is "Yes", then you need to rewire your brain. Because even if you don't end up in a deep emotional crisis right now, you will at some point in the not-too-distant future, and until then you'll probably suffer most of the time. I was very afraid of asking myself that question, because I sort of knew the answer; but if it reaches your consciousness than you know you have to do something about it.

  • Suppose your PhD tanks. You don't reach publishable results, you wander around in circles, you need money and there's nothing you can do on campus to make enough - it goes up in flames. You advisor frowns and is disappointed. Your parents wonder "Gee, what's he going to do with his life now?" Sounds terrible, right? Can you live with that? The answer is: Of course you can. What you can't live with is spending your time trying to avoid this possibility, or imagining it out of existence. It may happen. Don't start spending all your time on planning for PhD failure, but try to entertain it as a real possibility. Try to "pre-accept" this failure and thinking of your PhD prospects as a sort of a calculated bet.

  • Some people bypass their emotional issues by making research breakthroughs relatively quickly; they supposedly never have to deal with the kind of anguish we go through. For us, however, it's all the more exasperating to see them progress while we're stuck. If you spend any time trying to compare yourself to them: "Why am I less successful/quick/able than that guy" - again, you're in trouble. You're thinking of the PhD as a sort of rat race. Unfortunately, it's half-become that in some fields. Your PhD is supposed to be something unique, that you are pursuing for its own sake (or because you need to apply the research personally). Don't adopt the goal of "getting ahead" abstractly in your PhD.

  • It is my (non-universal) experience that many people around you, especially senior tenured staff, can be total assholes about this kind of problem. It is so commonplace, so fundamental, so frustrating... and yet, they're just shuffling along untroubled. Even when all the signs tell them how you feel. And nobody prepares you for this. They make you think you're just, well, continuing your studies. Don't be afraid to develop a nice grudge :-) and, on that note

  • A PhD candidate is not a student. That is, you are also a student, and research is a kind of study, but in that sense a Professor is also a student. You now have something between a strange kind of job and an also-strange kind of contract work (perhaps half-unpaid). I know usual capitalist class divisions (hired labor / capitalist employer) don't apply very well to academia, but I think it's emotionally (and sometimes financially) useful to think of it that way. Of course, you should be very committed to your job and take it seriously, not slack around...

  • Is your advisor actually advising you? Academically, at least? That is, does he provide guidance, suggestions on how to proceed research-wise and academic-life-wise? Clearly, you're not close with him, and he doesn't realize what you're going through. Do you think you could tell him? Or will he not 'get it' emotionally, and just end up thinking you're a weak person? I would say it's probably a good idea to share your situation with him even if he's expected to respond relatively poorly. Don't make excuses to him and try to hide what's going on. Better for him to think of you as a wuss who can't handle it than a dodgy person who can't be trusted to tell the truth.

  • You wouldn't believe how many people use psychotherapy, or take anti-depression medicine - in society in general and in grad school in particular. If you're, say, at the point of having trouble sleeping, or having other physical symptoms of depression or anxiety - talk to your GP (your doctor) and ask him/her to explain such possibilities to you.

  • Teaching is part of the calling of being an academic. Researchers should teach, regardless of money. It's good for keeping in touch with the foundations of your discipline, and what's more - it can help your mood. At least, it did for me. Still, if you need to do a lot of it to make ends meet, that sucks. There are academic staff labor unions for these kinds of problems (and for wider concerns hopefully), but I'm not going to suggest to you as a single person that all the graduate teachers should go on strike for better pay etc. Although they generally should :-)

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    Wow! I read every word carefully. Thank you for your answer! Commented Sep 9, 2014 at 21:27
  • This is THE MOST practical answer given here :)
    – shivams
    Commented Apr 14, 2015 at 17:58
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    @shivams: From wounded heart to wounded heart, my friend.
    – einpoklum
    Commented Apr 14, 2015 at 18:06

Your question is:

Overcoming depression and getting back on rails on PhD's work?

My advice would be to treat these as two separate problems.

First you must tackle overcoming (or at least learning to cope) with depression ... which you say is due to personal problems. You should prioritise this. Only then can you aim to get back on the rails with your PhD work. In terms of coping with depression, this may involve lifestyle changes, seeking counselling, and so forth.

Once you are healthier, you can then prioritise pushing forward your PhD work. It's important to keep communicating with your supervisor what is going on with you. Their job is to advise you. Let them know what is going on. Likewise set yourself small achievable goals. Thinking about a PhD in its entirety is very daunting. Break up your work into little milestones (no longer than a week, say) and try to focus on one thing at a time.

On a side note, there can be a pathogenic aspect to academia where working ridiculous hours and being depressed all the time is sort of implicitly tolerated, for students and staff alike. This is wrong. If you find yourself in such an environment, try to improve it. If this doesn't work, just get out. Learning does not require suffering. Research does not require suffering. Depression should not be a side-effect of a PhD.

If it is your PhD that is an underlying cause or aggravator of depression, I think you need to ask yourself: Is getting a PhD really worth it? Can you take steps to improve your situation? Could you find another PhD position elsewhere? Maybe you could try find a job or just do something different?

  • Thanks for your answer. I'm not interested in quitting the PhD, because it is my main objective in life. My PhD course itself is not the source of my mental illness, but my poor performance on this course affects me a bit. Commented Sep 9, 2014 at 18:22
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    @DaniloM.Oliveira If you pin all the hopes of your life on this one thing, it will stress you out more. A good main objective of life is to be happy and be nice to others.
    – Neil Kirk
    Commented Sep 10, 2014 at 2:59

Depression is the root cause of why I didn't finish my Ph.D., so please take it seriously.

First divide things into stuff that you can fix and stuff that you can't. Things that you can't fix include lack of sufficient money to study without work and the difficulty of your subject. Things that you can fix include exercise, diet, and sleep patterns (@badroit). Also, there are extra things that you can do such as using the campus psych help and medications.

It is surprising how much a change to logical exercise, diet, and sleep can help. The only problem is that those changes take a significant amount of effort which is the original problem. Nevertheless, try a "21 day challenge": more than 7 hours of sleep a night (at night), no junk food nor soda, and at least light exercise (e.g. yoga, hiking). Also, try to socialize, more than just drinking buddies.

As to the medications, I have found most of the prescription stuff of little use. Zoloft, etc. had only a marginal effect. The single most effective thing has been wheatgrass juice. I used up to 4 oz of freshly ground wheatgrass juice daily, and after about 10 days, I noticed an improvement. Within about 2 weeks of starting, my depression was GONE. I haven't been without depression since puberty (~20 years), and it took me awhile to get used to it. At first, I felt fragile, like anything might break it. Then, all of a sudden, I could finally do all of the things that I wanted.

One thing to bear in mind. No matter what type of medication you take, your mental habits still remain from the depression. Be aware that one of your first priorities should be to change your mental habits (e.g. always seeing the bad side, assuming everyone hates you / makes fun of you / holds you in contempt, assuming that you can't finish anything, assuming that you are a horrible person or stupid, etc.). These are just artifacts. You will finally be able to change them like changing your clothes. I know that that statement sounds stupid, but once the depression stopped forcing my mental outlook, I actually could gain control of it. Big change.

Finally, you mentioned that you have weak capabilities. That might be true or not, but that is FIXABLE. That is the purpose of school. You are in the process of improving those capabilities. Where else would you expect someone to improve their academic capabilities. So, don't worry about that.


The legendary physicist Richard Feynman struggled with a terrible bout of depression shortly after Hiroshima and was unable to work. He talks about it in his book Surely You're Joking Mr Feynman. In the end, he decided to go back to his roots and just work on things that interested him - rather than what he should be working on. As it happens, while modelling the motion of a flying and oscillating plate (for fun), he inadvertently solved a quantum mechanical problem.

As a PhD student who has also wrestled with depression for many years, I have adopted this same indulgent approach: find a problem or task that interests you and work on it for fun. You'll be amazed with how often this leads to something publishable.


As a past PhD student in the domain of software engineering, and having some personal problems during my PhD; I can totally relate to you.

First of all, doing little/nothing (in your opinion) during the first year is pretty common. In fact there is a lesson in itself. That is, a year, is not a long time in a lifestyle of a researcher. So you can plan your years ahead more wisely.

Second, you need to understand that, doing a research in computer science is sometimes is very hard; as many big successful companies are doing great things, and for marketing purposes, bragging about it publicly; and you need to sit and think about a contribution that is not tackled before, with limited resources (e.g., time, budget, etc.). Hopefully in near future you will find the purpose in your research, and will be happy about your role in the computer science domain.

Third, you need to start exercising on a daily basis. Sitting long hours, and trying doing a research in an office environment, sooner or later will effect your mental health. So plan a light workout at least 3 times a week.

Fourth, eat well. If you use any self medication (cigarets, alcohol), stop them. They will contribute to your moods.

Fifth, work during reasonable hours. Do not work more than 8/9 hours a day. Do not work strange hours (late nights, midnights).

Hopefully by balancing your life, you will start feeling good and then great again and will continue your research.

If you still have the problem, contact the student union at your university, they can help you get some time off, so you can tackle this issue professionally.


Talk to people Talk to your advisor, your professors, your TAs, your fellow students, your friends, your family, the people at your school's graduate office (often just waiting to help), or a counselor if you have access to one. People on the internet don't count. It might be tempting to get stuck in your own head and believe that you can figure everything out on your own if you just work hard enough, but clearly that isn't working.


Don't be depressed! Always, Be hopeful! Posting this question means that you still have a lot of hope within yourself. You just need to get it recognized by yourself and acknowledged. Try to think, imagine and act in such a way, read, write and watch such stuff which provides you hope.

Since you have mentioned about the first year that is some what about the course work. Let me tell you the fact that you have lost nothing, if you have passed the courses you took and, maybe, only something very little and not everything (of course, not a complete year) otherwise.

The fact that you have no financial support is something that happens to many and you are not alone to be in such a situation. You are rather lucky that you have made it up by teaching. I personally know those who have had similar situations in grad schools and were forced to take odd jobs.

Try not to think about that personal problem much. Your too much mental involvement in that is not only harming you in your present, rather it would leave its marks on your mind and would also be destructive for your future. Remember not to think about the things too much which are not under your control.

Forget about showing results to your adviser so far. He won't kick you out of the PhD program. Try to bring your problems in his knowledge, otherwise, it won't work this way for rest of the years during your PhD. Do not try to be a superman, just be realistic with your life, work and supervisor. Try to keep him in 'CC' about the challenges (not problems) of your life and work.

Keep your emotions under control and remember that: "PhD is also a patience test". During the course emotions won't let you complete it at several occasions and they might even force you to quit. But, please! don't let your emotions hinder you work, your life will be okay.

Best Luck!

  • This might be helpful advice for those who're just down about their progress, work assignments, etc. But clinical depression isn't situational/temporary sadness; clinically depressed folks can't decide to just "not be depressed." I say this as a long-time skeptic whose experience was that exercise and talking to colleagues, etc. could go a long way, but have recently realized that some depression is a medical condition that often needs management through medication (which can be a seemingly-miraculous intervention). When talk and community can't get you there, medication can be a lifesaver.
    – cpit
    Commented Dec 20, 2022 at 10:54

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