Thesis Depression: How To Prevent Depression When Writing Your Dissertation


This blog post is for people that are doing academic research and are thinking of doing a PhD, graduate studies, or are already in a program and starting to second-guess their decision.

So, a follower on the R3ciprocity YouTube Channel recently asked, “I have questions about depression associated with manuscript and thesis writing. I hate it and I am really depressed. Could you please help me this?” OK, this is going to be a heavy topic.

I want to begin immediately by saying, if you are feeling like you are going to hurt yourself in anyway, please call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), which leads behavioral health efforts in the nation, also has a national helpline. You can call 1-800-662-HELP (4357) 24 hours a day, 365 days a year for advice and help or visit https://findtreatment.samhsa.gov/.

This post was written by a recent doctoral student, but it is anonymous to keep the discussion frank on behalf of Dave Maslach. This is part of the R3ciprocity project (Check out the YouTube Channel or the writing feedback software). The R3ciprocity Project started out as a side-project, where David Maslach created an App to help others get feedback on their work (r3ciprocity.com – it is seriously inexpensive and easy to use. You have to try it!), but it is beginning to grow into a real movement. R3ciprocity helps students, faculty, and research folk by providing a real and authentic look into doing research. It provides solutions and hope to researchers around the world. You can watch his video on the topic:

A note from Dave: All universities and colleges have a large staff of healthcare workers that deal with mental health issues. Use these healthcare resources. I (Dave) have used healthcare resources and counseling services, and you should do. I feel that the more open we are with these issues, the more it will be normalized. It is not really a big deal to seek help or to talk about openly about healthcare problems. It really does help – don’t do this alone. Take that step.

Next, I feel I need to add this disclaimer before moving any further: I am in no way an expert or professional when it comes to the workings of the human brain. However, having a human brain myself (even though I often doubted this while working through my own dissertation), and speaking with many people that have been through the dissertation process, there are certain things about this process that can bring about unwell feelings.

According to the Mayo Clinic, depression is “a mood disorder that causes a persistent feeling of sadness and loss of interest. It effects how you feel, think and behave and can lead to a variety of emotional and physical problems. You may have trouble doing normal day-to-day activities, and sometimes you may feel as if life isn’t worth living.”  The Mayo Clinic also states that “medications and psychotherapy are effective for most people with depression” and if you are feeling symptoms of depression then it is very important to speak with a mental health professional. For additional information about depression and mental health, you can visit the Mayo Clinic website.

Signs and Symptoms

Self-reported surveys have shown that depression is common among PhD students, with academic stressors being major components for these negative feelings. In our own poll on the R3ciprocity YouTube channel, 86% of respondents (n=31, mostly professors and PhD students) reported having a significant a significant period of depression, mental health issues, or anxiety. Early detection is key to identifying and combating depression, so it’s important to know the signs.

Here are some symptoms that the Mayo Clinic has pinpointed to watch for:

  • Feeling sad every day
  • Unable to pull yourself out of a funk
  • Uncontrollable tears
  • Feeling anxious about tasks that used to feel simple
  • Inability to feel happy or optimistic
  • Lack of energy
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Unexplained physical problems
  • Reduced appetite
  • Feeling of worthlessness
  • Trouble concentrating

If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, this could be the first sign that your PhD is taking a toll on your mental health. Take action and seek help from a licensed mental health provider if you’re exhibiting these or similar symptoms.

So, what is it about writing a dissertation that can lead to feelings of depression?

First of all, the work of a PhD student is mundane to some extent.

It doesn’t matter what work field you are in; you will likely get the sense that you are in the movie Groundhog Day. You feel like the same things are happening day after day, on repeat; kind of like a “been there, done that” sensation.

From my perspective, a large component of this feeling is due to repetition.

Even if your job was sampling the finest wines, and the best goods in the world, you are likely to lose enthusiasm after doing the same thing day in and day out. This will eventually feel like work too.

Stay Motivated

What usually drives the change of emotions in graduate students is that their brain goes from excitement mode to repetition mode. The repetition component of work causes your mind to wander and think of other things. This is why it is so important that you are picking a topic that you are passionate about or where you find personal interest.

You must also be implicitly motivated to make it through a PhD program.  If you don’t see any value in the activities that go along with this process, you are unlikely to put much effort into it.  So, try to pick an element of your work that interests or excites you.  This will help keep you going when you feel your motivation start to wane.

If you are feeling down about the dissertation process, or lacking the drive to move forward, take the time to watch this video and find the motivation you are missing.

Fighting Negative Thoughts and Feelings

Get out of your shell. That’s going to be helpful for you.

When I finally talk to people about how I’m feeling, it’s not nearly as scary as one would think it would be. When you show vulnerability, people respond to that. They know you are looking for their advice and they will help you. Go ask someone, doesn’t matter who it is, be vulnerable and ask for help.

Find someone that you feel comfortable around and just say, “there is something inside of me that is just not feeling right and I could really use some advice.”  Every time I felt like I can’t go on is precisely the time I should have reached out to someone for motivation or advice. Whether it is your advisor, friend, parent, professor or counselor, it doesn’t matter. They’re going to help you out.

They might be able to find at least short-term strategies and ways to let you breathe a little. There is no shame in doing so.

Check out this video.

What Else is Going on in Your Life?

I think there could be a few other things going on, besides the dissertation writing, that may be causing your feelings of depression.

One alternative may be that there is something going on with your immediate relationships. This could be an argument with a family member or fall-out with a friend. Perhaps, you are fearing your academic supervisor or the feedback that they are providing. Consider trying to have an open conversation with those involved in the relationship that may be lacking. If it is an advisor situation, speak with them about how or why they are providing feedback.

Another downfall may be that you are not monitoring your progress in an operational way. Once you obtain a target for a day, you should stop your work, and go enjoy life. You need to really try to spend time having fun or playing ‘life’ activities. Do things outside of your dissertation work.

In addition, you could be expecting far too much of yourself on a daily basis. Often when I feel depressed or down, I notice that I am comparing myself to others and their performance level, and not necessarily setting realistic goals. So, it may be that you need to reevaluate or lower the expectations that you have set for yourself.

Set Realistic Goals

So, one approach that may help alleviate some of your worries regarding dissertation completion would be to set a writing goal that is realistic and achievable.  

Break down your writing tasks into small, feasible bits.  I found that during my own dissertation process, I wasn’t able to sit for hours at a time and just write, write, write. After about 20 to 30 minutes I would lose focus and the brain fog would start to kick in.  So, I would set a timer for thirty minutes, tried to remove all distractions for those 30 minutes, and just get my thoughts down.  I tried to do this twice a day. For me and my busy life, this is what was tangible for me without causing duress. Check out the following post on scheduling during your PhD, and / or how to set goals that will work best for you, view this blog post.

While writing 40 pages a week is not unheard of, it is a lofty amount to maintain. Expecting too much of yourself is one way to quickly feel the effects of “burnout.”  Possibly come up with some sort of agreement with your advisor or committee chair where you will have “x” number of pages written and turned in at the end of each week.

Setting a realistic goal and knowing that someone is going to keep you accountable, may be what you need to push through. It could be something as simple as five pages turned in to your committee chairperson on Friday of each week. This will allow you to receive frequent feedback to ensure you are on the right track and give you insight to help you plan your next steps. You may have just read that and thought to yourself, “5 pages doesn’t seem like enough,” but over the course of a year, those five pages turn into around 250 pages.

If you are receiving pressure from an advisor or committee member to write an unreasonable amount, or meet some crazy deadline, open up and talk to them about how you are feeling. Remember, they were in your situation once; they are likely to be receptive and help come up with a schedule that you can both agree on.

Also, try not to compare yourself to others; you never know what else is going on for them. You may feel pressured or down on yourself when you hear someone was able to finish their dissertation in just a few months, while you have already been working much longer than that.  However, they may have little responsibility, no one relying on them, and be able to allocate 40 hours a week to writing. Make sure to check out this video to learn about some tricks that might get you motivated to write every day.

Take Breaks

It is important to realize that when you are starting to feel a little off, you need to walk away and give yourself a break. There’s no reason to sit there and write junk just because you told yourself that you would write for three hours a day. Hit save, turn off the screen, and go do something else for a while. It will help prevent boredom when you are writing your dissertation.

I know it may feel like you don’t have the time to do anything other than write but the time away could be essential for your mental health.  It doesn’t have to be a long break; it could be something as simple as going out for a cup of coffee or stepping outside to get some fresh air.

Take a good break that will actually let you de-stress and re-focus.

You still have a life to lead and you need to be able to enjoy all aspects of it.

Even if it takes you five or six years, instead of four, your mental well-being and happiness is more important; as long as you are making consistent progress, you are headed in the right direction.

Treat Yourself Well

Along with taking breaks, also make sure that you are rewarding yourself when you achieve your goals or reach a milestone.

Do something just for you!

Self-care, including exercise, nutrition and positive social interactions are very important for good mental health. Regardless of how much you have going on at work, school or home, make time to remove yourself from all of that and just recharge.

One of the most important tools to help combat depression is exercise, so make time for it. Get a gym membership, go for a walk, find someone to workout with, or go to a group class. When you’re depressed and have little energy, exercising can be as overwhelming as climbing Mt. Everest. However, when I’m feeling like that, I try to just concentrate on doing something simple, like walking a few blocks. I can feel more energized and get fresh air at the same time.

Remember the well-known Newton’s First Law: A body at rest stays at rest until acted upon and a body in motion stays in motion. Even when it feels super difficult, you just have to start. If you can’t find the motivation to exercise on your own, try joining a group class or a workout partner. They can encourage you to get in your steps and talk you through your feelings, as well as keep you accountable.

Maintaining a balanced diet and practicing mindfulness can help too. Eating well will help you maintain and stabilize your energy levels while meditation can help you get out of your head and begin to relax. Now, this won’t magically make you feel better but it may help you become happier in other aspects of your life which will in return give you a better outlook when it comes to your writing.

Treating yourself to little whims will do wonders to increase your mood and prevent immediate burnout. Again, just like your breaks, this doesn’t have to be something expensive or time consuming. It could be getting your favorite ice cream or taking a day off to spend time with your family. Just acknowledging your efforts and taking pride in your work will do wonders to invigorate your desire to write and provide motivation to power through.

Don’t Wait to Talk

Don’t forget, if you are feeling depressed, make an appointment as soon as possible to see your doctor or mental health professional. If you’re reluctant to seek professional treatment, talk to a loved one, friend, or someone else you trust.

You’ve come so far already. Your committee members, your advisor, friends, family, etc. can see the hard work you’ve invested.

Remember, once you’ve finished this degree, NO one can take this away from you. You earned it yourself and deserve that feeling of accomplishment.

To help you mentally prepare for other pitfalls that may come your way, you need to get out of your own head. There are so many things that make doing a doctorate difficult, and it rarely has to do with anything physical. You need to treat yourself well, and know that this too shall pass. Keep up the good work! You got this!

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