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Reflecting on Achilles and the Black Dog

September 9, 2011

Decorative element

Yesterday I went to Driving the Future of History and Philosophy, and saw Dr. Larissa Aldridge’s amazing keynote address, “Achilles and the Black Dog: Coping with Feelings of Inadequacy during the PhD Process.”[1] People familiar with psychology will have guessed that Larissa’s title references the “black dog” metaphor for depression, and Harold Bloomfield’s Achilles Syndrome, a (pseudo?) psychological book published in 1985 which popularised the concept of pseudocompetence, more commonly referred to as “Impostor Syndrome.”[2]

In her address, Larissa shared the battles with self-doubt and depression that she fought during her PhD journey. It was a touching, and also brave, talk, because I believe that most, if not all, graduate students, and academics, frequently exhibit depression-like symptoms and self-doubt. But we are encouraged (socialised, perhaps?) not to discuss it. Instead, we have rooms full of graduate students sitting at their desks, tapping away, all worried that the person next to them is achieving more than they are. We have conferences full of historians who have a book a year overdue, a half-finished peer-reviewed article they hate, a course outline barely started but due to be finished tomorrow, and a huge grant application to complete, trying their best to project an air of calmness and self control.

Larissa quoted statistics from the widely circulated 2006 UCLA Graduate Student Depression study. For those of you not familiar with the study, it revealed that:

  • 45% of graduate students had reportedly experienced an emotional or stress-related problem that significantly impacted their academic performance or well-being;
  • 67% had “felt hopeless at times;”
  • 95% had “felt overwhelmed;”
  • 54% had “felt so depressed that it was difficult to function;”
  • 10% “had seriously considered suicide;” and
  • around 1 in 200 students reported that they had attempted suicide at least once over the previous year.[3]

These are frightening statistics. I think a reasonable question to ask is: are people who are inclined towards or at risk of depressive disorders particularly inclined to enrol for a PhD, or, does the PhD process foster depressive disorder-like symptoms (inappropriate guilt and regret, hopelessness, self-hatred, and feelings of unworthiness)?

The causes of major depressive disorders are heatedly debated, and should (I believe) be considered in the context of broader debates about the role of psychoactive drugs in society, and the often-reported increase in diagnoses of mood disorders in the west. I don’t doubt that many of us will or have experienced deep and genuine depressive disorders in our lives. And of course, I would encourage anyone who feels they might be experiencing depression to seek help, either by contacting an organisation such as Beyond Blue, or by speaking to a counsellor or doctor.

Having said that, it appears to me that feelings of hopelessness, unworthiness, guilt, and regret are perfectly normal, and reasonable, responses to a situation that is often very difficult. Typically, a graduate student will have been at or near the top of their class in school and gone through their undergraduate degree receiving mostly distinctions and high distinctions. Through this sixteen year process they would have received constant praise, continual feedback, and positive re-enforcement though a barrage of essay and exam results. They would have lived a life of looming, but relatively fixed, deadlines. They probably would have received some awards. Then the PhD starts. No more deadlines. Blank Page Syndrome. No more constant positive feedback, except from a single, often god-like supervisor or from a sometimes daunting annual review process. Poverty. Still studying while the friends who chose law, business, or medicine thrive in their new career. No real prospect of a job.[4] And then, if we struggle, we are often told: “maybe you’re just not cut out for Academia.”[5]Who wouldn’t feel regret, anxiety, and hopelessness in these circumstances?

"You feel like a fake? Man, I wrote the book on faking it. Not really, but that's what I ell everyone.Impostor Syndrome is commonly understood as a psychological state in which the “sufferer” unreasonably feels that they are fraudulent, and attributes their own success to a combination of deception (pretending to be competent), timing, and luck. It commonly observed amongst high achieving businesspeople, lawyers, and is said to be particularly prevalent amongst academics and graduate students.[6]

Once again, the question may be asked: are people who exhibit the symptoms of Imposter Syndrome particularly attracted to academia? On the face of it, seeking more and more impressive qualifications (such as a PhD) would be classic compensatory behaviour for people already inclined towards feelings of imposturism. But we should be more wary than this. For a start, Imposture Syndrome is not a recognised disorder, and a series of studies have questioned much of the research surrounding the Syndrome. Benedict Carey, for instance, has argued that the signs of imposturism are perfectly normal and often useful behaviours.[7]

More worryingly, at least for me, is the manner in which the acceptance and acknowledgement of luck is pathologised through the syndrome’s creation. Frankly, success in academia does, to a large extent, rely upon luck. As Thomas Benton suggests, the number of jobs (and grants, and prizes) available are dwarfed by the sheer number of brilliant, talented young researchers that are pushed through the system.[8] A post-doctoral scholarship appearing in your field just as you submit, the chance discovery of an archive which reveals something new or exciting, an academic with a particular historical interest that aligns with yours sitting on a selection panel or judging committee for a significant prize. Hannah Forsyth has described doing a PhD as risk-taking of extreme sport proportions.[9] Benton argues that

the minority of… [graduates] who get tenure-track positions might as well be considered the winners of a lottery.[10]

These are not phenomena confined to academia. For lawyers or stockbrokers, a sudden and unpredictable change in the market at a crucial stage of one’s career can make or break a lifetime’s work. The closing or opening of a firm, far beyond one’s control, can open or close opportunities. Everyone’s career is subject to luck, and in my opinion, not to acknowledge this would be far more foolish than to accept it. Having said that, we can, to an extent, all manage our luck. That is, position ourselves to take optimum advantage of the situations that are presented to us. In many ways, one hallmark of a successful person is good luck management.

Benton also argues that there are so few jobs for humanities graduates that we simply shouldn’t bother doing a PhD, and I’ve worried about the huge financial cost of doing a PhD, and observed that people with a PhD generally earn less than other qualified professionals.[11] I want to reflect on this for a moment. Are we, as Hannah Forsyth and Raimond Gaita have hinted, barking up the wrong tree by trying to put a monetary value on higher education generally, and PhDs particularly?[12]

Only a fortnight ago I was privileged to be invited to the Sydney Dance Company’s “Work in Progress” for their upcoming show, The Land of Yes and the Land of No. In these presentations, the Company previews an unfinished, upcoming performance, and we hear from the choreographers and the creative team behind the work, as well as being introduced to the Company’s dancers on, frankly, a very personal level.

I’m not generally into dance (though I was an avid fan of So You Think You Can Dance), but this was a great experience for me. Seated in the front row, literally only a meter or two away from the dancers, seeing the sweat in their pores, and hearing their bodies touch and pound the floor, and one another, was fascinating.

Two things struck me about the event which made me reflect on our experiences as apprentice historians.

First up, I was amazed how similar the process of choreographing a dance was to writing a history. The artistic director, Rafael Bonachela, talked us through the creation of The Land of Yes and The Land of No. He began with an idea (signs, and our relationship to them). Working collaboratively with the composer (who wrote an original score), and with the set and costume designers, they gathered sources (images of signs, musical pieces, their own life experiences) which they arranged, interpreted and re-worked into the final piece. I don’t usually think of my history as art (more of a discipline), nor as particularly collaborative, but having seen Rafael speak, I find real parallels. Without passing too far down the postmodern path, it seems to me that as historians (certainly academic historians) a large part of what we do is inherently creative: creating new insights, new interpretations, new ways of imagining and exploring the pasts we study, or the sources through which we explore them. This will become relevant in a minute.

The second thing I observed was the dancers. They were young, attractive, intelligent and personable individuals. Yet here they were, part of the Sydney Dance Company, dancing for a living. These are people who have probably been dancing most of their lives. They push their bodies to the limits. They suffer injuries regularly. I bet, also, that they are terribly paid. Had they chosen sport, instead of dancing, they would probably be our elite athletes. They would probably all have add campaigns for Bonds, or some sort of male skin cosmetic product. But they are dancers, and they don’t. On top of this, these dancers probably have a very short shelf life. In only a few years they will be too old, their limbs not supple, their joints worn. A handful of them, if that, might go onto lucrative careers as choreographers. Some might eke out a living running a dance school. But many of them, I suspect, will, in five or ten years time, be back where they started, over qualified dancers, who have to start afresh in a new career. A lifetime’s work, not three or four or five years, has been wasted.

Olympic swimmers Stephanie Rice and Eamon Sullivan for Davenport Underwear.

Or has it? Because, the thing that struck me most about the dancers of the Sydney Dance Company, is that they love to dance. They really love it. And, somewhere along the line, they have all made the decision not to be a banker, or a lawyer, or a nurse, and to be a dancer, because they love dancing. Dancing is a vocation, in the true sense of the word.

And, if we put aside, for a second, the purported financial benefits of a PhD (there are none, anyway), we might imagine a history PhD as a vocational activity. I love history. Always have. At the same time, the career of an academic, these days, frankly sucks. Should we see life as an historian as a vocation? Should we see a PhD as an extra few years to do what we love, rather than suggesting it is a route to higher pay and better job prospects? The past is spattered with examples of great but troubled artists, composers, philosophers struggling with similar emotions to those experienced during the PhD process. Is the PhD journey, in which we try and find something new and original, an inherently creative process as well? Probably.

Are the only people who would choose the life of an artist, or a poet, or a historian, insane? I don’t know, but it is certainly worth reflecting upon. Larissa has done us a great service by bringing these issues into the open. I believe every historian, at some time in their lives, will experience self-doubt, anxiety, depressive thoughts, and so forth. I think it is normal, and understandable. But bigger problems develop when we begin to feel that it is only us, that we are the only person who has wasted half a day writing a blog, watching TV, or staring at a blank screen. It is not a disaster.

Larissa also gave a very useful hint. Schedule your existential crisis, and save your anxiety for then:

Image of a calendar with an existential crisis scheduled

Resources

The Black Dog Institute <http://www.blackdoginstitute.org.au>

Beyond Blue <http://www.beyondblue.org.au/index.aspx?>

Phinished <http://www.phinished.org/>

Notes

[1] I want to acknowledge the large number of friends and colleagues who have discussed similar topics with me over the years. You know who you are.

[2] Black Dog < http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_dog&gt; (Accessed 8th September 2011); Harold H. Bloomfield, The Achilles Syndrome: Transforming Your Weaknesses into Strengths (Random House:1985).

[3] Cited in Life of a Psychology PhD student. 20th March, 2006.

[4] “Why Higher Education is Like a Ponzi Scheme,” Public Radio International, 19th August 2010 <http://www.pri.org/stories/business/higher-education-is-like-a-ponzi-scheme2128.html> (Accessed 22nd August 2010).

[5] Thomas H. Benton, “The Big Lie About the ‘Life of the Mind,'” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 8th February 2010, <http://chronicle.com/article/The-Big-Lie-About-the-Life-of/63937/> (Accessed 14th March 2010).

[6] Lucas Laursen, “No, You’re Not an Impostor,” Science, 15th February 2008, <http://sciencecareers.sciencemag.org/career_development/previous_issues/articles/2008_02_15/caredit_a0800025> (Accessed 12th February 2011).

[7] Benedict Carey, ” Feel Like a Fraud? At Times, Maybe You Should,” The New York Times, 5th February 2008, <http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/05/health/05mind.html> (Accessed 8th September 2011).

[8] Thomas H. Benton, “Just Dont Go, Part 2,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 13th March 2009, <http://chronicle.com/article/Just-Dont-Go-Part-2/44786/> (Accessed 13th March 2010).

[9] Hannah Forsyth. “St Paul’s Talk: The Phd in Humanities.” Paper presented at the PhD Symposium, St. Paul’s College, Sydney University, 8th August 2011 <http://usyd.academia.edu/HannahForsyth/Talks/51150/The_Humanities_PhD>.

[10] Thomas H. Benton, 2009, “Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don’t Go, Chronicle of Higher Education, 30th January 2009, <http://chronicle.com/article/Graduate-School-in-the/44846> (Accessed 5th August, 2011).

[11] Thomas H. Benton, “Graduate School in The Humanities: Just Don’t Go,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 30th January 2009, < http://chronicle.com/article/Graduate-School-in-the/44846> (Accessed 13th March 2010); Dave Earl, “The Humanities PhD at Sydney,” Paper presented at the PhD Symposium, St. Paul’s College, Sydney University, 8th August 2011 < https://davegearl.wordpress.com/2011/08/12/the-humanities-phd-at-sydney/>.

[12] Hannah Forsyth, ” Why Unis Shouldn’t Play The Economics Card,” NewMatilda.com, 18th May 2010 < http://newmatilda.com/2010/05/18/why-unis-shouldnt-play-economics-card&gt; (Accessed 18th May 2010); Raimond Gaita, “Loving truth is not enough as philosophy fights its corner,” The Australian, 17th August 2011, <http://www.theaustralian.com.au/higher-education/opinion/loving-truth-is-not-enough-as-philosophy-fights-its-corner/story-e6frgcko-1226116212500> (Accessed 17th August 2011).

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Andrew permalink
    September 9, 2011 15:02

    Thanks, Dave. Lots of thoughts here that resonate with my experiences. I have come to history research via other fields altogether so often feel the imposter stuff because of this lack of background but, like you, I love history. I did have fun in my ethics application, when asked if I might profit from one day writing a book on my research, explicitly estimating the costs of doing the research and pointing out there was buckley’s chance of breaking even let alone profiting.

    On the subject of dance/performance and doing history I have enjoyed recently reading Greg Dening more in depth who writes about history as performance. He used to run workshops for a variety of post-grads using the concept of ‘performing’ research rather than ‘doing’ a thesis. One article written in memory of Dening was by a student (Katerina Teaiwa) at one of these workshops who did dance and has since danced to express her research (see “Remembering Greg Dening” in The Contemporary Pacific 21(2) p311-314.

  2. September 9, 2011 17:53

    Great blog post Dave! I agree this is an all-too-little-acknowledged subject.
    I attempted a PhD for 6 months a few years ago and in that short time came the closest I’ve ever come to “depression”. I felt completely inadequate, overwhelmed and utterly paralysed by “blank page syndrome” – despite positive feedback from my supervisor and a history of high self-motivation and achievement.
    I was/am very passionate about history, but I think the structure of a PhD (as you’ve described it in your post) aggravated some of my psychological quirks – anxiety and perfectionism, for example – that don’t trouble me too much ordinarily. I also struggled with what I perceived to be the lack of social utility in my endeavour (how is a PhD on mid-twentieth century Australian cultural history going to help anyone?)
    I defied the advice of my supervisors, the graduate coordinator and fellow PhD students and dropped out after only 6 months, and it was the best decision I’ve ever made. Now I work in government on social policy and I’m happy and satisfied in my work – I have challenging and interesting work that really makes a difference to people’s lives; I work to external deadlines; I don’t berate myself every day that I’m not working hard enough or focusing on the wrong things; my work doesn’t haunt me overnight. Why can’t doing a PhD/working in academia be like this? Maybe it’s that most of us are ultimately competing for a very small number of academic jobs, which places a lot of pressure on us to be excellent; maybe there needs to be an option in the humanities for PhDs structured more like (some?) science PhDs – a series of papers on a similar topic – which gives students more structure, milestones etc. I don’t know. What I do know is that, for me, doing a PhD totally sucked.
    I also saw a counsellor at the uni to try to work through the problems I was having before I dropped out, and I must say she was totally hopeless, even though this must be the kind of thing they see ALL THE TIME. I reckon unis need to lift their game in terms of the support they provide for graduate students.
    Anyway, hats off to all of you who’ve perservered! I am full of admiration for you.

    • Larissa Aldridge permalink
      September 15, 2011 10:56

      Mischa, I’ve often thought about leaving academia – both while I was working on my PhD, and still frequently now that I’ve finished. The only reason I’ve persevered is that I am passionate about my subject area and about teaching at uni. For various reasons, I do see my work as a vocation or calling rather than a job, and so I feel compelled to keep trying. I’m extremely fortunate to have a very supportive husband with a good job so we don’t have to worry too much about the financial disincentives of academia.

      Dave – thanks for the great post!

  3. M-H permalink
    September 10, 2011 16:44

    I have been doing lot of thinking about this lately. I really don’t feel that stress, although I certainly have the passion. For me it’s just a thing I have to to do get through to get the qual I’ve always wanted and knew that I could do. I don’t have the pressure of finding a job at the end of it, and that’s lucky, I know. And I am really loving the process, even though I am doing it a=art-time and working full-time and that’s really really hard.

    There is one thing: There are a lot of articles coming out of the US about the uselessness of the PhD, and Dave has cited some of them in the blog post. But there’s nothing new there: when I went looking I discovered that the Chronicle has been publishing these regularly for at least ten years. They all seem to be predicated on the idea that everyone who does a PhD is intending to get a job in academia. They aren’t, and they don’t have to. There are many many jobs outside academia that people with PhDs can do, and they don’t necessarily pay less or have less status in the community. Plus, a lot of people graduating with a PhD in Australia already have a career outside academia which they intend to return to – in the US people are much more likely to be younger. And, don’t forget that the US PhD is likely to routinely take eight or ore years – much more of an investment than we make; see (this report for more details)

    Finally, here’s some food for thought. Published yesterday, it’s about ‘troubles talk’ among PhD students in Australia.

    • Jayne permalink
      April 27, 2012 11:46

      M-H I can’t access your last link?

  4. Nino Aditomo permalink
    September 22, 2011 07:53

    Hi there, thanks for the post. I can certainly relate to some of what you wrote (I’m doing a PhD in education).

    On the question of whether depressive/anxious people are somehow attracted to the PhD, or whether the PhD is a cause of depressive symptoms, I think both are true. More precisely, the PhD attracts the academically talented – a group who are likely to be highly perfectionists.

    Now combine perfectionism (the setting of increasingly higher standards, the need to excel beyond one’s peers) and the PhD situation (being surrounded by a lot of intelligent people who also have high standards, the threat of failure, the gloomy prospect of landing a tenured position) –> its not too surprising that you get depressive symptoms.

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