Reflecting on Achilles and the Black Dog
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.” 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.”
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.
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. And then, if we struggle, we are often told: “maybe you’re just not cut out for Academia.”Who wouldn’t feel regret, anxiety, and hopelessness in these circumstances?
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.
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.
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. 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. Benton argues that
the minority of… [graduates] who get tenure-track positions might as well be considered the winners of a lottery.
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. 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?
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.
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:
The Black Dog Institute <http://www.blackdoginstitute.org.au>
Beyond Blue <http://www.beyondblue.org.au/index.aspx?>
 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.
 “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).
 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).
 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).
 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).
 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).
 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>.
 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).
 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/>.
 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> (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).