PhD + Darkness: There’s A Light At The End Of The Tunnel

Let me be honest, there was no better feeling than the END. I remember during my defense when I clicked to my last slide, it was as if a weight the size of the world had lifted off my shoulders. But there was a time when I was sure I wouldn’t make it to that point. And trust me every past and current PhD student has felt the same thing at some point during their tenure. I won’t lie, that was the hardest thing I have ever did. Before graduate school I had never been more sad, frustrated, irritated, and angry in my life. It was the definition of an emotional roller coaster. During my first two years, I watched my normal, confident, happy self shrink to the size of a penny. Research was hard (& SLOW) and Imposter Syndrome had gotten the best of me. I was ready to quit. My parents didn’t understand because in their mind ” I didn’t raise you to be a quitter“, so I got little support from them. All of my friends were having their own issues, so they were also no help. And yes I prayed and talked to God but my emotions were still all over the place.

So what changed? I did. A mentor challenged me to think about “Who I Wanted To Be” and one thing was for sure at that point I was not who I wanted to be. I couldn’t change the situation aka I wasn’t quitting grad school, so the only thing I could change was my response to the obstacles and challenges I was facing. The first thing that had to go was my “perfectionist” attitude which made me very critical of myself and exacerbate every little mistake I made. The second thing was my horrible ability to only look at the glass half full which inhibited me to see any progress I had made or celebrate my successes. And lastly, my trait of comparing myself to others, because I was on my own unique journey. So how did I do this? I got a therapist and I strongly encourage every graduate student to seek some form of therapy. I also sought mentors to help me re-focus and align my professional and personal goals.

PhD and depression are usually two variables that aren’t linked or discussed in great detail during visit weekends or chats with prospective advisors or current students. According to a 2015 study by the University of California at Berkeley 47% of graduate students suffer from depression, which means if you’re a graduate student there’s ~50% chance you will develop some form of depression during your tenure. Graduate and professional school programs in general are full of ups and downs and the lows can be full of self-doubt, self-sabotage, and anxiety, which are only heightened for students of color who have obstacles that other students do not.

There is a light at the end of the tunnel. Earning your PhD is the ultimate confidence boost because if you can make it to the end there is nothing you can not conquer.

From Aeriel, With Love


  1. kreichl

    Thanks for posting about this, so many people struggle with this. It can exhibit itself is so many different ways. For me, it was sleep issues. I struggled with sleep throughout my entire graduate school tenure, but the few months before I defended my sleep issues were more severe. I thought my increase in sleep issues was because I was 6 months pregnant… but immediately after I defended, my sleep issues went away. At least until I had my baby.


  2. Kyle Johnson

    Thank you for posting this Ariel. Graduate school can become an all-encompassing, unforgiving endeavor. I think it is really important to increase awareness of the extent to which it can tests not only your academic ability, but also your character and sense of self. It’s almost a requirement to be both relentless and patient in the pursuit of your growth as an academic and as an individual. However, in doing so, it’s important to take care of your mental and physical health. For all the people struggling with a PhD program, stay strong and don’t be afraid to seek help: no one should journey alone.


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