During the final 18 months of my PhD programme, I became incredibly absorbed in my work. For months on end, I could be found toiling in the laboratory or writing in an office for 13–14 hours per day. Evenings and weekends that I once spent playing football, going to the gym or socializing were instead used to work on my experiments, read, write or analyse data. I became obsessed with my project. Every waking moment was spent furthering my studies. Every conversation I had revolved around my work. I had become the living embodiment of my PhD, and completely lost my sense of self. I had assumed a new identity: one that centred on my degree programme.
Identity crises are neither a new nor a unique phenomenon. Elite athletes, for example, are particularly susceptible to them1, and these events have severe psychological and performance-related effects. It’s easy to imagine why: the life of an athlete is the relentless pursuit of perfection in an extremely volatile -environment. That promotes extreme dedication, and a win-at-all-costs mentality.
Research suggests that athletes who identify entirely as athletes, as opposed to those who see being an athlete as only a facet of their personality, are at greater risk of mental-health damage when this identity is challenged, under threat1 or removed entirely. These individuals have effectively built an entire identity around one component of their being. And when this identity is challenged or becomes strained, the individual perceives the threat as an attack or criticism of their entire person, leaving them psychologically and emotionally fragile. This is most strikingly seen in elite athletes who are forced to retire; this process effectively strips them of the one identity they have associated with for many years2.
Elite sport and academia might seem like two completely distant worlds, but I think they are similar when it comes to their ability to trigger an identity crisis. Both are highly intensive, performance-driven, turbulent careers, with too many candidates trying to ‘make it’ compared with the number of places available.
My own identity had become entirely defined by my PhD work, and I had created a personality defined by just one aspect of my life. When this was under threat and challenged by poor results or failed experiments, I interpreted these outcomes as evidence that my entire identity was a failure or was insufficient. Consequently, my emotional and psychological outlook ebbed and flowed to the rhythm of my PhD. During the highs, I was extremely motivated, excited and passionate about life. But during the lows, I became irritable, aggressive and both physically and mentally drained. I was unstable and unhappy.
I graduated towards the end of 2018, and it has taken me a full year to truly discover, understand and reflect on what this identity crisis was, how it affected me and what mechanisms helped me to overcome it. Identifying and developing these coping strategies was crucial, and would have served me very well had I been advised of these tactics early in my studies. Here I describe three mechanisms that worked for me, in the hope that they might benefit those who are currently in, or who might encounter, a similar scenario.
Sport has always been a huge part of my life, but was something that I had lost during the intense periods of my PhD programme. Following the successful defence of my dissertation, I suddenly had a lot of spare time at weekends and evenings. So I decided to restart my outdoor exercise habits. I joined a local soccer team and a gym, and I began recreationally going rock climbing and playing tennis. Committing to exercise and competitive sport again has helped me to have another element of my life to focus on outside academia. It gives me a lot of perspective, and helps me to counterbalance the challenges I faced during my research career.
During the most intense periods of my PhD programme, I prioritized my work over everything else — including getting enough sleep. Your mind works in a much more efficient and productive manner if you are getting sufficient amounts of quality sleep. With this comes a better ability to interpret, process and deal with challenges at both the emotional and psychological level.
As researchers, we tend to be inquisitive and eager to learn. I realized that I if was to try to resolve my psychological state, then I needed to understand the issue. And so, I read. I read books about how to control the mind3,4 through to ones about the habits of highly successful chief executives5, businesses6 and past and present sporting greats7,8. They helped me to learn a little about how the mind works, and how I can better control my own.
As a result, I slowly began to feel more at ease with my thought processes, and began to understand more about who I was. Over time, I have slowly started to gain back an identity that I once lost to my PhD.
Maintaining your personal identity in a career that is highly volatile, stressful and intense is difficult, and your sense of self can so easily be lost. However, it is crucial to differentiate yourself from your work in order to maintain both your mental and physical health. It is important to understand that successes and failures in your research career do not and should not define who you are. You are a person long before you’re a PhD researcher.
Nature 578, 327-328 (2020)