Depression and the PhD

Are PhD students depressed or do depressed people tend to study for PhDs? The issue came up in a roundtable discussion on what we needed to be fully present in the classroom. Four out of the thirty graduate students mentioned anxiety or depression.

Praise to the first person that revealed his anxiety. His words had a domino effect. It gave the rest of us permission to talk about our own struggles with mental health. Depression has no respect for appearance. It gnawed away at the manly forty-something guy with the patrician face. It nibbled the petite woman with a voice like a bear.

They did mention mental health services at the PhD orientation. At the time I paid little attention to it, as it was just another speaker among the many. I was already overwhelmed, feeling like I was in over my head.

Generally, about ten per cent of the population suffers from depression. So us graduate students were just slightly just above the average. But this is based on the ones who spoke up. My feeling was that the rate was probably a bit higher.

The rates of depression vary by gender, age and ethnicity. Twice as many women suffer from depression compared to men. The rate is higher among people of colour compared to whites.

Depression seems to follow the general rule in society – the closer you are to the top of power pyramid, the better your health, including mental health.

Treating depression is relatively easy. Lots of talk therapy usually does the trick. Sometimes it has to be combined with medication. The illness might be easy to manage, but the hard part is getting to the help.

Access to mental health services is also stratified. The lower you are on the totem pole the less likely you are to receive help. Black men are the least likely to seek or receive any kind of help for mental health issues.

I could see, and feel the many triggers for depression among PhD students. First, is the loneliness. The work that is fascinating to me is tedious to most people. It’s easy to lose friends and family and get buried in theorizing. Isolation is never good for the soul. Even the hermits took a break from their religious-imposed loneliness. Either that or they went mad or died.

Then there is the money. A full scholarship does not cover all the expenses of living in a big city. The first term I bought all the books for my courses. I treated myself each day to a fresh mug of tea. I did not repeat that mistake. Books were read at the library, tea was made from home. Economise became my new mantra.

Trying to figure out the unwritten rules of academia can lead to depression. There is the competition among students, and competition among academics. Navigating one’s way through the politics, without exploding any mines, is stressful.

Next is the self-doubt. Original thinking is hard work. It is tough to be enthusiastic when my bright idea seems so dull compared to the vast literature on the topic. There is no guarantee that I will produce anything significant at the end of four or more years of thinking. That is a depressing thought.

The depression rate does tend to be higher among graduate students. The best way of avoiding it is self-care. It is doing all the stuff that our mothers nagged us to do: eat well, go to bed early, go out with friends. And the best advice for me is get outdoors. A hike, a bike ride a canoe trip all bring me back to nature. She refreshes and sustains me.

50 Places: A Black History Travel Guide of London

Meet the New Minorities in PhD Programmes – It’s Men

Thank goodness I am doing a PhD at mid-life. I don’t have to worry about trying to find a husband among the fellow graduates. As it is, I am having a hard time trying to find the men in the seminars. They are outnumbered, almost five to one, by women.

This was surprising to me as I had expected the reverse. I guess a lot has changed since the days of my first degree, where women were the minority in most subjects. From the latest Statistics Canada report the majority of graduates are now female, from the first all the way up to the third degrees. We have left the men behind. They are struggling, trying to dust themselves off as they face the new competition – the one dressed in heels and pink lipstick.

Female graduates dominate the traditional feminine fields of health and education – so that explains why there are so men in my education department. The number of female science graduates is increasing faster than the men are able to hold the line. Engineering is the last area where men are a clear majority, outnumbering women three to one. But even here women are making slow but steady gains.

Back in the day, way back when I was doing my first degree, my friend and I stood out in the faculties. There were about 120 male undergraduates in her department. She was one of only three women studying physics. And she was the only Black person there as well. I had better odds, as there was another Black woman finishing a chemistry degree. And there was a Jamaican guy doing his PhD in the department. They did their best to mentor me.

Why are women doing so much better in universities today?  A century ago, we were not allowed to even enter the buildings. Our brains were supposed to be so feeble that an abstract idea could permanently ruin them. Women were first allowed to enter university in Canada in 1877. In Britain it was 1878 and in the USA it was 1831.

So what has changed? Over the century, have women gotten smarter and men dumber? That can’t be right as evolution does not move that fast – usually.

It seems to be a combination of reasons. Women are better at learning: we know how to sit still, listen to the teacher and we do the homework. All of this leads to higher grades and therefore a better chance of getting into university.

The job market has shifted from brawn to brains, increasing careers options for the educated, and decreasing it for those who are not. This means women have an incentive to stay in school and profit from the knowledge-driven economy.

The third reason is sex. Women can have the fun without the risk of getting knocked up thanks to the contraceptive pill. As they can control their fertility and have fewer children, it leaves more time to get an education and pursue a career.

We will need an equity programme for the next generation of PhD students; to ensure that the men, the new weaker sex, will have a chance to sit at the academic table.

50 Places: A Black History Travel Guide of London

Spot the Black PhDs in the Class

‘Thank God I am not the only one.’ That was my first thought when I entered the seminars in my PhD programme. In both classes people of colour were the majority. It was not what I was expecting.

Ages ago, and it was not in the time of the dinosaurs, when I did my first degree I was the only Black person in my class. I was not the only person of colour, or ethnic minority as we said in Britain, I recollect that there was a South Asian student there as well. We were the second generation of post-World War II immigrants in the mother country, so it was not surprising.

And I was studying for a degree in chemistry, an ultra-nerdish choice for a working-class Black girl from a small-town.

About a decade later, I came to Canada and did my master’s degree. Things were supposed to be different here. In Toronto, I had met a lot of middle-class Black professionals who did not think it was odd that I had a degree. They did not accuse me of being a sell-out or ‘acting White’. Yet, as I entered the classroom I groaned. Different country, different decade and I was still the only Black person in the class.

Fast forward another two decades. I was shocked when I saw so many faces of different hues in my PhD seminars. And half of them were Black Canadians, not foreign students. I wondered if it was due to being in the education department, and the narrow speciality of social justice education. Then I remembered that Toronto is one of the most multi-cultural cities in the world, where half of the population are people of colour.  Still, it was surprising to see so many of us in an elite setting.

How many Black PhDs are there in Canada? I don’t know.

In Canada we pride ourselves on being a multicultural country. We welcome diversity. Therefore, race-based statistics are rarely collected. It’s a nice way of avoiding discussions on racism. We don’t measure it, therefore it doesn’t exist.

Things are more transparent in the USA. Some seven per cent of African Americans have a PhD, from the US National Centre for Education Statistics, 2012. The number is increasing each year, but needs to double to reflect their 13 per cent share of the population.

Women outnumber male PhD graduates across all racial groups. What was striking was the huge gap in the Black community: some 65% of African American PhD graduates are women. This is amazing news. But why are the Black men falling so far behind?

Heartbeats in Africa: A Memoir of Travel and Love

Teaching at the Swingers’ Convention

“I can make some extra money teaching at the swingers’ convention and that will pay for the side trips,” said my graduate classmate.

“Swingers’ convention? Who goes to those?” I said.

“Swingers.”

“What do they do there?”

“Swing.”

“But. Okay. So. I am liberal but maybe not as open-minded as I thought. Conventions are for business, not for… Really? Are you kidding me? What are you going to teach them?”

“Sexuality workshops. In other words how to stick fingers up butts for sexual pleasure. White Republicans love that kind of stuff, never mind what they say in public. There are the swingers’ cruises and weekend get-aways. If I can teach at a few of those I will be set for the summer. I did a 45-day road trip last year from Toronto to Florida and L.A. All of it was paid for by doing swingers’ seminars.”

“I want to go backpacking in Central America. I thought that was adventurous but the swingers’ convention is something else.”

“As a sex health and sexuality teacher you get to see all kinds of interesting stuff. The academic conferences are one thing, the fun and the money are in the swingers workshops.”

Heartbeats in Africa: A Memoir of Travel and Love

Choices: Marriage or Academia?

Like mosquito bites the professor’s words stung. The more she talked the more the bites itched. I willed myself to continue listening, ignoring the angry rash spreading in my spirit.

The professor introduced herself in class by summarising her accomplishments and climb up the academic ladder. Her achievements were many. Then she added a few personal details. She was married, this I expected. She had two children, this I did not expect. It was the first mosquito bite.

I did my first degree in England, switching from chemistry to international relations. As expected, there were no female professors in the science faculty. There was only one in my social science department. Three years of school and only one woman to show the possibilities of an academic career. At that point I decided it was not for me.

I did not want to end up at aged thirty, single, childless and old, facing a group of adolescents dissecting me with their pitying looks. Scanning my fingers for a ring, ears pricked for any hint of a life outside of lectures, books and exams.

Male professors aged thirty were fanciable, even in their corduroy pants, sensible shoes and jackets with elbow patches. A whiff of Old Spice enhanced their appeal. Female professors were a different a different chemical combination, smelling more like hydrogen sulphide than Chanel No. 5.

A decade later I did my master’s degree in Canada. Half of the professors were women (White). Hiding behind the gender parity was another reality. Most of the female professors were either single, divorced or childless. The male professors were the ones who were married with children. Once again, I decided that academia was not for me. Female professors were lonely old maids – albeit superbly educated lonely old maids.

And now, some two decades later, in my PhD class orientation, was a woman living the life that I had walked away from. She was my age. She was an academic. She was married with children. It should have been me. The mosquito bites blistered in my spirit.

Heartbeats in Africa: A Memoir or Travel and Love

Joining the One Per Cent Club. Is It Worth It?

‘Be humble. Be open to new ways of learning. Be ready to unlearn some things.’ A professor repeated this mantra many times during the first few weeks of seminars. He reminded us that we were now the elites in the education system.

Behind his words I heard a challenge: would we behave like all other elites, and think that we got here just by sheer hard work, and are therefore entitled to all the benefits of being on top of the pyramid? Or would we remember how things are now stacked in our favour?

I have never belonged to an elite club. But I do belong to a point one per cent club – the illusive group of Black people who enjoy outdoor activities. Go ahead and roll your eyes, chuckle in disbelief. I am used to that reaction.

Thanks to starting the PhD, I have now joined an elite one per cent club. This is proportion of people who hold the advance degree in most countries. Some 25 per cent of Canadians are university graduates according to Statistics Canada 2013 National Graduate Survey. This is such a middle-class norm that it long ago ceased to have any meaning for me. Middle-class kids go to university, it is simple as that. Of course, it is a whole different game for working-class children, but that is another story. I had no idea that with a PhD I am now among the privileged of the privileged.

In Canada there are about 210,000 PhDs and about 4,000 joining the exclusive club each year.  According to Statistics Canada, we need to produce double the number of PhDs to keep up with the USA and the rest of the developed countries.

The modern PhD started in Germany in the 1850s. The programme was so successful that it spread first to the rest of Europe, Canada and the USA, and then around the world. Is the PhD worth it?

Before applying for the PhD I interviewed six professors – I wanted to make sure that my idea was not full of lead. Most of them told me that my chance of getting an academic job at the end of it were about as good as turning ice into diamonds. Both are sparkly and shiny, but only one is a girl’s best friend.

It takes about ten years of study to get a PhD. From the Statistics Canada report a lot of PhD graduates will ride off into the sunset – of temporary, low-paying, part-time jobs, as academics for hire.  Few of us will make it to be professors with benefits, high salaries, and each year a fresh crop of underlings to sing our praises (at least in front our faces).

The figures are sobering. A person with a bachelor’s degree earn a median income of $53,000. For a master’s it is $70,000. And for a doctorate, wait for it, it is a whopping $75,000. Four extra years in school for a fistful of extra dollars. A PhD is pretty much a waste of time financially, especially for those not working in academia.

So why am I doing it? Well, I don’t have the skills of a nurse, teacher or construction worker. They all earn more than a PhD after considerably less years in school.

I am not doing the PhD for bragging rights either. Okay, a little bit for that. I am doing it because I like to learn. It is a chance for me to research something that interests me. And I hope at the end of it that I will shift from the one per cent to the thirty per cent club – that is the number of PhD graduates who actually become academics.

Heartbeats in Africa: A Memoir of Travel and Love

Ugly Buildings Kills Ideas

It is big, squat and ugly. I am talking about the building that shelters my academic department. It is twelve floors of Brutalist architecture that is more like a fortress than a place for producing knowledge. The concrete and brick entrance is as pretty and inviting as a dungeon.

Entering the building does not put me in the mood to study – I am more tempted to turn right around and go back home. I will get to know this building well as I have four years of a PhD ahead of me. The lecturers, the seminars and meetings will all take place in this drab colossus.

Zaha Hadid where are you when we need architecture that is memorable and a feast for the eyes? I love the fluid curves of your Heydar Aliyev Centre and the Guangzhou Opera House. Oh, I just remembered – you are dead.

I quickly pass through the ground floor of the building, busy with students lining up to buy tea in the café, or chatting in loud groups on the fake leather black sofas. The students look so young. Many more people mill around the bank of elevators waiting for them to arrive. There are eight elevators, but they never seems enough for the fidgeting crowds.

Most days I head for the lounge on the twelfth floor.  What a difference a view makes. The lounge has glass walls on three sides and is flooded with natural light. Looking outside I get a bird’s eye view of Toronto. What strikes me is how green the city is – trees line the grid pattern of streets in every direction.

Psychology studies show that a natural view is not just pretty, it calms the mind and encourages focus. Living walls are the latest trend in office architecture – a wall of real plants changes the energy in a space for the better. The lounge has the next best thing – a view of the thousands of trees in the city.

Half of the lounge has high desks, with hard chairs arranged in strict rows. They are filled with students glued to their laptop screens, most with headphones on. Their message is clear – serious people are at work, do not disturb. I wonder how many are watching porn as they work.

The straight line furniture is too modern, too industrial and too cold for my taste. Psychology backs this up too – straight edges are less appealing. Straight lines in a windowless room are deadly for the soul; therefore, I refuse to get a student office. I had a meeting in one of these rooms; it had as much personality as a prison cell.

The seats at the opposite end of the lounge encourage lounging. The furniture is full of curves and arranged in semi-circles. The seats are soft and covered in fabric. The walls, carpets and furniture are all in shades of blue, grey and cream. These colours are relaxing and trigger creativity.

Plopping down, I look out the window and watch the clouds skipping in the sky, playing hide and seek with the sun. The CN Tower shimmers in the distance. Behind it Lake Ontario fades from cobalt blue to grey as it meets the horizon. Over the next two hours I constantly glance at the view. It encourages me to study.

When I am comfortable at home – a cup of tea handy, a treat of fresh dates on plate and jazz on the radio – and don’t want to go into that ugly university fortress, I remember the view from the twelfth floor window. Its open expanse of sky, trees and horizon, is enough to get me to go there.

Sailing on a Half Moon