Recognising and empathising with thesis depression

In my first blog I wrote about working with a student who was experiencing impostorhood. This is just one of the emotional experiences that can occur in candidature. Another often talked about, but not so well documented emotional experience of candidature, is thesis depression.

The two, I think, are closely related. Where impostorhood is a sense from the researcher that they are not worthy to receive the title and accolades of  doctorhood, thesis depression is a sense that the work, the contribution to knowledge, is not in fact worthwhile or that the amount of work to bring it to a worthwhile state is overwhelming.

In my own candidature I had not as such experienced thesis depression but I had read about it alluded to in a paper by Denicolo and Pope (1994). Thesis depression even warranted a solo spot in the cabaret I wrote alongside my dissertation, to talk about my own doctoral journey. Using the lyrics from Stephen Sondheim’s (1971) Follies song, ‘Losing my Mind’ I was able to convey to an audience the sense of being overwhelmed by the sheer dominance doing a doctoral degree places on your life

 The morning ends, I think about you (my thesis)

I talk to friends, I think about you (my thesis)

And do you know its like I’m losing my mind….

It was only some months later when I was experiencing a particular low in my work that my wife commented that I was experiencing thesis depression, based on her being one of the audience members from the same cabaret when I had talked/sang about this particular candidature phenomena.

Subsequently when I had my own students I was alert to firstly recognising what I believed were symptoms of thesis depression and talking about thesis depression in our conversations. Sometimes just knowing that you are not the only person to suffer this debilitating emotion is consoling. Knowing too, like some moments of depression, that this may go away of its own volition as the passion for your dissertation topic returns, can also be a helpful reminder.

In an earlier life I had lectured in Interpersonal Communication and some of the skills which I had taught at that time proved to be quite useful skills for this aspect of the research supervisor-student relationship.

Reflective Listening (Nelson-Jones, 1986, p. 168), is a way of listening to another person so that you reflect what you have heard them say, as distinct from a usual conversation in which you take your turn, often to talk about yourself. Although it sometimes sounds an odd turn of phrase, in practice, as many of my undergraduate students learned, the person who has been speaking often barely recognises what you have said as your reflective listening and carries on with telling you more about what they are feeling. A common reflective listening phrase in the context of a discussion with your research student about them feeling a little down about their research would be ‘It sounds like you feel a bit down about your research’. Yes, when put this way in print it does seem like you are stating the obvious, and in that obviousness the other person is hearing permission from you that they have been heard and that you are ready to hear more! It is one of the most powerful forms of dialogue I believe I have ever come across and has a wide reputation in interpersonal communication courses for a whole range of issues.

Reframing (Egan, 1975, p. 173) is a slightly more challenging form of response, for in reframing, as the term suggests, you are trying to put a different spin or frame on their mood. You may even be trying to help them see a positive side to what they are seeing as a negative. A great example is when someone is facing problems with the ways in which their data is emerging and particularly that it is not as easy as they once thought to analyse. A reframing approach would be to acknowledge that this problematic way with data is actually the common thing that happens with doing research and that what they are developing is a graduate research capability of problem solving. The dilemma between using a reflective listening response and attempting to reframe a situation is that your student might want to be heard first as being depressed before you try to brighten them up with a positive spin, so it might be wise to spend some time empathizing with their depression before you head into reframing.

A third tool, which often has its greatest value in resolving conflict within a relationship, but is also helpful in expressing your own emotions in this aspect of the research supervisor-student relationship, is  ‘I’ messages (Nelson-Jones, 1986, p. 62) which gets its name from the preference to begin the sentence with the word I; although that in many ways understates what is happening in this particular element of dialogue. An ‘I’ message is a way of speaking for yourself so that rather than saying to a student ‘you are depressed’ you can replace that with a recognition of your own concern for them in whatever emotion they are experiencing and suggest ‘I am concerned that this (the emotion) seems to be a real hurdle for you at the moment’

As with any communication tool, none of these can be taken as a quick fix jargon and need to be used along with genuine concern. They can enable the difficult emotional issue to be discussed, and in particular affirmed as being where the student is emotionally at that time and not necessarily resolved but at least acknowledged.

I hasten to add that I do not see the research supervisor as a counsellor. More so, I see that there are moments when some counselling skills can come in handy. In previous blogs I have also suggested that sometimes it is also a worthwhile strategy to encourage the student to seek professional counselling help from the people who are trained to do this as the bulk of their job

Denicolo, P. and Pope, M. (1994) The Postgraduate’s Journey – an interplay of roles. Quality in Postgraduate Education. O Zuber-Skerritt and Y Ryan (Eds)London, U.K: Kogan

Egan, G. (1975) The Skilled Helper: Model, Skills and methods for the Effective Helping.  Monterey, California, U.S.A. Brookes/Cole Publishing Company.

Nelson-Jones, R. (1986) Human Relationship Skills: Training and Self Help, Sydney Australia. Holt, Rinehart and Winston


About the (research) supervisor's friend

I work at a university helping university academics who are supervising research students. I am a research supervisor myself and also work as a research coach for people undertaking their research I was originally in a Management Faculty and when I completed my doctoral studies on 'doing a doctorate' I started working with research supervisors to help them improve their practice.
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