Coping with PTSD in a PhD Program

Yim Register (they/them)
9 min readFeb 9, 2020


A chart that shows behavior over time after a traumatic event. Permanent setback from the trauma is “Surviving”, reaching back to where you were before the trauma is “Resilience”, and doing better than you ever were is “Thriving”

I began trauma recovery therapy in the same year that I started my PhD program. It felt like I was finally far enough away from home, finally in a period of time where I’d be in the same place for long enough, and finally “knew what I was doing” (or at least didn’t have to plan for a new job any time soon). Those are all really good reasons to begin a recovery plan. I’m not alone in saying that; several PhD students I know expressed some of the same reasons for waiting until the start of the PhD to delve deep into their traumatic histories. I actually think trauma recovery is the same as any big life event; there’s never a “right” time, but some times are better than others. I actually think that the PhD can be forgiving, flexible, stable, and supportive under the right circumstances. As we learn coping mechanisms for dealing with our own emotional regulation, self-worth, and sense of self… we actually learn how to do anything in life a little bit better. Personally, my trauma recovery journey has derailed my PhD in more ways than one. But that doesn’t mean I’m not on the road to thriving.

Academia can be a breeding ground for insecurity. Fight back!

In my experience, a lot of academics grew up gifted. We were curious about the world, maybe strikingly analytical or innovative. We liked asking questions, bothering everyone around us with “Why?”. Many of us have actually found great freedom and hope in having an entire career to ask questions. But we often trade some of that freedom to hop as fast as we can onto the academic escalator life. There is a track laid out for us. Do well in school, do research, do enough to get recommendations, start a PhD program, get published, make a name for yourself, get a job, get tenure. For those of us living with complex PTSD, structure is often a welcomed change in our chaotic lives. Until we cannot meet the demands of such a rigid pathway.

“Make Peace with the Mirror, and Watch Your Reflection Change”, a sketch of a person with long hair and a detailed sweater ho

Suddenly, it seems like everyone around us is better on every dimension. Because as we fall away to the whims of very disordered nervous systems, others seem to pull ahead. And hardly anyone around us will be willing to admit how unhappy they are; how worried they are of failure; how cruel they are to themselves at night; how sick they’re getting as they ignore their bodies (like I did with my chronic pain for years), how many tears they’ve shed over the latest project. While we cry in therapy and find ourselves, others seem to dig their heels in to the image of success. We start an archaeological dig on our totally imperfect selves; we start making peace with our insecurities and realizing how messed up we have been; and the academic world around us keeps churning out awards and mentions and publications and praise. Academia does not seem to have made peace with being fallible.

So I fight back.

Tell your colleagues you see them trying their best to answer emails better or be on time more. Tell your friends they work too hard; that they don’t need to measure their worth by their productivity. Tell your peers how much you love therapy; that it’s changing your life. That you are more than your CV. Notice when people are kind to themselves; join in. Notice when people make assumptions about what is failure and what is success; ask if they’re happy. Ask what it feels like when they look up at the sky. Change the narrative. And every single day, fight back against the capitalist notion that you are your labor. No, you are your human experience.

There is nothing more important than finding your worth.

As you recover from any kind of trauma, you begin to re-evaluate what your “bare minimums” are. I grew up as an echo of a narcissist, and my adolescence was fraught with rape and terror. My undiagnosed autism complicated things, because my nervous system was already off-the-charts. And to top off this beautiful magic human experience, I’m trans non-binary; feeling like a boy in a female body but also rejecting experienced gender as we know it.

For my life thus far, my bare minimums were to try to survive. To scrape for any amount of love anyone would give me, and to do anything to get anyone to find value in me.

Most of the world is infinitely better than those bare minimums. People are kind, and funny, and professional, and accommodating. At least to me, most people have been like a 5-star vacation from my adolescence. And that’s where trauma recovery comes in. My bare minimums for how I will be treated have skyrocketed. I don’t care if someone isn’t being outright cruel; if they are hurting someone that I love (myself), then I will walk away. If they can’t treat me as well as I can treat myself, then I will walk away. If they are misguided, hurtful, insecure, afraid, rude, apathetic… then I wish the absolute best to them for their own compassionate recovery. And I will walk away.

Your growth will lead to amazing places.

Trauma recovery does derail typical progress. I thought I could do it all; do research during the day and process at night. I thought I could keep up with my cohort and use my recovery to fuel my progress. Part of that worked out. I used a Top Scholar stipend to skip out on TAing for my first quarter. I managed to get the NSF GRFP. I started building ideas around my vision for the world; an empowered public that could self-advocate against harmful machine learning models. I scored a sweet internship with RStudio, and worked with lots of undergraduate students in the courses I TAed for, trying to remind them that they are a person before they are a student. But I was recently told that “it must be hard to see everyone else around you succeeding while you’re not” with regards to publications. I was told that with my current pace, I wouldn’t be a good candidate for an academic position (in my second year, mind you). There is some truth to both of these statements. I slowed down a lot because I was focused on learning to fall in love with myself. I deemed that growth to be more important than my research. And it is. After I let the words sink in, I cried the entire way home. And without years of therapy I would have gone on believing them. But it turns out, it’s not worth it to cry over other people’s versions of success. It’s not worth it to agonize over someone else’s judgement of your future. Because I am the only one in this life who holds the key to my own healing, and I’ve been doing a great job.

a sketch of a human head with lots of tangled up arrows inside

“Because I am the only one in this life who holds the key to my own healing, and I’ve been doing a great job.”

As a direct result of my trauma recovery work, I chose a research path that inspires me. When I talk about it, I feel passionate and hopeful. There is nothing more “me” than an empowered self. As I started to learn about disability self-advocacy and my own autism, I realized that there was a way to combine my deep love of machine learning and speaking up for your needs. I believe in a future where stakeholders of machine learning models can advocate for themselves when the models go wrong. When our world is driven by AI systems, we deserve an empowered voice to help guide one another and the systems we rely on. As programmers, designers, policymakers, and teachers we often forget that we do not hold all of the knowledge. In fact, the people on the ground have more knowledge than we might have for any given domain. I choose to trust in society and democracy to share its voice in a machine-learned world. And so my research is about equipping people with tools to understand the algorithms around them.

Trauma is like a giant hairball. So is research.

a tangled scribble with an arrow pointing one way out

Consider the space of things that make up your identity and behavior. It’s massive, right? Consider every datapoint you’ve ever been taught as part of a vast hypothesis space of how you’ll act in the future. Now imagine that most of those datapoints were out to harm you. Traumatized individuals have identities based on survival. We have identities based on faulty logic, fear responses, compromises, and insecurity. When you tug on one string, it interacts with every other survival behavior you have built up. You can keep pulling and pulling and there are bigger and bigger chunks of pain you didn’t even know existed. They’re tangled up like hair in a drain, and if you yank it hard you’ll just rip it all apart and break something. If you sit patiently and detangle piece by piece, you’ll waste a lot of time on stuff that’s going to get thrown out anyways. Sound familiar? Researching any new space is kind of similar. So as a PhD student going through trauma recovery, you’re doing full-time parallel research projects. Don’t let anyone ever tell you that the academic one is more important.

The scholarship on trauma is amazing and inspiring.

Wanna learn how to write a good research paper or book that helps people, inspires people, and reports on cool evidence? Read some of the trauma literature. That’s right, it’s science baby! There is so much to read on psychology, attachment, consent, abuse, love, childhood, evidence-based treatments, cognitive science, neuroscience, sociology, public health, and more. Maybe your field of research has nothing to do with trauma recovery literature, and maybe you don’t want it to because you need to keep them separate. But you’ll absorb a lot from reading this literature in terms of how to write a paper that makes sense; how to get your point across; how to do good science that helps people; how to do bad science that hurts people. Some books me and my pals have come across:

The Body Keeps the Score — Bessel Van Der Kolk MD

Trauma and Recovery — Judith Herman MD

EMDR — Francine Shapiro PhD

The Gifts of Imperfection — Brene Brown PhD

The Polyvagal Theory — Deb Dana

Attached — Dr. Amir Levine MD and Rachel S.F. Heller MA

Remember Who You Are

“If you made a list of people that you trusted would you put your name down?
Do you know who you are? When you look at life, and you talk about yours, do you feel proud?” — NF (rapper)

You are here to have a human experience. You are here to overcome generational trauma. You are a gift to the world each and every morning that you decide to do better than yesterday. You are a sparkle in humanity every time you choose to love yourself. You are here to check in on others and yourself; to make sure you’re all taking time to look at the sky and marvel at how much we have. You are here to fight injustice against yourself and others. You are here to discover whimsy and playfulness and joy. You are here to nurture animals and the Earth and your body. You are here to find exactly who you always were. You are here to have a human experience. A PhD can be a lovely part of that journey, challenging you to be your best self. But you are in control. You decide your own healing. You decide that human experience. Good luck, my friends. Together, we can lift the world up.



Yim Register (they/them)

Attending PhD School. Radical optimist. Machine learning literacy for self-advocacy and algorithmic resistance