We Need to Improve PhD Students’ Mental Wellbeing
86% of PhD students experience marked levels of anxiety during their PhD years.
- Postgraduate Research Experience Survey PRES
After graduation, I immediately started working for a big corporate. We were challenged daily to boost our productivity and to lure us away from the work mentality we had while studying at university. Sometimes I heard colleagues and friends around me talking about people they know who decided to do a PhD. I thought: “They are so lucky… They just extended their studying years and can still enjoy the student life.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Surveys surface a significant amount of PhD students worrying about their mental health.
People say that there is no higher intellectual pursuit than a PhD. It enables people to live the life of the mind. You can contribute to this planet by sharing your thoughts, ideas, and creativity in an academic domain. You will gain middle-class comfort while you pursue a meaningful knowledge-driven life. However, this utopia has evolved into an illusional state. Life as a PhD student is tough. You have to hustle far beyond 40 hours a week for a below-average income. This all with the knowledge that the amount of academic vacancies is far lower the number of PhDs graduating. The PhD life is not as easy as people think it is. It is an ongoing, stress-imbued hustle without much certainty for the future.
An Elsevier paper by Levecque et al. (2017), states that:
- One in two PhD students experiences psychological distress; one in three is at risk of a common psychiatric disorder.
- The prevalence of mental health problems is higher in PhD students than in the highly educated general population, highly educated employees, and higher education students.
- Work and organizational context are significant predictors of PhD students’ mental health.
PhD students are facing a lot of challenges impeding them from living a balanced academic life. What are some of these challenges?
We are all humans and we all experience our ups and downs. We all run into adversity once in a while. Personal challenges are inherent to living. Nevertheless, there are several personal challenges that are significantly more present for PhD students. Given the nature of research work, feelings of loneliness and isolation are omnipresent among this community in particular. You are solely responsible for the research you are conducting. Given the in-depthness of the research work you’re doing, it is hard to share this with friends, family, or even colleagues.
Related to the isolation challenge, PhD students are often dealing with a lack of personal support. Friends, partners, and family members may have difficulty to understand the worth of a PhD, and hence may not be as supportive as they would be otherwise. The most frustrating question PhD students often get is: “When will you be finished with your PhD and when will you start working?”. This condescending and stress-invoking question raises the hairs on the back of PhD students’ necks.
Because of the fact that PhDs’ personal and professional lives are that interwoven, it can be difficult for them to sustain a healthy work-life balance. This is an eternal struggle for everyone, but the PhD work context intensifies this challenge.
There is not a single organization where somebody will fit in seamlessly from day one. It will always require some time to adapt to new standards and processes. And an organization is not a constant. Once you have adapted to an organization, its characteristics will change again, compelling you to recalibrate. The same counts for the organizational life of PhD students. However, there’s one aspect that makes their organizational life a huge challenge and that is their dependency on their supervisor.
Their supervisors are often boss, mentor, friend and colleague in one. This odd combination can be difficult to balance out well and can result in significant conflicts. Because PhDs are very dependent on their supervisor, you see unhealthy relationships take shape. The PhD student tends to take a submissive role as they are afraid of damaging the relationship and putting the PhD process in jeopardy. Over the years, the student-supervisor relationship is supposed to turn into a partnership between equals. The contrary is often true.
Another common problem that often emerges over the years that a PhD student turns into a candidate and eventually into a graduate, is the lack of institutional support that they get. As mentioned earlier, obtaining a PhD is a long, bumpy, and often unfamiliar road. Some support and mentorship could boost productivity significantly but often, this is inadequate and far from in congruence with the student’s expectations. Graduate schools often require a high level of independence. However, PhD students are often frustrated by how little resources they have access to. They are fully aware that they could reach higher levels of performance with the right support.
Obtaining a PhD is a great investment in a physical asset that you will keep for the rest of your life; your mind. Though, obtaining a PhD is far from free. It requires significant financial investment and most of those who embark on one don’t have deep pockets. Hence, they have to rely on external funding to support themselves while studying.
But there’s no such thing as a free dinner, so these funds are granted under certain conditions. These conditions often burden PhD students with excessive stress. For example, a loan, taken out to finance the PhD, could lead to worries about how it will be paid back in the future.
Besides, once the funds are granted, there is no guarantee they won’t be withdrawn. It has been known that funding can be reduced in the middle of the PhD. This is a precarious position to be left in, uncertain about whether they can get new funding or whether they have to stop their research project prematurely.
Obtaining a PhD is hard work and not financially rewarding at all. German research showed that 40% of PhD students only have 2–3 years of financial support, even though the average PhD project lasted 3–5 years.
PhD students invest heavily time-wise, financially, and in terms of stress incurred, so there must be a great future ahead for them, right? You would think so… but the contrary is true. Many PhD students are in a constant state of worry about the uncertain job market. In this academic age we are living in, the available academic jobs are becoming intensely competitive. There is simply no guarantee that obtaining a PhD will lead to a desirable job nor the life they’ve always dreamed of.
Where is the mental health support for PhD students/candidates?
If you read the above challenges PhD students struggle with, you must believe that there is a wide range of mental health support to keep them on track, right? In the end, they are often the ones coming up with great innovations, boosting our world to the next level. There must be a great support program at any university to back the academics our society relies upon so much. No, there isn’t. It is even quite difficult to find these support organizations within faculties and universities.
Mental health among PhD students isn’t improving but only diminishing further.
How to let PhDs prosper again?
All the innovation and wellbeing we have in our lives is largely due to the group of academics that preceded the current PhD students. We rely so much on this group in our society. It is time to treat them accordingly. Firstly, we at Amplio are advocating for a radical change in the mental health support networks of faculties, companies, and universities to set PhD students up for success. Focussing on tapping into their potential through care and attentiveness instead of competition. This can be done among others through:
- Incorporating PhD mental support and giving them clear leadership
- Providing more financial and job security
- Educational support ensuring and adequate work-life balance
- Providing all the PhD students with a clear career plan
- Administrative support and resources, enabling them to focus on doing their best research work
These things would of course help greatly but they are often beyond the circle of influence and difficult to achieve overnight. PhDs have to work with what they have.
What can they do now, right now, to:
- Boost their wellbeing and life satisfaction while pursuing their research goal?
- Ensure the delivery of the best quality research and graduate while enjoying their academic life fully?
- Stop feeling lonely and let the environment share in the research journey they’ve embarked on?
- Manage the personal, organization and financial challenges inherent to the PhD process?
A good friend of Amplio’s, who is doing a PhD, shared with us:
Many PhD students have never or barely worked in corporate life, and may not have experienced a strict 9-to-5 routine with work-free weekends. Sometimes I feel that the idea of ‘work is just work’ is forgotten by me and others, but it’s something I felt more strongly in corporate life and it was a healthy stance.
The PhD life is wonderful. It is mentally, societally, and spiritually rewarding. But it is a challenge to balance it out well.
You do not have to reinvent the wheel. Coaches at Amplio have guided tons of PhD students in their academic journey. Want to know how that plays out for your particular situation? Let’s Chat!