The evidence is mounting that working on a PhD leads to mental health problems: here is some of that evidence.

Its seems that every week I come across an article about how unhealthy pursuing a PhD can be. I’m not talking about how “sitting is the new smoking” – that would be a problem for academics as well. Instead, I’m referring to the mounting evidence that PhD work leads to mental health problems for startling numbers of students – much higher than other segments of society.   After seeing enough of these articles I thought it was time to assemble a few of these resources into one spot for others to access.   Let me put this in arresting terms for those who may not make it past the first paragraph. Based on the statistics below, it seems that in your institution something like 1 in 4, if not 1 in 3 students is struggling with a mental health issue or is on the verge of something like it. You should also assume that they are hiding it.

Too much too soon? Let’s start again on a positive note. Our society is as sensitive as ever to mental health issues and so it seems that some are taking action on this problem already. This is good news. Earlier this year, 2019, Nature magazine included an announcement that the first international conference on mental health and wellbeing of postgraduate researchers was taking place in Brighton, UK. See “Being a PhD student shouldn’t be bad for your health.”  It may take years however for concern and action to translate into institutional change. Institutions embody cultures – and cultures by nature resist change. Still, it is good to see people take action.  Now that we’ve gotten the good news out of the way, what exactly is the problem with PhD students world over such that an international conference is called for? It seems that the culture, demands, outlook, nature, prospects, administration—insert other nouns here—surrounding PhD work is breaking an alarming number of students.  Maybe these students are just not cut out for this sort of work? Maybe they are weak? I think there is more to the story than an oversimplified generalization.

Don’t believe me?  Let’s start with a story. After all, facts teach, but stories “reach.”  Most of the articles below tackle this crisis in terms of factoids. However, Bob Henderson has written a moving autobiographical account of his unsuccessful attempts at becoming a theoretical physicist. Every student has a story – but Bob has managed to translate his experience into a narrative that others can feel and follow. This piece is begging to be put into an anthology. Read it and multiply Bob (as a representative) by tens of thousands for each of the students statistically represented in the articles below.  If you don’t have time to read anything else in this list make time for Bob’s story:  “What does any of this have to do with physics?” Students working outside of theoretical physics will find plenty in common with his experiences. I certainly did.

For the Twitter crowd, the  eleven words of this blog title do the job:  “I don’t think there is anything darker than doing a PhD.” The web is full of individual stories of the darkness, like this one here.

A 2016 article from the Economist covers some of the drop-out stats on PhD programs, explains how the interests of students and institutions are misaligned, repeats the the well known paucity of jobs, and suggests that the earning potential for many PhD’s is barely better than that of students who grab a quick MA degree. See, “Why doing a PhD is often a waste of time.” While this article has nothing to say directly about mental health, it sketches some of the landscape that PhD students become aware of during their work; a landscape that contributes to their struggles.

More to the point, this article in the Atlantic in 2016 paints a picture of the dire job prospects for PhD’s. See : “The ever tightening job market for PhD’s.” Here are four charts from the Atlantic article that capture some of the discouraging landscape that students look out at… even as they put all of their eggs into a single basked labeled “PhD.” 

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In addition to the dire reports from the external world surrounding graduate students, there is the internal phenomenon of “imposter syndrome.” First identified in the 1970’s, it plagues academics, be they beginners or veterans. Five professors share their fears here.  It affects those in privileged social positions, and effects even more so those from minority groups.  In my own life it feels like deep guilt for receiving funding for a PhD program that someone else “deserves more and would do more more with were they given what I was given.”

The causes of mental illness seem to be varied. For example, those working in the humanities face loneliness and isolation whereas those working in the hard sciences face other challenges. See here: “Studying for a humanities degree can make you feel cut off from humanity.”  There is the additional problem in many research institutions where graduate students and postdocs seem to be a source of cheap labor for institutions. See: “Are PhD’s just cheap labor for universities?” If the causes of mental health are varied then the solutions will need to be varied.

Aetiologies aside, we are talking about PhD students here. This calls for research.  Here are five sources.

Research  from Belgium: Woven throughout most of the recent postings is a regular citation of one particular study coming out of Belgium. All the blog posts cite it. Researchers in Belgium found that one in two PhD students experienced some sort of psychological distress and one in three was at risk of a common psychiatric disorder. This research may become “that” piece of research that started the avalanche of work in a particular field by activating widespread latent suspicion. See: “Work organization and mental health problems in PhD students.” 

Research from the U.S. A 2015 study from Berkeley – the Graduate Student Happiness & Well-Being Report. The report states the alarming finding that, “About 47% of PhD students and 37% of Master’s and Professional students score as depressed. Students in the Arts & Humanities fare poorly on several indicators and 64% score as depressed.” The reports also offers predictors of wellbeing – such as the amount of sleep students were getting, how included they felt in the department, their living conditions and how they perceived their future career prospects.

Research from NatureBiotechnology. This Inside Higher Ed article from 2018 summarizes a study in NatureBiotechnology. It echos the finding of other research that there is a correlation between mental health problems and students struggling with a work-home-life balance. The research also suggests that dangers for mental health problems affect students working in fields beyond the hard sciences: “The survey’s 2,279 respondents were mostly Ph.D. candidates (90 percent), representing 26 countries and 234 institutions. Some 56 percent study humanities or social sciences, while 38 percent study the biological and physical sciences. Two percent are engineering students and 4 percent are enrolled in other fields.” This research cites, among other things, relationships between students and their supervisors as a key to the problem. (Here is a graphic taken from the Inside Higher Ed article, which in turn appears to be taken from the original study). Note the clarifications below the charts: 

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Research from Harvard: here is a 2018 study of economics PhD students from Harvard. Here is the abstract: “We study the mental health of graduate students at Economics PhD programs in the U.S. Using clinically validated surveys, we find that 18% of graduate students experience moderate or severe symptoms of depression and anxiety – more than three times the population average – and 11% report suicidal ideation in a two-week period. The average PhD student reports greater feelings of loneliness than does the average retired American. Only 26% of Economics students report feeling that their work is useful always or most of the time, compared with 70% of Economics faculty and 63% of the working age population. Depression and symptoms of anxiety increase with time in the program: 25% of students in years 5+ of their programs experience moderate or severe symptoms of depression or anxiety compared with 14.5% of rst-year students. Many students with signicant symptoms of mental distress are not in treatment. We provide recommendations for students and faculty on ways to improve student work conditions, productivity, and mental health.” 

Here is Scientific American discussing the above research and other findings: “The Emotional Toll of Graduate School.” Every article, blog post, and comment adds to the picture.

Research out of Germany. This recent blog posting that reviews some of the above research also includes similar research of PhD students in Germany. The end of the article suggests changes that should/could occur at the administrative level to begin allaying some of these problems. See: “Addressing the mental health crisis among doctoral researchers.”

This 2017 posting from the American Association for the Advancement of the Sciences , likewise cites the Belgium study (and others). The posting cites an interesting line from the Belgium study – The greatest predictor for experiencing mental health challenges was having difficulty taking care of family needs due to conflicting work commitments. It also notes some of the things that supervisors might look out for and frames this as an ethical issue for institutions. Citing a spike in Twitter conversation on the issue, this article includes a comment from one conversation partner – “[I]t is a public secret that fear of stigma, retaliation or the expected negative impact on one’s future career often inhibits people suffering from mental health issues to make it public,” they write. This lack of visibility is problematic because feeling isolated can cause students’ mental health to deteriorate even further. It also means that there is less pressure on institutions and people in power to tackle the issue.” The speaker, wisely calls for action rather than demonization of academia. See “PhD students face significant mental health challenges.

The lists of links above should be enough to paint an initial picture of what is afoot. The articles and blog posts are legion. I tend to believe that realty is more complex than we take it to be and thus so  are solutions that will alleviate the problem. Note that I said the problems are complex not merely complicated – we are dealing with systems, cultures, and communities of agents here – not just layers in a network stack or parts of a battleship. Following the breadcrumbs will, I suspect, lead to social and institutional vices we don’t want to change—as students or institutions. That prospect calls for a separate blog post – a post I may not be qualified to write. Any sociologists in the house?

Dire predictions aside, let me leave off where I began. If you know PhD students, you know people struggling with mental health and hiding it. If you know  someone interested in going in getting a PhD (i.e. translate that as “interested in teaching at the college level”) there is a high probability that you know someone who will struggle with mental health in their future. One immediate thing that can be done is to scan some of the above articles for simpler concrete changes that can be made in the shortrun before systemic issues such —like economics and academic culture—can be addressed in the long run.



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