As you might have noticed, we’re at the end of Mental Health Awareness Week. Talking to friends and colleagues, I’ve come to the conclusion that most academics either have experienced some mental health issues, or at least know someone who does. The more I dig into it, the more complex and sensitive the problem seems to me. I’d be an idiot if I tried to pass any judgements, but one thing I know is – we can no longer keep silent. The multitude of accounts of academics crumbling under unhealthy pressure speaks for itself. So, instead of stating the obvious about how stressful PhD is, I will give voice to others, who have already articularted it brilliantly.
This is by no means a complete reading list about mental health, more a selection based on what I recently found. Feel free to adapt it and pass it around, if you know someone with similar experiences.
1. Hard proof of the problem – numbers
Work organization and mental health problems in PhD students. Katia Levecque (Universiteit Gent) @ Research Policy
The facts are there, guys – one in two PhD students are negatively affected by stress, and one in three is at risk of a common psychiatric disorder (eg. anxiety or depression). That’s significantly more than in other highly educated groups.
Evidence for a mental health crisis in graduate education. Teresa M Evans et al. @ Nature Biotechnology
Another proof of high prevalence of anxiety and depression amond PhD students and a call to establish better support and counselling systems at universities.
A summary of these papers with some additional comments from the authors can also be found in this article from Times Higher Education.
‘One size does not fit all’ – inequalities in researcher development in Arts & Humanities. Marie-Alix Thouaille (University of East Anglia) @ Vitae
This report, broken-down into layman’s terms on the author’s blog, shows how much guilt is associated with ending up with a job outside of academia, which is incidentally most PhDs’ future. As a result, many graduates feel ‘cheated’ by the system that does not encourage preparing for the non-academic job market in advance.
As reported by Higher Education Statistics Agency, three times more students experiencing mental health problems dropped out of university in 2014-15 than five years before. Before you jump to conclusions, take a look how increased popularity of counselling might have influenced this statistic.
2. Some aspects of academic life that make it especially tough
Bullies have no place in academia – even if they’re star scientists . Anonymous @ The Guardian
An anonymous account of a PhD candidate regularly bullied by their supervisor. That, combined with the lack of institutional support, lead to the student’s mental health problems (which they also experienced before, but to a lesser extent).
Allison Harbin’s Post-PhD blog.
This is a harrowing story of a PhD student whose ideas have been stolen by somebody higher in the hierarchy – and when they spoke up, a whole spiral of horrible events ensued. The response she received suggests that this behaviour is prevalent in academia, what’s more – we subconsciously replicate such toxic patterns. I highly recommend you read her personal story.
Know your rights. Know what you are owed. I say this because you are powerful: you are the future of academia, and much like the millennials inheriting the mess of our parent’s generation, you are inheriting a mess.
Academia is built on exploitation. We must break this vicious circle. Anonymous Academic @ Guardian
A handful of examples how the ‘freedom of researchers’, valued by many universities, works in favour of professors, but not students.
They called my university a PhD factory – now I understand why. Anonymous Academic @ Guardian
Another anonymous story, highlighting the enormous stress caused by job insecurity amongst postdocs.
PhDs are manufactured; they drop off the end of a conveyer belt, but no one cares what happens to graduates after that.
The Dark Side of Academia: Abuse, Power Games and Harassment. @ JobSearchJournal
A deeply moving account of what happens when your future lies entirely in the hands of one person, your supervisor. And that person turns out to be a bully. Luckily, in this particular case the university defended the victims, not te perpetrator.
A tenured professor sharing her story of inhumane workload and no boundaries between work and private life (both considered a part of the job, thus nothing to complain about) have driven her to physical exhaustion.
An explanation why passion is no longer enough when academic staff has to perform too many tasks at the same time and excel in all of them (eg. be both good teachers and researchers, which rarely happens), which leads to many unpaid working hours. And yet, they are told being academics is a privillege that they have to prove worthy of.
Starting with the discussion about the ‘if you love what you do then you never do a day’s work’ fallacy, the author moves on to discuss how academics who feel stressed or unhappy because of their workload are additionally being blamed for not loving the job enough or failing to solve their emotional problems themselves.
Glorifying workaholism might be one of the reason why academics experience burnout very quickly. The author makes a strong case for maintaining hobbies, especially those who fill regularly force you out of your office.
An interesting comment on how peer review, the pillar of ‘publish or perish’ system, might be ruining our mental health by adding even more uncertainity to our already precarious lives. Thanks, reviewer #2.
A brilliant post highlighting the different sources of stress PhD candidates have to face: in addition to work itself, they also deal with young adult problems (starting the family, moving to a new place where they don’t know anybody), financial difficulty, personality traits exacerbating mental health issues (sensitiveness, perfectionism).
A particularly horrifying excerpt:
our university actually sent out a letter saying graduate students shouldn’t start families and should have meatless spaghetti sauce because these are luxuries we shouldn’t expect as graduate students!!!
The author claims that more financial and psychological help should be provided to make the whole experience less of an emotional rollercoaster.
A summary of the sources of stress of early career researchers and exploitative employment conditions that they are subject to. There is a particularly interesting mention of the academic career perceived as “norm” and leaving as “failure”, while the following report is cited:
The Vitae report “What do Research Staff Do Next?” shows that postdocs who leave academic careers for other sectors or non-research careers within Higher Education are highly satisfied. While 78% aspired to academic careers while they were postdocs, only 11% would now go back; that statistic alone is incredibly telling.
Debunking of the most common misconceptions about PhD studies that add fuel to the already rampant fire that is impostor syndrome.
Among many other excellent point that this article makes, there is a mention (the only one I have found so far) about the additional burden that the international PhD students have to face (culture shock, administrative red tape, missing relatives and friends).
The article doesn’t specifically mention academia, but the diagnosis is pretty fitting. Some people are brilliant scientists but have absolutely no managerial skills and would not make good bosses, yet when they are promoted to group leader/professors, they effectively become managers. No wonder it doesn’t always work.
If all of the above reasons weren’t enough, there is a multitude of stories of sexual harassment in academia. It doesn’t help that it’s an extremely hierarchical field with few professors having too much power.
3. Advice on how to take care of yourself
This short piece makes one incredibly important point: there is no shame in looking for help. It does not mean you are crazy, a perception still very common in certain cultures.
The PhD slump, if not handled well, can easily lead to your motivation going into a downward spiral. Here are 10 tips how to dig yourself out of it.
James Hayton’s blog
A wonderful resource of all PhD students, with numerous helpful posts. Related to mental health, have a look at: PhD stress: don’t ignore the warning signs, I hate my PhD (three possible ways to proceed when you feel your PhD makes no sense) and his struggle with stress and depression.
This article gives examples of how the institutions should act in order to keep their employees (especially those on nontenure-track positions) happy and productive. No surprise, providing mental health support is one of them.
If you are looking for more tricks that will help you through the difficult periods of your academic career, have a look at PhD self-care tips by Lisa Jones @ In the Science World, and more advice from Lydia Chantler-Hicks @ FindAMasters.com.
4. Personal stories of academics with experiencing mental disorders
I have come across plenty of amazing, heart-breaking and motivational stories, this is just a fraction of them.
I really appreciate it that this post describes how easy it is to ignore warning signs and write them off as laziness or lack of motivation, and blaming yourself only increases the pressure. The author gives examples of the steps she took to get better, some really simple that you could start right away (journalling is one of them, highly recommended!).
Recovering from Graduate School: Rewriting the Trauma Narrative. Eric Anthony Grollman @ Write Where It Hurts
Although trauma is a strong word, the author explain why it is entirely justified to describe some PhD stories. On the other hand, they mention all the activities that decided to maintain even though they were not valued by their institution, but helped them develop personally. More on about their PhD experience can be read here.
This is a rather blunt explanation why doing a PhD might not make sense at all. Probably applies more to humanities than STEM, but everyone needs to realize that being a Doctor won’t magically increase your employability.
High-Functioning Depression and Anxiety and The PhD. Catherine Oakley @ Mind Your Head
This is an account of someone whose struggles with depression and anxiety started before PhD. However, as this story shows, pressures associated with grad school very often make the preexisting conditions much worse. She also highlights how difficult it is to seek support for fear of being perceived as weak or sorry for yourself.
Here is another story of a person whose depression was not a direct consequence of doing a PhD, but something that happened at the same time. She makes excellent points about opening up and not delaying looking for help until the last possible moment.
An important message here – yes, PhD is tough, but telling the newcomers that it’s going to break them is not doing anybody any service.
5. More links
The list above is by no means exhaustive. If you feel like reading more, Nature has recently published a number of stories on the topics I covered:
Nature’s collection of texts about mental health in Academia. Editorials, features, comments, blogs and links to support organizations.
Special issue: How to grow a healthy lab, analysing ways in which we can make our labs happier and more productive. I especially recommend the study on how groups leaders and members perceive their working environment differently, as well as advice how to improve your research group.
PS. Kudos for the staff of London’s Oval station for supporting Mental Health Awareness Week as well!