This autumn about 100,000 students will embark on research towards a doctorate at a UK university. These new PhD students will expect to face many substantial intellectual challenges, for that is the nature of research. However, are they also prepared for the emotional hurdles that many students experience while pursuing their PhDs?
This question should not be ignored. Although some students complete their PhDs without any major emotional setbacks, several recent studies have shown that a significant proportion of PhD candidates encounter mental health issues, such as anxiety, depression and other serious conditions.
For example, a survey of PhD students in Belgium found that about one third reported high levels of mental distress, leading the authors to conclude that “a sizeable group of PhD students experience[s] psychological distress or is at risk of [either] having or developing a common psychiatric disorder”.
Likewise, a 2015 report from the University of Exeter indicated that about 40 per cent of the 165 PhD students who responded to a questionnaire considered that working towards their doctorates had adversely affected their physical and mental health.
But most students who experience such issues are very reluctant to acknowledge their feelings of distress and to talk about them, reflecting the stigma attached to mental illness.
This general reluctance is reinforced by the highly autonomous approach that PhD students usually adopt towards their research. As Isobelle Skakni has argued, pursuing a PhD is like climbing Everest or running a marathon. It is “a trial [that] requires self-sacriﬁce and is inevitably accompanied by some level of suffering”.
The PhD is therefore viewed as a test of character, an “initiatory trial” in which students have to justify their worth. Often, too, they feel that others – particularly their supervisor – are sitting in judgement and comparing them unfavourably with other students.
However, this stance of self-sufficiency can be damaging. It not only encourages feelings of isolation but also discourages those students in need of help from talking to others and seeking support.
Instead, students under duress are likely to become increasingly detached from their research projects. Seeing their research stall, they feel guilty and blame themselves for their apparent inadequacies.
This sense of personal failure only adds to feelings of depression. Unless they receive outside support and positive assistance they may turn inwards, enter a downward spiral and withdraw from their courses. This is doubtless the trajectory followed by many of the 20–50 per cent of students – depending on discipline, institution and country – who fail to complete their PhDs.
In the light of this evidence, those embarking on a doctorate should be better prepared to grapple with the emotional difficulties they are likely to encounter. The handbooks for postgraduate researchers that I have consulted fail to mention – let alone address – the stress, loneliness, anxiety and depression that many students encounter during the course of their research.
Likewise, orientation sessions for new PhD candidates rarely acknowledge that students may have to confront such issues. The orientation material for new postgraduates should include suitably framed advice on mental health issues and also information about the support facilities available.
These and other measures may help to refocus the self-sufficient PhD culture so that students can talk more easily about their mental health difficulties. Moreover, the university should promote a supportive environment whereby students can seek help and advice from their GPs or the university’s own services.
For a PhD student with mental health issues to be supported adequately will require input from not only the university’s mental health services but also other members of the university, especially supervisors.
Unfortunately supervisors are not generally knowledgeable about the university’s mental health services and they often lack the training and awareness about how to engage with students with mental health issues. Hence the recommendation in a recent report by the Vitae professional development support network that “Supervisors, and postgraduate tutors, should be trained, supported and recognised for their role in the identification and early intervention in wellbeing and mental health issues of their PGRs.” While this recommendation is to be welcomed, it presents universities with a major challenge and one that they have yet to embrace.
How well PhD students are supported emotionally depends also on the ethos of their department or research institute. For example, while a highly competitive environment may stimulate some students, others find this very stressful. Likewise, a student’s work-life balance can be severely affected in a research culture that encourages excessively long working hours. Established researchers have a responsibility not to undermine the mental health of their doctoral students.
Geoffrey Cantor is professor emeritus of the history of science at the University of Leeds. He works part time in London as a mental health mentor to university students.