Four in 10 UK PhD students ‘at high risk of suicide’, says study

Loneliness and intellectual insecurity highlighted as prime reasons for elevated suicide risk among doctoral researchers

October 14, 2021
Four in 10 PhD students  ‘at high risk of suicide’
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As many as four in 10 UK PhD students may be at “high risk” of suicide, according to a study that underlines the chronic levels of stress among doctoral candidates.

The first ever study to ask British doctoral students directly about suicidality, which quizzed some 1,263 respondents on whether they had ever considered taking their own life, comes amid growing concerns over the plight of the UK’s 110,000 postgraduate researchers, with Covid lockdowns having disrupted research and the job market for early career scholars.

Next month, UK Research and Innovation will announce a “new deal” for postgraduate research students, including plans to review the employment status, stipend levels and funding periods of PhDs, while English universities have been awarded an extra £30 million this year to support doctoral researchers hit by Covid-related delays.


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According to the latest study by researchers from the universities of Sussex and Westminster, published in the journal Counselling and Psychotherapy Research, 40 per cent of participants met the criteria under the commonly used Suicide Behaviours Questionnaire for being at “high risk of suicide”.

One in five respondents admitted they had a plan to kill themselves, while a further 8 per cent had actually tried to kill themselves at some point, the study says.

About one in nine PhD students (11 per cent) told academics they had “very often” – more than five times – thought about suicide over the past year and another 5.6 per cent said they had considered it “often” (three to four times).

Loneliness, anxiety about securing a career in academia and the fear of failing intellectually led many PhD students to think about killing themselves, the study explains.

“I truly believe that a PhD degree can kill you,” said one respondent, who argued that the “main reason for feeling suicidal and that you want to give up is the fact that you’re doing your best to prove you are very smart and capable and you end up being put down and criticised very harshly”.

“Sometimes I imagine committing suicide to ‘punish’ my supervisor and the postdoc who have made my life miserable,” said one respondent, while another stated: “I thought if I killed myself nobody would ever find out if I would fail my PhD or not.”

“I feel like if I can’t succeed academically then my life is fundamentally worthless,” another respondent said.

One of the study’s authors, Cassie Hazell, a lecturer in clinical psychology at Westminster, described the quotes as “heartbreaking”.

The higher risk rate of suicide among PhD students – which was significantly above the rate for graduates and non-graduates of similar ages – was particularly concerning as they often lacked the support offered to undergraduates or university employees, Dr Hazell told Times Higher Education.

“They often fall between two groups because they are, technically, students but they don’t have lectures or seminars, and they might be working as staff but aren’t covered by HR processes in the same way as other employees,” she said.

Many PhD candidates feared opening up about their problems to supervisors or peers because they were anxious that this might be held against them in the future when they were looking for academic jobs.

“There is a real pressure to be perfect, which isn’t helped by the fact we don’t talk about how messy and frustrating doing research can be,” said Dr Hazell, who added there was an “urgent need for universities to acknowledge the presence of suicide risk among doctoral researchers” and take action to mitigate it. “This is a really serious issue and potentially a life-and-death situation,” she said.

The study is likely to highlight the level of pastoral care available to PhD candidates, with a survey by the UK Council for Graduate Education of nearly 3,500 doctoral supervisors published last week finding that barely half (56 per cent) felt adequately supported by their university regarding their doctoral students’ mental health needs.

Nearly two-thirds of supervisors (62 per cent) said the pandemic had increased their workload while 71 per cent reported that supervision was more demanding than five years ago, with the number of PhDs often cited as a key challenge.

“This increased volume and complexity of supervision means that some supervisors are feeling the strain,” said Karen Clegg, head of research excellence training at the University of York, who led the survey’s steering group.

“There is a duty of care on institutions to ensure that doctoral candidates and supervisors who guide them have sufficient support but the data suggests that this is, at best, patchy and, in many places, non-existent.”

Dr Clegg said that institutions should limit the number of PhD candidates that each supervisor takes on. She also encouraged funders to build training and time for cohort building into their doctoral training partnership models so that both PhD candidates and supervisors had access to mentoring and coaching programmes.

A global survey of more than 6,000 PhD students conducted by Nature in 2019 found that 36 per cent of respondents had sought help for anxiety or depression.

More than a fifth said that they had experienced bullying, with supervisors the most likely to be identified as perpetrators.

Dr Clegg said that, alongside greater support for supervisors, it was important to consider whether some talented students were suited to doctoral life before they embarked on their research.

“Collectively, institutions and funders might also look at recruitment processes and explore, at interview stage, not just the intellectual capability and motivation of candidates but also the resilience of candidates to undertake doctoral study,” she said.

jack.grove@timeshighereducation.com


If you're having suicidal thoughts or feel you need to talk to someone, a free helpline is available round the clock in the UK on 116123 or you can email jo@samaritans.org. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international suicide helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.

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Reader's comments (2)

The respondent who said that their “main reason for feeling suicidal and that you want to give up is the fact that you’re doing your best to prove you are very smart and capable and you end up being put down and criticised very harshly” is spot on. I'm a late-diagnosed autistic and even a supervision could trigger a bit of a melt-down. I was advised to withdraw on health grounds as my supervisors didn't think I could handle a hostile viva. It's a shame, but I have to put my health first - fortunately I have my academic post on the basis of professional qualifications, the PhD was for me... still very sad to have had to give up, though.
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My former employer, a northern, small university, positively pushed staff to the edge of mental health problems by pursing a 'must have PhD', policy for full time staff. This was an attempt to push out older staff who had higher quals, but significantly, also had professional qualifications and experience deemed inadequate compared to a PhD. The PhD was weaponised and attempting to complete it whilst still holding a full time teaching commitment certainly caused me a stress burnout.

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