PhD study has minimal impact on mental well-being, study claims

Academic says glut of gloomy research on postgraduate welfare could have unhelpful impact

January 24, 2021
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Doctoral students do not suffer significantly worse levels of mental well-being after starting their PhDs, according to a study that challenges the growing consensus about the “mental health crisis” in postgraduate education.

Although the longitudinal study of almost 6,000 students in New Zealand found that those who began a PhD had lower mental well-being than graduates who went straight into work, they experienced only an “extremely small” decline in happiness levels compared with three years earlier.

The study, published on the PysArXiv preprint platform, says that the unhappiness levels reported by PhD students are “smaller than one might expect based on previous empirical research”, concluding that “poor mental health is not an inevitable consequence of graduate study”.

The results diverge from recent international studies that have sounded the alarm about apparently high levels of anxiety, stress and psychiatric problems among postgraduates. According to a 2017 paper that tracked Belgian students, PhD candidates were 2.4 times more likely to develop mental health problems than degree holders in the general population, while a 2019 survey of more than 6,000 PhD students by Nature found 36 per cent had sought help for anxiety or depression.

In 2018, a study of mainly US-based doctoral students found they were six times more likely to suffer severe anxiety or depression than the general population, concluding that there was a “mental health crisis in graduate education”.

New Zealand’s doctoral education system could explain why the study’s findings are different to the bleaker results from the US, where doctoral studies often last much longer than elsewhere, the paper suggests.

However, Damian Scarf, one of the study’s co-authors and a lecturer in psychology at the University of Otago, said that it did not explain why analyses of European doctoral students reached such different conclusions.

“[PhD] programmes in the UK and Europe are similar to if not the same as those in New Zealand,” Dr Scarf told Times Higher Education, although he admitted that his country’s higher completion rates could account for some of the difference. “This could be important – not completing a PhD or having the PhD drag on would no doubt have a negative effect on mental health,” he said.

Another explanation is that the study used a survey tool – the Warwick-Edinburgh Mental Wellbeing Scale – which took a “more positive approach to assessing mental health” compared with other studies that used a “deficit lens” by measuring anxiety, depression and psychological distress, says the paper, described as the first longitudinal study of mental health in PhD students.

It also argues that the glut of gloomy studies on PhD welfare could itself contribute to the problem.

“Making it sound like mental health problems are ubiquitous among graduate students makes it sound normative, and this could have several downsides,” Dr Scarf told THE, adding that the “lack of balance in the discussion is unhelpful and maybe even harmful”.

“Viewing poor mental health during graduate study as normative will likely decrease help-seeking behaviour because students view it as an unavoidable product of graduate education,” continued Dr Scarf.

“If it sounds like poor mental health is unique to graduate study, it might make students feel more isolated, [particularly if they] think that their friends and family who are not in graduate study may not understand their feelings.”

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