What is it about the PhD experience that exposes doctoral students to such high risks of mental health problems?
Many students cite a lack of structure in their working life as being a major issue, as the relatively tightly controlled timetables of bachelor’s and master’s programmes are replaced by the freedom to pursue a thesis.
For a lot of doctoral candidates, it can be a real struggle to achieve a healthy work-life balance: there is always one more question to be asked, another paper to read, or the next paragraph to finish. For students who have to hold down a part-time job to make ends meet, these worries can be combined with financial concerns.
In the early days of a PhD, it can be difficult to define what a thesis is about and, as research progresses, there is the constant risk of getting disappointing results, or being “trumped” by a rival scholar; all of these can lead students to question their place in academia.
There is also the issue of the student’s relationship with their supervisor, which is usually positive but can feel unsupportive or break down; and the realisation that, at the end of the PhD, it will be challenging to find a secure job in academia.
Combine all of this with the isolation that comes with an individual course of study, which may be shared by no one else in the world, and you have a potentially dangerous cocktail.
No one is suggesting that the level of challenge that PhD candidates are subjected to should be lowered: this is key if academic standards are to be maintained.
But it is clear that universities and the sector as a whole can do more to support doctoral students. Supervisors will always be the point of contact, and universities should consider providing their academics with training to help them to identify symptoms of concern.
More broadly, universities need clear policies about how they should go about supporting students who are struggling and cuts to counselling services must be reconsidered at a time when demand for PhDs is increasing.
There is also a role for PhD students themselves. As individuals, activities such as scheduling, goal-setting, and making the most of evenings and weekends can all help to achieve a healthy work-life balance. And as a peer group, PhD students have a responsibility to look out for each other – and to lend a helping hand when someone is struggling.