THE Scholarly Web

Weekly transmissions from the blogosphere

January 12, 2012

"From November to March is prime time for academic burn-out in graduate programs - I'm convinced of that," says Melonie Fullick, a PhD candidate at York University, Toronto in a posting on her Speculative Diction blog.

One might put this down to the general drooping of spirits during the winter months - something that may hit particularly hard in the dark and icy Canadian winters.

However, Ms Fullick believes there is more to it than this.

"Clinical depression, extreme anxiety and other mental-health issues are becoming more common in graduate programs as well as in undergraduate education," she writes.

But if she is right, what - if anything - is being done about it?

Ms Fullick used social media platforms to examine the question, asking others on Twitter to share their thoughts on depression in academia. She received numerous responses. "The culture of academia induces depression. Constant instability, overwork, for what?" said one; "I definitely struggled. Steep learning curve, isolation, doubt, debt...the list goes on," said another, while a third added that "in my own unscientific anecdotal survey, a large percentage of PhD students are taking anti-depress meds".

Reflecting on these comments, Ms Fullick argues that mental-health issues can never be attributed solely to the "individual's propensities and 'weaknesses'".

Rather, she believes that doctoral students are in particular danger because they suddenly find themselves under great stress, both as a result of a change of pace and a change of environment that can leave the less confident feeling like charlatans.

"Students face a more intense workload than in their under-graduate degrees," she writes, "and they may for the first time be around students with as much academic aptitude as themselves. These factors can contribute to 'impostor syndrome', the sense that one is about to be 'found out' for not being smart enough."

The switch to a truly autonomous way of working is also often a new challenge, as are "the lack of structure, and unclear boundaries about responsibilities".

Ms Fullick adds: "This is compounded by the lengthy isolation from peers that often occurs in the later stages of research."

Today's doctoral candidates also have to cope with the general economic gloom and the impact it is having on their career prospects. This has been exacerbated by a growing disparity between the number of PhDs being awarded and the number of academic posts available, alongside a misguided belief that those who go on to seek careers in other fields have in some way "failed".

"While only a relatively small proportion of PhD graduates obtain permanent faculty positions...there is still a deeply held assumption that students can or should strive to engage in research-oriented academic careers. The definition of success tends to be rather narrow, making it easier to feel like a 'failure'," she explains.

Finally, Ms Fullick complains that a "thickly oppressive silence" surrounds the issues set out. "We still don't have much information on why students leave PhD programs...I wonder how many simply leave due to mental health and related issues brought on or exacerbated by the psychological minefield of the PhD process - and how much of this is preventable," she muses.

Send links to topical, insightful and quirky online comment by and about academics to john.elmes@tsleducation.com.

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