PhDs riddled with more stress than students can handle says study

A survey of 6,300 graduates from around the globe found that nearly four in ten of them suffer from mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. This was the fifth and latest such survey, whose results appeared this week in the journal Nature.

Image Credit: Ms.Lotus Bua / Shutterstock
Image Credit: Ms.Lotus Bua / Shutterstock

A study couple of years back published in the same journal also revealed that students pursuing their PhD courses were overwhelmed with the pressures of the work. In this study as well, there was a survey of 5,700 graduates which revealed that 29 percent of the students had mental health issues and suffered from stress related anxiety and depression. The stress was found to be related to their study course.

These studies were preceded by a new and large study involving around 50,000 graduate students in the United Kingdom. This survey was carried out by the Advance HE organization that provides higher-education management training based in York. This report revealed that 86 percent of the students carrying out PhD programmes suffer from higher levels of anxiety. This resulted in a medical conference this year in May that focussed on mental health problems of researchers early in their student lives.

This new survey in UK revealed that one in five of the PhD scholars were bulled, harassed or faced discrimination of some form at their work place. One in four reported that they received support for their problems from the institution itself while one in three had to resort to external support, found the survey.

Experts have found that one of the main triggers that cause mental health problems among researchers was an overwhelming pressure to succeed. Success among these candidates was measured by citations, publications, contribution and presentations at conferences, funding for their projects etc. The students also worried about the long term impact or meaning of their research work for the populations, for the environment or for their nation’s economy. Searching for jobs and fitting in proved to be another uphill task for many given the competition.

The paper suggests that most students pursue a higher academic course in order to research and experiment in their area of interest. They enter into the course with ideas of autonomy and freedom. The course if often guided by several factors such as funding, guides, ethics, university rules and guidelines, evaluation and assessment systems etc. These lead to frustrations and often give rise to mental health problems. Difficulty in communicating with the guides and supervisors is a commonly reported problem and this gives rise to vulnerability and mental health issues.

The researchers called for more mental health support programmes and facilities within the campus of the institutions. Recognition and appreciation of the problems faced by students and identifying them early could help save lives and improve later productivity say researchers.

This latest survey was created by Shift Learning – a market-research company based in London. The participants were offered the questions in five languages – Chinese, English, French, Portuguese and Spanish. This ensured that more students were able to participate. Results were 36 percent from Europe, 28 percent, 27 percent and 9 percent from Asia, North/Central America and others (Africa, South America and Australasia) respectively.

Some of the comments from the PhD scholars that came up from the newest survey include words like “cut-throat competition”, “failure”, “make science more humane”, “PhD with passion is a one-time experience”, “more pay” etc. Open ended questions have helped students reveal their problems. However not all students were negative about their PhD experiences. In fact the new survey shows that 71 percent of the participants were satisfied with their study course with 36 percent were dissatisfied and had mental health issues.

Major worries among the participants varied across the globe. Funding was a major concern among African researchers while work-life balance worried European researchers. Debts were a major concern for Asian researchers (31 percent) followed by researchers in North and Central America (29 percent) and Europe (21 percent). Discrimination and harassment was mostly reported by researchers in North America (24 percent) followed by those in Australasia (18 percent). The researchers called for more work to identify and tacke regional problems among the scholars.

Lead author of the study Sara Oswalt, an education and human-development researcher at the University of Texas at San Antonio said explaining the rising numbers, “It could be that more people are aware of anxiety and depression. Admitting that you’re struggling doesn’t carry the stigma that it did 20 years ago.” The survey like those before it recommended policy makers to take note and have support systems in place for these students. The team says that the long term problems associated with these mental health issues and stress could be serious.

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Written by

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Dr. Ananya Mandal is a doctor by profession, lecturer by vocation and a medical writer by passion. She specialized in Clinical Pharmacology after her bachelor's (MBBS). For her, health communication is not just writing complicated reviews for professionals but making medical knowledge understandable and available to the general public as well.


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