Mental health and PhD programs

Even without a pandemic-driven lockdown and absence of in-person social life, grad school involves a lot of psychological and mental health challenges. It’s extremely hard to work on a gigantic solo project for years on end and to structure your time with no day-to-day management or supervision. It’s also hard when most people in your life have at least a somewhat distorted sense of what a PhD involves. One well-meaning response which I find frustrating is when people assert extreme confidence in my abilities and probability of success when they have no information about how the program is actually going. Confidence without evidence is wearying rather than heartening for me.

Anyhow, I just came across a paper in Research Policy which looks into some of these dynamics:

Results based on 12 mental health symptoms (GHQ-12) showed that 32% of PhD students are at risk of having or developing a common psychiatric disorder, especially depression. This estimate was significantly higher than those obtained in the comparison groups. Organizational policies were significantly associated with the prevalence of mental health problems. Especially work-family interface, job demands and job control, the supervisor’s leadership style, team decision-making culture, and perception of a career outside academia are linked to mental health problems.

I’m having trouble finding it now, but I remember an earlier article about how PhD students are pretty much by definition those who experienced a lot of academic success earlier in their lives, in the much more structured conditions of undergraduate and perhaps master’s programs. Going from that to a situation where there are far fewer opportunities for incremental successes (working toward getting the whole dissertation done and defended), poor program completion rates, and an extremely challenging (it’s fair to say hopeless for most) academic job market definitely creates mental strain.

When people ask me now about the wisdom of starting a PhD, I give them two warnings. First, I tell them that it’s only worth doing if you enjoy being in school so much that you are willing to sacrifice considerable lifetime earnings and financial security in retirement, since almost all employers would prefer job experience to a PhD and the process of getting through one is expensive and debt-inducing. Second, I warn them that all PhD programs carry a risk that you will not finish because of factors that have nothing to do with your competence or determination. There is always a real chance that the time you have put in to it will amount to nothing in terms of credentials because factors outside your control force you to stop. Indeed, feeling powerless and not in control of your own fate is probably a central reason why PhDs are so stressful, why comparatively few people finish, and why the grad school environment encourages mental health problems.


6 thoughts on “Mental health and PhD programs”

  1. In my day, I’ve known too many students who were talented in many ways, and yet got stymied at the dissertation phase. For people who have succeeded at pretty much everything in life to that point, a Ph.D. seems like just another barrier to transcend. It’s not. Unless you are able to simultaneously love and critically dissect your subject matter, unless you thrive in an environment where people are looking forward to picking apart your most cherished ideas, you won’t finish.

  2. Thank you for this information which provides important insight into the psychological and mental health challenges of. PhD.

  3. That workload has downstream effects on the rest of your graduate life experience. You will almost always be tired. The graduate social scene is also very different (and almost entirely disconnected) from the undergraduate one: you all have demanding work-schedules, tight financial constraints, and the responsibilities of adult lives. That’s not to say it is bad; you can form really powerful friendships in conditions of shared suffering. I have very fond memories of hanging out with my colleagues at The Baxter. But that’s my point: graduate school is a condition of shared suffering, whereas undergraduate education is a condition of shared freedom.

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