Soft-minded or Suffering? The Wellbeing Taboo of PhD Students

‘It will all be worth it in the end’. If I had a pound for every time I have heard those nine words, then I could probably afford to ditch my near-completed PhD and buy a one-way ticket to somewhere with no email access. However well-intended and potentially true the above statement may be, it falls short of comforting a hyper-stressed PhD student in a moment (or series of never-ending moments) of despair. Don’t get me wrong, there are brief windows of academic sunlight, which myself and fellow PhD students soak up in earnest, like the blooming researchers we are; this can be something as simple as a praising email from supervisor(s) (AKA gold dust) or something a little less rare – publications (which actually opens up an entirely new can of worms; see my previous post about ‘Imposter Syndrome’).

When starting a PhD, it is common knowledge that you are expected to kiss goodbye to your free time and say hello to caffeine (if you weren’t already friends) and a handful of grey hairs. From my own experience, if you are not feeling stressed, overwhelmed and spending every moment thinking/eating/sleeping ‘PhD’, then you are not doing it right and you are doomed to fail. Granted, if you love what you do it does naturally become your life, but what happens if that isn’t the case for you? What happens if you are struggling to cope with the intense, fast-paced and pressured environment? And a bigger more fundamental question – how do you know when you are struggling? In a world where mental health is increasingly treated with the same respect as physical health problems, it is difficult to understand how the gaping devoid of recognition and acceptance in academia still exists1. Now I must emphasise, I do not want this post to come across as a rant, nor do I want it to paint a negative picture of doctoral life as there are many fantastic and rewarding parts of being a doctoral student; I would just like to highlight the unhealthy culture of workaholics and the expectation of putting individual wellbeing on the back-burner.

 

The numbers speak for themselves

Science-based PhD students ‘love what they do but suffer for it’ – this pretty much sums up the general consensus from a Nature survey of nearly 6,000 PhD students in 20172. The numbers tell a worrying tale; 55% of students are concerned about maintaining work-life balance during their PhD, nearly 50% decided to seek help for anxiety and/or depression and of those, 20% who tried to seek help did not feel supported by their university2. I fall within that 20%. From my own experience and shared experiences of fellow PhD students, university wellbeing services often fail to fully support concerns and lack follow-up which can be a detrimental knock to an individual, particularly if it took significant courage to seek guidance in the first place. Overall, existing wellbeing services are an essential component of any university, however are deemed ill-equipped to effectively help students with the emotional toll of PhD research2,3. Due to the expectation of stress within academic roles such as doctoral studies, concerns of anxiety and stress are often overlooked and attributed as being ‘normal’ for someone in such a position. Dismissing early signs of compromised wellbeing can lead to an altered mental health status; 32% of doctoral students are at significant risk of developing psychiatric disorders including depression when assessing early stage symptoms of poor mental health3.

I would just like to bring attention back to a word I mentioned earlier; ‘workaholic’. The actual definition for this word is ‘someone who compulsively works excessively hard and long hours’, however culturally you will be more familiar with the word being used to describe someone who ‘loves’ to work. I myself use this word frequently, mostly as a defensive tool towards friends and family when they question my non-existent weekends off, 18 hour working days and paper writing on Christmas Day. It is easier to say ‘oh I cant help myself, am a workaholic and just cannot pull myself away from my work because I love doing it so much’, as opposed to admitting that the work load is a little too big to chew and swallow in a normal 5-day 9-5 working week. Most of us start a PhD fully acknowledging that it is by no means a standard 9-5 job and we are mostly aware that we will undoubtedly work many (many) more hours than contracted.

Do as I say, not as I do?

It is reported that it takes a particular combination of personality and skill to complete a PhD and that doctoral studies are not for everyone, as is commonly stated by supervisors of current PhD students5. This ‘soft-minded’ concept, implying that individuals do not have the right mindset for PhD studies is both understandable and terrible. The thought of some supervisors classifying their struggling PhD students as ‘weak’ and dismissing wellbeing concerns because ‘back in my day we just got on with a PhD and dealt with it’ is not an easy pill to swallow. I would like to think that anyone is capable of pursuing a postgraduate career with adequate training, outlining of expectations and supervision/mentoring, and of course academic drive and passion for a research field. We all know that a supervisor can make or break a PhD student and for most, supervisors are role models to follow, in terms of research excellence as an academic and also as a person, referring to factors such as time management and workload pressures6. Successful academics are often themselves overworked, lack a healthy work-life balance and exhibit compromised wellbeing which can be interpreted as the ‘normal’ road to success and if you do not want to lead that life, then there is no place for you in academia3. Supervisors can be incredible role models and facilitate strong communication channels between students and academic staff, however quite often students fail to have useful conversations with their supervisors regarding future careers after PhD life, particularly concerning careers outside of academia2.

Within the last 10 years, five times more students have recognised and sought help for mental health conditions, and within the last five years 94% of higher education facilities have received a huge rise in demand for wellbeing and counselling facilities7. Promoting student wellbeing is finally being considered crucial, not only for individuals but for the economic, social and societal benefits of reducing student dropouts and preventing deterioration of mental health7. Universities have began employing numerous schemes and initiatives to respond to the wellbeing needs of PhD students, including:

  • Employing wellbeing staff
  • Running workshops
  • Staff mental health training
  • Improving existing wellbeing services and support networks

Part of the battle to achieve increased awareness and action on doctoral student wellbeing is with us ourselves. As much as our universities and supervisors need to appreciate our needs, we need to fight for our mental wellbeing and help ourselves recognise when we are in need of help. As someone who has been diagnosed with both anxiety and depression, I understand that a huge part of functioning on a day to day basis involves me being in charge of my own wellbeing and doing what I KNOW I can do to make each day easier in addition to managing my conditions through using medication. As with any other bodily ailment, physical or mental, medication is necessary to treat the biochemical causes of an anxious/depressed brain in the same way as you need medication to help a heart that isn’t working quite right. I am lucky to feel able to be entirely honest about my mental wellbeing and be supported by a fantastic group of fellow students, and together we hold each other up and are pushing for further change regarding recognition of student wellbeing in our department.

Graduate surveys paint a rather grim picture as to the previous and current mental health status of a majority of students across the world, however doctoral student wellbeing, a previously taboo subject, is at last getting the attention it really needs. Through increasing demands on both universities and supervisors, both attitudes and approaches are evolving, hopefully to a point where every student gets the entitled support they need to successfully (and happily) complete PhD studies and conquer the world, day by day.

So, I bring you back to those first nine words – ‘It will all be worth it in the end’.

More information and advice

  • Mental health: stressed students reach out for help:

https://www.nature.com/naturejobs/science/articles/10.1038/nj7513-223a

  • Work-life balance: break or burn out:

https://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v545/n7654/full/nj7654-375a.html

  • Mental health helplines:

https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/stress-anxiety-depression/mental-health-helplines/

  • Student mental health:

https://www.nhs.uk/Livewell/studenthealth/Pages/Mentalhealth.aspx

  • Mind:

https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/your-stories/coping-with-depression-at-university/#.WsM7My7wZpg

  • Students against depression:

http://studentsagainstdepression.org/

References:

1 Patel, V., Prince, M. (2010). Global mental health: a new global health field comes of age. JAMA 303, 1976-1977.

2 Woolston, C. (2017). Graduate survey: a love-hurt relationship. Nature 550, 549-552.

3 Levecque, K., Anseel, F., De Beuckelaer, A., Van der Heyden, J., Gisle, L. (2017). Work organisation and mental health problems in PhD students. Research Policy 46, 868-879.

4 Wisker, G., Robinson, G., Trafford, V., Warnes, M., Creighton, E. (2003). From Supervisory Dialogues to Successful PhDs: Strategies supporting and enabling the learning conversations of staff and students at postgraduate level. Teaching in Higher Education 8, 383-397.

5 McCallin, A. (2012).  Postgraduate research supervision: a critical review of current practice. Teaching in Higher Education 17, 63-74.

6 Lee, A. (2008). How are doctoral students supervised? Concepts of doctoral research supervision. Studies in Higher Education 33, 267-281.

7 Cannon, T. (2017). Promoting student wellbeing. Education: GSLC. Available from: https://www.redbrickresearch.com/2017/11/30/promoting-student-wellbeing/.hyu

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