23. PhD life: Surviving or Thriving?

In the middle of Mental Health Awareness Week, we were reminded of a recent paper on mental health of PhD students. Some of our earlier blogs spoke about how messy PhDs tend to be, how long the thesis can drag along, and how life revolves around coffee and editing. But how does this survival affect our mental state? Time for an anonymous PhD student to explain the reality of our (psychological) well-being.

It is currently Mental Health Awareness Week in the UK (8-14 May 2017). This years’ theme is ‘surviving or thriving’, and the Mental Health Foundation is asking the nation to reflect on why it is ‘too few of us are thriving with good mental health’, ‘rather than ask why so many people are living with mental health problems’ (Mental Health Foundation, 2017).

This reminded me of the recent, and widely shared paper by Levecque et al (2017) Work organization and mental health problems in PhD students. The authors found in their study of PhD students in Flanders, Belgium the following:

  • One in two PhD students experiences psychological distress; one in three is at risk of a common psychiatric disorder.
  • The prevalence of mental health problems is higher in PhD students than in the highly educated general population, highly educated employees and higher education students.
  • Work and organizational context are significant predictors of PhD students’ mental health.

This would suggest then, that in general, too few PhD students are ‘thriving’ with good mental health, and that far too many of us are (barely) surviving. And, having recently been diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder I too fall into the latter group – the barely surviving.

I have a theory – that many of us with mental health issues are drawn into postgraduate life. That the appeal of a close knit group of colleagues and peers, intellectual freedom, flexible working hours, job variety, and stability (continuation from the undergraduate) attract many to postgraduate studies. It is a (permanent) delay to the ‘real world’, to getting a ‘real job’. It is safe and it is known. It is a continuation of a life of education. But more than this, it is independent. You can work from home, work from overseas, work from the office. Work at midnight or at 9 am. If you wake up and can’t face leaving bed – you don’t have to. And if you suddenly feel the need to write for 20 hours – no one will stop you. What other job could offer compatibility to mental health issues?

Yet, as Levecque et al (2017) found out, it is precisely the nature of work which contributes in so many cases to the declining mental health of PhD students. They for example, found that funding worries were a major cause of stress for students. I can relate to this, having being diagnosed within the final year of funding. While I was ‘on track’ until summer, I am now several months behind. This means I will need to support myself without funding for several months. Meaning I have to save now. Which becomes difficult when also paying for therapy. In a ‘real job’ in the ‘real world’, I would be entitled to sick pay. I would also be asked how my workplace could support my return, and likely be offered lower hours/workload. Not with the PhD. I can work at 100% or 50%. I get no sick pay. And my ‘workplace’ which isn’t really a workplace, as I’m not actually employed here, have done nothing to ease my return.

The authors also found that work-family pressures, job demands and level of control, the supervisor’s leadership style, and perceptions of careers after the PhD negatively impacted on the mental health of PhD students.

So why, then, are so few PhD students ‘thriving with good mental health’?

From my experience, I would argue there are 3 reasons:

  1. The reality of PhD life does not live up to the imaginations and expectations.
    We may have flexible hours, but we also have incredibly high demands (teaching, admin, reading, writing, conducting fieldwork, conferences, seminars, training, meetings, etc.). And relatively little time to carry these demands out. And with the exception of conferences and teaching, the overwhelming majority of our demands are highly isolating. Writing may be the worst culprit, but international fieldwork can be devastating to some students.
  2. That the nature of the PhD is inherently antithetical to improving mental health.
    By not being a ‘real job’, we aren’t entitled to ‘real benefits’. No sick pay, inflexible working arrangements relating to part time, a lack of employment rights, the list goes on. When a mental health crisis arises for a PhD student, funding becomes a much bigger worry than for the employed population. We may have access to university counselling services, but for those of us in need of further therapy, often the only option is to suspend studies. And with that, comes a ‘suspension’ in pay.
  3. That supervisors don’t always know what to do.
    This point comes back to the idea that a PhD is not a ‘real job’. We therefore don’t have ‘real line managers’ trained in management and communication skills. Nor do we have access to HR departments. We are at the mercy of our supervisors. And for some with particularly empathetic and caring supervisors, this may be a godsend. For those whose supervisor has never (knowingly) encountered mental health issues, it can be a nightmare. It should not be up to the person suffering to start a conversation about mental health. Supervisors, must take some responsibility in improving their own awareness surrounding mental health.

Ask your school to send around Mind’s resource kit for employers. Because even if you are one of the lucky ones who is ‘thriving’, then you must be aware that an estimated 1 of 2 PhD students in your office is only just ‘surviving’. This Mental Health Awareness Week, we should aim to help everyone.

UK Mental Health Awareness Week