Do you have to suffer to earn your doctorate?


Doctoral students represent the future of research, innovation and teaching within universities and other institutions. But it would seem that this future is threatened: research has revealed the fragility of their mental health . The study that I conducted with my colleagues among doctoral students in the United Kingdom shows that the latter meet the clinical criteria for depression and anxiety more than the working population, and that they present with symptoms that are much more severe than the participants in the control group made up of professionals.

We interviewed 3,352 doctoral students and 1,256 professionals who served as our matched sample . The questionnaires used for the analysis of symptoms are those of the mental health services of the National Health Service (NHS), the public health system of the United Kingdom.

Over 40% of doctoral students met the criteria for moderate to severe depression or anxiety, compared to 32% of professionals for depression and 26% for anxiety.

Regarding the risk of suicide, the rates are similar (from 33% to 35% for the two groups), important figures which can be explained by the high rates of depression observed in our sample.

We also asked doctoral students how they felt about their mental health and that of their peers. More than 40% consider it normal to suffer from mental disorders during a doctorate and 41% told us that most of their doctoral colleagues encounter them. Just over a third of doctoral students considered ending their studies for this reason.

Culture of pressure

There is clearly a high prevalence of mental disorders among doctoral students, compared to the rates observed in the general population. Our results also point to a problem with the current system of doctoral study, and indeed of academia as a whole, which encourages a culture of productivity pressure and devaluation.

This mentality persists among doctoral students. In focus groups and surveys we’ve conducted for other studies , PhD students have reported displaying their suffering as evidence that they’re working hard. A student told us  :
Many of us think that you have to suffer for your doctorate. If you don’t have anxiety or impostor syndrome (feeling like you don’t belong or don’t deserve to do a PhD), then there’s something wrong. .
We also analyzed the risk factors likely to worsen the mental health of doctoral students and those which, on the contrary, can preserve it. Financial insecurity is one of them. Indeed, not all students benefit from resources allowing them to cover their tuition fees and personal expenses. They are also not guaranteed to find a job once they have their doctorate, because the number of postdoctoral positions does not increase at the same rate as that of doctoral students.

Another risk factor: the conflictual relationship they may have with their thesis supervisor . If we compare this person, as one of our collaborators and doctoral student did, to a “sword” that we can use, if need be, to defeat the “monster” represented by the doctorate, it the weapon must be effective. However, when the thesis supervisor is unavailable, too critical or not specialized enough, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to attack the monster.

A lack of interests or relationships outside of school, or the presence of stressors in personal life are also risk factors.

Additionally, we found a link between poorer mental health and perfectionism, impostor syndrome, and feelings of isolation .

Open chat

However, doctoral research has its good sides. Many doctoral students find their studies enjoyable and rewarding , and examples of cooperative and nurturing research environments are legion.

Doing a doctorate is an opportunity for students to spend several years studying a subject that fascinates them. It is indeed a training program designed to equip them with the skills and expertise necessary to advance knowledge at the global level. The best practice examples above allow us to identify what works and then share them.

The question of the well-being and mental health of doctoral students must continue to be the subject of constructive, impartial and informed reflection and discussion, in order to avoid perpetuating misconceptions.

Our study shows that the percentage of doctoral students convinced that their peers suffer from mental disorders and that it is normal to have fragile mental health exceeds the actual percentage of students meeting the diagnostic criteria for a mental health problem . In other words, the people interviewed seem to overestimate the already high number of doctoral students who have experienced this kind of difficulty.

In order not to inadvertently worsen the situation, we must therefore be careful about the messages we send out on this subject and ensure that they are not too negative, at the risk of fueling the myth that all doctoral students suffer from mental disorders, and contribute to maintaining a toxic university culture.

Author Bio: Cassie M Hazell is Lecturer in Social Sciences at the University of Westminster