Freelance writer Chris Woolston explains how a new study of PhD students in Belgium has underscored a harsh reality: Pursuing a PhD can be hazardous to mental health.
The study, published online in March in Research Policy, found high levels of mental distress among students. More than half of respondents reported at least two mental-health symptoms in recent weeks, and 32% reported four or more symptoms. Common complaints included feelings of constant strain, unhappiness, worry-induced sleep problems, and an inability to enjoy everyday activities.
About two-thirds of the respondents studied hard sciences, and one-third studied humanities or social sciences. There was no clear trend between area of study and risk of mental trouble.
The students fared poorly compared with other groups. They were nearly 2.5 times more likely than highly educated people in the general population to be at risk of depression or another common psychiatric disorder. PhD students were also about twice as likely as students pursuing degrees in higher education to show such red flags.
Katia Levecque, lead author of the study and professor of industrial relations at Ghent University, says she was surprised by the scale of mental-health issues among students. “It’s a basic pattern of sociology: The higher the education levels, the lower the incidence of mental health problems,” she tells Chris in an interview. But in this case, the PhD students reported more problems than typical groups of less-educated people. Levecque had previously studied mental health issues in blue-collar workers at a Volvo plant. By comparison, she says, those workers were far better off than the students.
A questionnaire helped identify the sources of mental troubles. Students who said they struggled to balance work with their home life were especially likely to report psychiatric symptoms. Other predictors include excessive work loads and a lack of control. Levecque notes that control is a tricky matter. “If you give a lot of autonomy to a PhD student, it might not be a gift,” she says. “PhD students are often confronted with failure, and too much autonomy can lead to more stress.”
Gail Kinman, a professor of occupational health psychology at the University of Bedfordshire in Luton, says that the findings complement her previous work that showed high levels of psychological distress among people working in higher education in the UK. Her research found that academics were often more stressed than nurses and social workers. “Job demands are increasing, control is reducing, and support from managers is diminishing,” she says. “Academics in the sciences may have a particularly difficult time due to cutbacks in funding.”
Levecque says the results of the Research Policy study highlight the need for universities to offer counselling services and other resources to PhD students. In many cases, the students will have to look beyond their own departments for help. “Professors may be willing to support their students, but they don’t have the time or skill,” she says. “They’re also vulnerable to a lot of the same sorts of problems.”
Chris Woolston is a freelance writer in Billings, Montana.