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Poor mental health: the elephant in the graduate school

Updated: Jun 27, 2020

Quitting school is a very common discussion among graduate students, especially those pursuing a PhD. The dropout rate among PhD students is almost 40–50% in the United States. Similar numbers have been observed in other countries as well. Attributes like perseverance, seeking perfection and self-criticism are usually considered necessary for successful completion of graduate studies. Unfortunately, the same characteristics also contribute to poor mental health among graduate students. Nature’s 2018 survey of 2279 students (90% PhD and 10% Masters students) from 26 countries reported that 41% of graduate students suffered from anxiety and 39% from depression. These numbers are disturbingly and disproportionately higher than those reported in World Health Organization’s 2015 report which estimated 3.6% and 4.4% of the general population suffering from anxiety and depression respectively. As a result of poor mental health, the likelihood of suicidal behavior among graduate students is also higher compared to the general population. A 2014 study reported 7.3% of the graduate students were prone to suicidal thoughts. Furthermore, the prevalence of mental health issues has been reported to be significantly higher in transgender, gender-nonconforming and women graduate students compared to their cis-gender male peers. Traditionally, universities were considered low-stress spaces for learning and development, and mental health issues were often attributed to the individual’s capabilities. However, these statistics point to systemic problems in academia that result in the prevalence of poor mental health.

The structure of PhD programs in most countries is not student-friendly. Faculty advisors mentor students in the selection of research topics and development of research strategy, provide feedback and guidance for improvement. They help the students in writing publications, obtaining funding, and career opportunities. Thus, advisors play an indispensable role in the success and completion of graduate studies as well as post-graduation prospects. Research has found that imbalance in relationship and expectation mismatch between the advisor(s) and graduate students is at the core of most of the concerns.

Cause and effect

Students are expected to work tirelessly and passionately on their research duties throughout the week for 40+ hours a week, even if they are being paid for only 20 hours a week. Additional duties of a graduate student include mentoring and training the undergraduate students, laboratory maintenance, and keeping up with other program requirements such as coursework, committee meetings, teaching assistantship etc. Most students have to handle these responsibilities without compromising on research hours. This leaves them with almost no time for social engagements, personal relationships, self-care, and extra-curricular activities for personality development. Therefore, many students suffer from loneliness and self-isolation.

Another major point of concern for PhD students is the ambiguity of the graduate programs. Having no definite time-limit for degree completion places the students’ number of PhD years entirely at their advisor’s discretion, which often leads to seemingly never-ending PhD life. For example, the average time-to-degree for doctorate recipients estimated by Council of Graduate Schools in the United States is 6.7–6.9 years for physical, life sciences, and engineering fields, and up to 9.3 years for humanities departments. Such long and uncertain degree durations and rigorous schedules lead to burnout, which is the most common consequence among graduate students. According to psychologist Christina Maslach, the implications of this burnout are multidimensional, triggering exhaustion (physical, mental and emotional), cynicism (callousness and depersonalization from work-related activities), and inefficacy (feelings of self-incompetence, poor job satisfaction and reduced productivity also causing self-loathing). Many graduate students exhibit most, if not all, of these symptoms.

Poor mentorship and lack of support from advisors is extremely common in academia. According to a survey, 50% of the graduate students did not feel that their advisors provided ‘real mentorship’. The trajectory of graduate research or any research inevitably comprises of more failures than successes (failure of instruments, experiments, difficulties in publication), which tends to make the adventures of research less exciting. Moreover, when an advisor is the sole judge of success or failure, students feel awkward and at risk to open up about their vulnerabilities and mental health concerns. Another factor contributing to students' distresses is the lack of emotional intelligence among some advisors. The prevalence of impostor syndrome is quite common in academia. Impostor syndrome is a psychological phenomenon of doubting one’s own accomplishments, attributing success to ‘dumb luck’ and fearing of being discovered as an intellectual fraud. While criticism can pave the path for improvement, continuous condemnation without appropriate acknowledgment of student’s hard work and accomplishments affects their self-confidence and further perpetuates the impostor syndrome. This can be even more challenging for international students who constitute 37% of the total graduate students. A difficult student-advisor relationship in an unfamiliar cultural setting with an insufficient support system adds to the distresses of graduate life. Finally, there is almost no accountability on advisors for the wellbeing of their students. Students are often afraid to report harassment, discrimination, bullying, and unreasonable expectations by their advisors because of the risks involved.

The need of the hour

As much as sound mental health is crucial for an individual’s well-being, it also improves the quality and quantity of research output and positively impacts the supply of professionals for research in academia and industry. Since scientific advancements significantly contribute to socioeconomic well-being and, thus, lack of long-term researchers because of poor mental health should be a major concern for public policy. Several universities have taken steps for mental health and even established student counseling programs. However, these are traditionally relevant to the undergraduate experience and most often ill-equipped to provide support to graduate students of color, internationals and minoritized groups. This is because the research data on the mental health issues of graduate students, especially students of color, is still limited. While seeking counseling services regularly may help the students in improving their mental well-being, the whole activity can often feel like another activity to fit in an already hectic graduate life without the support of their advisors. Although unhappy and unhealthy graduate studies experience might seem a norm, there are some exceptions. These happy graduate students are usually those with kind and empathetic advisors. Thus, steps to enhance social support by advisors should be taken so that academia feels like less of a burden.

Mandatory training of the advisors on mentorship, accessibility, and sensitivity and cultural competence must be required. They must also be trained on how to identify, acknowledge, and adopt measures to tackle mental health issues within their research groups. Graduate programs should be restructured to fit a definite timeline and a culture of balanced work and personal life must be promoted. The student counseling services must be made more proficient and trained counselors must be available to address the emotional needs of graduate students, internationals, students of color, and students belonging to LGBTQ+ communities. Graduate student initiatives to support mental health should be promoted. Robust accountability mechanisms must be adopted which also include protection measures to safeguard students’ interests who report abuse and exploitation. There should be provisions to make the transition to a new advisor smoother in such cases. While it may seem like the onus of poor mental health among graduate student lies on advisors, the advisors also have to struggle with tenure track requirements, continuous inflow of funding for research, and the pressure of publications. Thus, academic institutions, funding organizations, journals, and publishers must all take responsibility to address mental health issues in academia. Healthy and happy researchers will do productive science and make better future mentors themselves, thus investing in graduate student mental health is in interest from many perspectives.

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