‘I don’t think there’s anything darker than doing a PhD’
Seven-day weeks, 10-hour days, isolation and uncertainty: it’s little wonder so many PhD students risk developing mental health problems
There are rising concerns for the well-being of PhD students generally with studies showing many are at risk of developing mental health problems. Photo: iStock
Aidan Jones worries that too many students are embaring on PhD without fully considering the demands. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Earlier this year Oliver Rosten finally got his academic paper published in a scientific journal following a series of rejections.
There was nothing wrong with his findings regarding conformal algebra. Instead, publishers had a problem with what was written in the paper’s acknowledgements.
In the opening line, Rosten dedicated his paper to the memory of his Irish friend Francis Dolan, who took his own life in 2011 following years struggling with severe depression.
Rosten wrote: “I am firmly of the conviction that the psychological brutality of the post-doctoral system played a strong underlying role in Francis’s death.
“I would like to take this opportunity, should anyone be listening, to urge those within academic roles of leadership to do far more to protect members of the community suffering from mental health problems, particularly during the most vulnerable stages of their careers.”
Like many postdoctoral researchers who rely on short-term contracts for employment, Dolan regularly moved abroad for research positions.
“Both he and I had a succession of moving every couple of years,” Rosten told The Irish Times.
“When this happens, particularly for people with mental health issues, your local support network evaporates.
“Francis suffered from depression. I think it was manic depression. He had times of profound creativity and then, on the flip side, there were periods when he found it very hard to work. When I got the email that he had died I was devastated.”
Caoimhe, another former PhD student, says the four years she spent on her PhD were among the most difficult of her life.
“It’s the most extreme situation of your life in a working environment. You can’t sleep because you’re so stressed and people get panic attacks. If you’re emotionally unstable or vulnerable, it’s not a good idea.”
Caoimhe, who requested that her surname not be published, says the lack of guidance and support from her PhD supervisor made it almost impossible to stay positive.
“I always had to set my own deadlines. Not all supervisors are the same, some are very supportive. But from my experience there’s a lot of them who are lazy because there’s no accountability.”
“Were the four years of my PhD worthwhile? I still can’t answer that. It’s the best resilience training you could ever have and it really sets me apart in the workplace. But I don’t think there’s anything darker than doing a PhD.”
There are rising concerns for the wellbeing of PhD students generally. A study carried out in Belgium earlier this year found about one-third of PhD students were at risk of having or developing a psychiatric disorder.
More than half of respondents had experienced at least two symptoms of poor mental health, including feeling under constant strain, being unhappy and depressed, losing sleep because of worry and not being able to overcome difficulties or enjoy day-to-day activities.
The study noted a “lack of inspirational leadership” from supervisors, academic budget cuts, short-term contracts and bleak career prospects were all linked to PhD students’ psychological health.
It recommended that universities facilitate the management of a work-life balance, help supervisors adopt leadership styles and offer students “clear and full information on job expectations and career prospects”.
These concerns come against a backdrop of rising numbers of students involved in PhD research in Ireland.
While State policies have seen enrolments balloon from just over 5,000 in 2006/2007 to more than 8,200 in 2015/16, to date there has been little focus on the supports available to students.
Louise Dolphin, whose PhD research focused on youth depression, says an inspirational supervisor is key in offsetting any mental health risks.
Dolphin says the support from her supervisor made the experience “a real treasure”.
“Having her as a rock I always felt safe. I always felt the level of study we designed was doable in the time frame.”
Dolphin says most students who are unhappy with their supervisor do not know where to turn for advice.
“There’s no obvious line of complaint and you don’t know how to access HR in the university.
“That’s maybe why people internalise their problems. You’re in an academic bubble and you may have been a student all your life.”
Oversubscribed mental health services in universities make it even more difficult for PhD students to access support during their research, says Dolphin.
Martin Rogan, CEO of Mental Health Ireland, says people carrying out PhD and postdoctoral research must ensure they make time for their personal relationships.
“People around us stimulate us and challenge our own negative self-thought. We naturally encourage each other on a daily basis.
“Young people are putting huge efforts into contributing to the knowledge economy, but the question is: are they sufficiently supported?
“Their relationships with family, friends and partners are often parked while people put so much work into academia.”
Rogan also warns of the high level of pressure felt by students who begin to regret undertaking such a large body of work.
“You’re competing with yourself and putting yourself out there. It can become very competitive and you see colleagues making submissions and moving forward. It’s quite a frightening phenomenon.”
Oliver Rosten says the first step in supporting mental health at a post-doctoral level must be the introduction of more robust contracts. He also says academic mentors should receive basic mental health training.
“We also need members of staff at institutions whose role is to support the postdoctoral community. The postdoctoral system has a habit of just chewing people in and spitting them out.”
He stands by his decision to include the mention of his friend and colleague in the acknowledgments of his scientific paper.
“Morally I couldn’t withdraw it... it was dedicated to Francis and it would have felt like a betrayal to remove that statement.”
“As a scientist rather an artist my creative expression is through scientific papers. For me that was the most meaningful medium to honour his memory.”
* If you are struggling with mental health problems, contact the Samaritans on 116 123
My PhD experience: ‘It can be very daunting to face into this massive body of work’
The first time someone asked Aidan Jones if he felt lonely writing his PhD, he was surprised by the question.
“I said ‘no, there are a lot of people in the office’. But then I thought about it and realised it was lonely,” he says.
“While we did support each other, no one was researching the same thing so no one had the same problems or obstacles as you.”
When Jones graduated from his undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering in 2010, jobs for engineers had evaporated. After opting to study for a PhD, he enjoyed the first few years or research. Soon, the pressure began to mount.
“It can be very daunting to face into this massive body of work and you don’t know exactly what you have to get done. For most PhD students, it’s the first time in your life you’re solely responsible for your work.”
Watching his friends earn decent salaries was also frustrating for the PhD candidate, as were well-intentioned jibes about not doing a “real” job.
Jones admits there were many times when he considered walking away from research. By the end of the four years, he felt worn out.
“I never felt low, but I was drained. The last eight months I was working seven days a week but you can’t sustain that for too long because you will burn out.”
Jones worries that too many students are now jumping into PhD research without fully considering the length of the process.
“Everybody does a degree now and nearly everyone does a masters. And then they do a PhD because that’s what’s next. I think it’s a bit wasteful everyone going into a long academia-induced coma. I don’t think people realise what’s involved.”