What makes postgraduate mental health fragile and what can we do about it?

Sometimes a topic deserves more than 500 words.  Following Mental Health Awareness Week last week, Bianca Diaconu, a PGR in Psychology, reviews the stressors which make PGRs vulnerable to poor mental health, and looks at ways to address these, in the first of our “in depth” posts.

March 2019 marked the beginning of a strenuous period for the entire world. Everyone was urged to adapt to an extremely disruptive way of working and for the PGR community, this disruption brought even more pressure. Considerable evidence showed that PhD researchers are 3 times more likely to experience mental health problems compared to the general population, with 48% considering leaving and 60% suspending their doctoral studies (Evans et al., 2018). Needless to say, the pandemic has only accentuated this tendency, making it imperative that the matter is no longer overlooked.

PGR stressors

Before thinking about improvement, it is crucial to understand what are the stressors that PhD students face and why it can be difficult to manage them. Based on research of PhD communities in the UK (Mackie & Bates, 2019), Europe (González-Betancor, & Dorta-González, 2020), and the US (Evans et al., 2018) and feedback from UoB postgraduates collected in 2021, I have put together a non-exhaustive list of reasons why a postgraduate degree, particularly a PhD, can be taxing for your mental health.

Imposter syndrome

You are surrounded by people working on extremely specific topics, each with a unique set of skills. In the absence of appropriate feedback, it can be difficult to not fall into the trap of comparing yourself with others, who always seem to be doing better than you. You underestimate how much you know and overestimate how much your colleagues know, which can in turn make you feel like a fraud, ready to be exposed any minute.

Tip: Ask your supervisor for regular feedback on your progress, create a development plan, and make a list of all the new things you have learned at the end of each month. This way you can look at hard evidence (which we all like) that you are indeed going in the right direction.

My experiment failed = I failed

Research by definition is an endless sequence of trial and error. Your job is to answer questions that have never been answered before, sometimes without even having the certainty you are asking the right question. A somewhat narrow definition of productivity and a natural orientation towards results can make it difficult to keep your motivation high and maintain a sense of accomplishment at the end of a day, when it may seem that you have nothing to put your finger on.

Tip: Try to shift away from the belief that failure is bad. Count the number of times you have failed in a day – that number should tell you how many times you have tried something new, which is exactly what you should be doing as a researcher.

Where’s my paper?

An issue not only specific to PhDs, but to the academic environment in general, is the constant pressure to publish your work. Research output is typically considered the no. 1 indication of academic success. While it is great to celebrate important findings and share them with the scientific and non-scientific communities, the truth is that a published paper is only one version of your previous numerous attempts at finding something meaningful. It is important that you acknowledge and celebrate all your previous efforts.

Tip: Instead of constantly dreaming about THAT published paper to come your way, why not think of every single draft you have created as a small step towards it? Create a folder with all the changes you have had to make to your project, and name it in a way that reminds you that these are all small wins, not just a back and forth. If you only focus on the end-result, you miss a lot of what’s happening in the process.

Why am I being underpaid?

The status of a PhD student is somewhat unclear. The general trend is that most PhD students feel neither students nor staff, and the stipends reflect this confusion. Despite it being a full-time job, most PhD studentships (if you were lucky enough to get funded) are only meant to cover basic living expenses, leaving very little for leisure.

Tip: Keep an eye on opportunities for TA work/demonstrations and funding available based on your circumstances. But if you generally accept from the beginning that from a financial point of view, you are actually a student, it may save a bit of frustration and protect you from unrealistic expectations (no, you will not be able to save for mortgages).

Lonesomeness

The specificity of your project can make it hard to discuss it with others, who may not have the adequate background to understand you. This, coupled with the fact that most PhD students work independently, makes it easy for you to feel isolated. Furthermore, if the relationship with your supervisor is problematic or absent, then feeling on your own is sometimes very overwhelming.

Tip: Even if you prefer to work from home, try to include at least 2 days a week where you come to campus and work from a place surrounded by people. The Researcher Suite in the Main Library is a good example of such space; even if you don’t interact much with others, it will still give you a sense of belonging to a community and it will help with your productivity.

This is supposed to be hard

As a PhD student, you are amongst only 1.4% of the UK population. This naturally highlights that it is a rather rare and difficult path, and as a consequence, there seems to be a culture of acceptance that mental health issues are expected. While it is true that a PhD is meant to stretch your limits and get you to the other side as a more capable, skilful person, you should never feel the need to trade your mental health for your degree.

So, what can we do about it?

How can we make the PhD journey a more enjoyable experience that does not threaten a decline in mental health?

First, it is important to highlight that when studies show such an alarming picture for the postgraduate community worldwide, sole awareness is no longer sufficient. Instead, a collective effort should be made to understand and overcome these common academic struggles.

Ask for Help

A PhD is almost a synonym of independence, and for many postgraduates, when things get difficult, there is a lot of reluctance to speak up and seek help. Add some traces of stigma around mental health, and you have an almost certain silence even when things become unbearable. This “I can handle it on my own” mentality is only harmful long-term and if postgraduate students find the courage to ask for help when it is needed, then the battle should at least get a bit easier.

Use the tailored support from wellbeing services

The University of Birmingham has now a range of wellbeing services for both undergraduate and postgraduate students. Enormous progress has been made recently in creating a partnership with Spectrum Life offering instant counselling to all regardless of age and without waiting lists. While there might still be a perception that this service is mainly aimed at undergraduates, it has been recognised that the PG community has rather specific needs and it is now possible to ask for a Wellbeing Officer prepared to help with PG specific issues rather than general student related struggles.  

Make use of networking/social events

If you ask early career researchers what is one of the most enjoyable parts of their PhD, the high proportion of them will tell you it is the people they met along the way. Some PhD students may not feel comfortable sharing their struggles with senior academics, but they offer enourmous support to each other. The university provides an indirect support by creating opportunities for PGRs to gather together and connect. Make sure you keep an eye on the Canvas notifications about these and try to attend whenever possible. This can lead to a plethora of benefits not only in terms of better wellbeing, but also in terms of research collaborations, funding, and career choices.

Moving away from traditional publication views

The initial emphasis on impact factors and quantity of publications were considered an incentive to produce high-quality work. However, when competition replaces collaboration and the pressure of publishing become so high, especially for PhDs, it only creates the opposite effect. Moving away from such a rigid way of quantifying research quality and putting more emphasis on all aspects of research will be of enormous benefit to both early and later career academics. Get involved with the university’s DORA movement and find out how you can help the shift towards a better research environment.

Conclusion

A PhD is very challenging and research shows that many PGRs experience wellbeing and mental health difficulties during their programme. The University is working to improve the services available to support postgraduate mental health, but being aware of your own mental health and taking steps to mitigate any challenges to this can greatly improve your postgraduate research experience.

For additional, easy-to-digest resources to support those facing PGR-specific challenges to their wellbeing, see the PGR Wellbeing ResourceList. If you are suffering from poor mental health, please seek support from your Wellbeing Officer.

References

  • Evans, T. M., Bira, L., Gastelum, J. B., Weiss, L. T., & Vanderford, N. L. (2018). Evidence for a mental health crisis in graduate education. Nature biotechnology, 36(3), 282-284.
  • González-Betancor, S. M., & Dorta-González, P. (2020). Risk of interruption of doctoral studies and mental health in PhD students. Mathematics8(10), 1695.
  • Mackie, S. A., & Bates, G. W. (2019). Contribution of the doctoral education environment to PhD candidates’ mental health problems: A scoping review. Higher Education Research & Development38(3), 565-578.

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