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There is a heavy cost to getting a PhD that nobody talks about

Published: 06 Jul 2018
Category:
By Edward Wickstead

Embarking on a PhD is a journey of epic proportions. Initially filled with excitement and enthusiasm, students are compelled by the idea of pushing the frontiers of human knowledge.

In time, this enthusiasm can fade. Devoting three to five years of your life to such a tiny subject niche has the ability to do that, even to the most devoted of individuals. Unfortunately, the long and winding road takes both a physical and psychological toll. Stress management will inescapably take centre stage, and your ability to manage it will be extensively tested.

In 2011, a study carried out by the University of Texas found that 43% of their graduate student participants reported experiencing more stress than they were able to handle, with PhD students expressing the highest levels. This likely explains the high attrition rate. In 2013, it was estimated that 30% of students who embark on a PhD in the UK leave university without finishing. This statistic was worse in North America, where in 2008, almost 50% of students left graduate school without their doctorate.

However, research has shown that the majority of students who enter doctoral programs have the academic ability to successfully complete the degree. Therefore, it is likely that the culture of PhD programs are to blame.

My personal experience

I have suffered with depression for my entire adult life. Worryingly, the stigma surrounding the subject remains rampant. Enough so that it doesn’t come into the majority of people’s conversations unless a suspected suicide hits the news. In academia, the silence is even more deafening. For myself and many PhD students, our thesis hovers over us like the sword of Damocles, even in supposed moments of rest.

For me, paranoia proliferates. I become so fixed on what my supervisory team think of me and my thesis progression that I sacrifice most of my outside interests. Now, I feel guilty when I take time off, regardless of how essential it is to avoid physical and mental exhaustion.

For a long time, I assumed that I was expected to maintain a false illusion of mental stability and confidence when interacting with others within the faculty. Not only emotionally taxing, it was isolating – something which is already an inevitability as a PhD student.

Further, none of my closest friends or family have been previously exposed to what a PhD entails. Of my immediate family, I am only one of two who went to university. Of course, they have been nothing but supportive. But in the majority of cases, the advice they have provided has unfortunately fallen on deaf ears, and has sometimes further contributed to my anxiety.

Luckily for me, my supervisory team are fantastic. With their extensive support, providing advice through personal experience, they are helping me through the PhD process. But this isn’t the case for everyone. As an alternative, talking with other PhD students can also help alleviate mounting stress. For me, the latter has been the greatest way to help break the chains of isolation, as the more students I talk to, the more I began to realise that I am far from alone.

We need to break the silence

Why does the stigmatisation of mental health still exist, when approximately 1 in 4 people experience a mental health problem each year? Poor mental health within universities is an escalating problem. Not just because it affects how students learn, but it can also significantly contribute to whether students actually finish their degrees.

Disturbingly, in 2017 the All Party Parliamentary Group of Students found that 69% of students have felt depressed within an academic year, while 33% of students had experienced suicidal thoughts. The actual recorded suicide rate of students within higher education in England and Wales within 12 months ending in July 2017 was 4.7 deaths per 100,000 students, equating to 95 suicides. Although a relatively small number, this has increased on previous years.

Across the UK, universities are taking positive steps to help combat this growing problem. For example, the University of Bristol has spent £1 million on a new wellbeing service for students, following seven suicides within a six-month period. Such initiatives are to be welcomed, as are signs of coordinated leadership nationally, but much more still needs to be done. Hopefully raising awareness of students’ mental wellbeing, alongside emphasizing communication and increasing support can prevent the loss of life of more talented young people.


To get involved with the British Pharmacological Society’s Young Pharmacologists Advisory Group’s work on mental health, please contact getinvolved@bps.ac.uk.

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About the author

Edward graduated in 2014 with a BSc (hons) in Biomedical Science from King’s College London, which included a year at the National University of Singapore. Edward is currently a third year PhD student, researching the role of neuroinflammation in Alzheimer’s disease. Edward is also a STEM ambassador, the BNA student representative for Queen Mary University of London, and sits on the Editorial Board of Pharmacology Matters magazine.