A 2015 study at the University of California Berkeley found that 47% of graduate students suffer from depression, following a previous 2005 study that showed 10% had contemplated suicide. A 2003 Australian study found that that the rate of mental illness in academic staff was three to four times higher than in the general population, according to a New Scientist article.
Read this article to get a glimpse of what PhD scholars may go through in the hindsight..by Jennifer Walker (Jennifer Walker is an ex-physicist turned culture and travel writer living in Europe.)
One night during the third year of my PhD program, I sat on my bed with a packet of tranquilizers and a bottle of vodka. I popped a few pills in my mouth and swigged out of the bottle, feeling them burn down my throat. Moments later, I realized I was making a terrible mistake. I stopped, trembling as I realized what I’d nearly done.
It’s common knowledge that getting a PhD is hard. It’s meant to be. Some even say that if you’re not up all night working or skipping meals, you’re doing it wrong. But while PhD students are not so naive as to enter the program expecting an easy ride, there is a cost to the endeavor that no one talks about: a psychological one.
The days I spent pursuing my PhD in physics were some of my darkest. It wasn’t the intellectual challenges or the workload that brought me down; it was my deteriorating mental health. I felt unsupported, isolated and adrift in uncertainty. Anxiety attacks became a part of my daily life. I drank and cut myself. I sometimes thought I wanted to die.
I might not have felt so alone had I known how many people struggle with mental health issues in academia. A 2015 study at the University of California Berkeley found that 47% of graduate students suffer from depression, following a previous 2005 study that showed 10% had contemplated suicide. A 2003 Australian study found that that the rate of mental illness in academic staff was three to four times higher than in the general population, according to a New Scientist article. The same article notes that the percentage of academics with mental illness in the United Kingdom has been estimated at 53%.
“I assumed and hoped that simply taking antidepressants and just ‘working harder’ would help enough,” says Jane*, a PhD student in biology who’s been diagnosed with anxiety and depression. “And when things did not quickly improve, this further affected my mood.”
In essence, many PhD students are so accustomed to hard work and self-discipline that they beat themselves up when their efforts to manage depression fail to generate perfect results.
“The issues that affect students in general, which could also factor in for PhD students, is living independently and having independent work,” says Anoushka Bonwick, the projects and relationships officer at the UK charity Student Minds. Equally stressful is the fact that PhD students face “uncertainty about the future, such as funding for research and what they are going to do after a PhD.”
These issues can have an even bigger impact on students who lack supportive advisers.
Other PhD students often suffer from imposter syndrome. This was part of my problem even before signs of serious mental health problems arose. I felt as if I’d gotten this far in my academic career by fluke, and that the top grades I’d received during my undergraduate and master’s studies had been an administrative mistake. This fed into my anxiety as well as my depression.
Imposter syndrome is a frequent problem among high-achieving students who find themselves surrounded with others like them, according to Linda*, a sociology professor from New Jersey. “It’s very common to feel an incompetent fraud, and usually to assume you’re the only one who feels that way,” she says.
The frequency of these problems shouldn’t scare prospective students away from pursuing PhDs. But they should be prepared going in to think about how they will handle psychological challenges as well as intellectual ones.
“Academia is understanding, but perhaps too accepting, that everyone has problems,” says Jane. “Just because many people do have mental health problems, it’s not ok that that’s ‘how it is.’”
Finally, it’s important that both prospective and current PhD students directly confront the tenuous realities of the academic job market and plan accordingly. Uncertainty about the future can take a major toll on students, but they’re less likely to suffer if their entire identities aren’t tied to graduate school.