Libraries can be oppressive (image: David Whelan)

I usually find the Impact of Science blog at the LSE site interesting and well informed: an easily readable summary of academic research. A post today, however, struck me as highly questionable: Is doing a PhD bad for  your mental health?

The article summarises a study of no fewer than 3,330 PhD students, compared to a control group of 1,200 working professionals. I’m sure the research methodology was good, but I question the conclusions.

We already know that 16% of PhD students quit their course before completion (described here). That’s a very depressing number, and should set the tone for this research. The researchers (Drs Hazel and Berry) found no fewer than 35% of the PhD students had considered ending their studies because of their mental health.

Those figures do not strike me as very happy reading, and suggest that, yes, doing a PhD is bad for you. Yet the authors create what appears to be an upbeat conclusion:

So, does this mean that doing a PhD is bad for your mental health? Not necessarily. There are several aspects of the PhD process that are conducive to mental health difficulties, but it is absolutely not inevitable. Our research (and our own experiences!) suggests that doing a PhD can be an incredibly positive experience that is intellectually stimulating, personally satisfying, and gives a sense of meaning and purpose.

You could say the same about the risk of a climbing accident while tackling Mount Everest – fine until you fall off or die of exposure. And if you got down in one piece, it wasn’t that bad.

I’ve never done a PhD, but I lived in both Oxford and Cambridge, and I’ve met plenty of PhD students who have nightmarish supervisors, or who struggle to keep up with their studies, and who have a less than successful experience, whether or not they complete their course. And I have heard about the awful experiences of others.

In my opinion the conclusion of this research is a misinterpretation of the figures. It is clear from the results that doing a PhD is far riskier for one’s well-being than it should be. The authors of the blog post, both with PhDs (does this suggest some kind of bias?) state that mental health difficulties are “not inevitable”. What a conclusion, when a third of all of PhD students considered abandoning for mental health reasons, and 16% quit before the end. Do a similar number of people in work consider quitting on mental grounds?

Let’s be open about this. Why is doing a PhD so stressful? Here are some suggestions:

  1. You spend at least three years of your life with no guarantee of any future employment at the end. Only a small minority of those with a doctorate continue in academia (less than 30%, according to a 2020 report by HEPI). Is there any other training course that has such a poor continuation rate? Outside of academia, it is unlikely you would spend three years on any topic.
  2. You are totally dependent on the whim of an academic supervisor, who appointed you (so you are beholden to them), and who may be thoughtful and assist you – but perhaps not. You only find this out after you have signed up.
  3. Studying for a doctorate is a lonely activity. The nature of doing a PhD means that unless you are proactive, you may have little engagement with others – both peers within your subject area and in other areas.
  4. To structure three years of research requires an organisational capability well beyond most people.
  5. By definition, a PhD is in a subject area that is an advance to knowledge. Hence there  are unlikely to be experts nearby, who you can discuss with and talk to.  
  6. Studying digitally is likely to make things worse rather than better. Many PhDs could be completed using a laptop with internet access – but at what cost to your sanity?

Some of these risks could be mitigated if there is a genuine concern to improve things. Here are some ideas:

  1. Make all PhDs could part-time rather than full-time. By combining study with some other activity could well reduce the stress. Even if you move back into full-time academia, some experience outside would be valuable
  2. Every PhD student should have multiple supervisors. Having just one supervisor is simply too risky. Would you risk three years of your life with someone who does not have a vested interest in your success? What if you fall out with your supervisor? It happens, frequently. It seems from anecdotal conversations that sometimes the structure of the two oldest universities means there is the possibility of low oversight and poor supervision.
  3. There should be training for academic supervisors.
  4. There should be a much more extensive support network for doctoral students, where they can get advice and simply interact with others.

While the report suggests some ideas for making it easier for PhD students, in my opinion the report is complacent and far too accepting. It reads a bit like members of an exclusive club reviewing the admission process and the membership criteria, giving the pretence of neutrality while being an interested party. Those who have succeeded (in gaining a research position) are often quite pleased the admission criteria are very strict. I see no reason why PhDs should be so challenging.