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Margin Notes

What’s up with doctoral students?

Anecdotal reports find them stressed, but a survey says they’re satisfied with their studies.


Doctoral students at Canada’s universities seem to be displaying quite a bit of angst lately, judging by the general response to a number of items on our website over the past several months.

Last fall, for example, I wrote a blog post and accompanying news story that questioned whether the country was producing too many PhDs. The articles also raised the issue of whether graduate students were being adequately prepared for careers outside academia, considering that perhaps only one in four or five graduates will eventually land a full-time academic position. Judging from the tweets and comments, the articles seemed to hit a nerve, with many readers nodding in the affirmative.

A recent opinion piece on times to completion in doctoral programs, by Dalhousie University associate dean of graduate studies Sunny Marche, also ramped up the angst meter. Dr. Marche observed that the longer it takes for students to complete their doctoral programs, the more detrimental it is to them and the greater the risk of them not finishing. He said his university is now taking a more proactive approach and at the five-year mark will “ring the bell” advising doctoral students to get a move on to complete their PhD program.

That column, too, uncovered much underlying anxiety, in this case about the pressures of family commitments, the quality of supervision, the adequacy of funding and other resources, and so on. “How is this discourse,” asked one commenter, “promoting a healthy atmosphere for PhD students who are constantly scrambling to do everything they are expected of and still complete in a timely fashion?”

But it was Melonie Fullick, our Speculative Diction blogger, who hit the mother lode of buried angst with two posts around the holidays on PhD students, depression and attrition (read them here and here). Melonie wrote that she felt that clinical depression, extreme anxiety and other mental health issues are becoming more common in graduate programs and that there is a curtain of “thickly oppressive silence” surrounding these issues. The first post received 67 comments and counting – a record for our site – with many of the commenters saying essentially (I’m paraphrasing) “thank you, thank you for expressing and legitimizing my exact feelings.”

There is a conundrum, however. I asked a higher-education policy analyst about these complaints and concerns of PhD students, and he seemed a bit perplexed. Studies consistently show, he responded, that graduate students are very satisfied with their programs. I asked for proof and was sent a PDF copy of the Canadian Graduate and Professional Student Survey.

(You can link to the PDF document here; it is from the University of Calgary and shows data from 2007 for that institution but also the combined data for what was then the G-13 group of research-intensive universities, which account for the bulk of grad students. Nearly 70,000 students were asked to participate and more than 25,000 responded, for a response rate of 36.8 percent. Another iteration of the survey was conducted in 2010 and some individual institutions have posted their results online, but I can’t find combined data for all the responding institutions. However, looking at a few institutions and their 2010 data, the responses do not seem much different from 2007).

So what does the data show? Asked to rate their academic experience at their institution, 68 percent of respondents said either “excellent” or “very good,” with a further 22 percent saying merely “good.” That leaves under 10 percent rating their experience “fair” or “poor.” There were very similar results when asked to rate their overall experience at their university. Asked if they were to start their graduate or professional career again, would they select this same university, 33 percent said definitely and 39 percent said probably – a fairly strong endorsement. Asked if they would select the same field of study, 52 percent said definitely and 29 percent said probably.

Respondents also gave high or relatively high marks for the intellectual quality of the faculty, their teaching quality, the quality of their guidance, etc. The only areas where a majority or near majority responded “fair” or “poor” were in relation to advice and/or workshops for things such as “writing grant proposals,” “career options within academia,” “career options outside academia” and “about research positions.” OK, so there is some latent anxiety there, but overall the responses seem quite positive. What gives?

Well, for one thing, the survey involves both master’s students (58.4 percent) and doctoral students (41.6 percent). There is no breakdown provided by level of study, so it is possible that master’s students, with their shorter and more focused programs, have higher satisfaction levels than doctoral students with their longer, more demanding programs. Also, there is no direct question on the survey about anxiety and mental health issues specifically. However, students were asked about their “student life experience” and nearly half rated it as excellent or very good, with a further 32 percent saying good.

I would be interested to hear other potential explanations for the apparent discrepancy between doctoral students’ anecdotal reports of anxiety and dissatisfaction versus the relatively positive satisfaction levels found in the Canadian Graduate and Professional Student Survey.

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is the editor of University Affairs.
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  1. Kaitlin / April 17, 2012 at 16:34

    I have always wanted know whether or not people who enter doctoral studies already exhibit tendencies of stress or anxiety and the high stakes of the PhD makes everything a lot worse, or if the doctoral program is the sole problem. As a person deals with anxiety, I can confidently say that my anxiety existed long before I started my graduate studies. I don’t know if that can be said for everyone.

    That being said, I do enjoy my graduate program and I have never regretted pursuing my PhD, but it has required a lot of work to cope with my anxiety issues and so I can still be successful. But I find that the issue is rarely discussed, and the support for this is minimal or non-existent in some cases.

  2. S / April 17, 2012 at 22:36

    Anxiety and depression are not uncommon among the ‘creative’ types (for want of a better word) who make up a large chunk of PhD students (disclaimer: I have a PhD and generally enjoyed grad school despite the challenges and occasional let-downs).
    However, people who are well balanced rarely comment negatively (or even comment much) on public sites, while those with an ax to grind tend to dominate these forums (just check out the comments section of a major newspaper !).

  3. Kiwi / April 18, 2012 at 15:47

    I think two different things are being measured here, which is why there appears to be a disconnect between satisfaction with the academic programme, and yet apparent satisfaction with their programme. Am I satisfied with my programme. Absolutely, though with some minor quibbles, but I basically knew many of the weaknesses coming in. Am I under stress and suffering angst? Absolutely, and some of the reasons have been mentioned. Family commitments, insufficient financial support leading me to take on my work duties than is optimal for completing my dissertation. Having to work around the year teaching/TAing, thus not having any significant blocks of time devoted solely to my research and writing. A horrific job market with little recognition within the university of the need for skills and a plan B in event I can’t obtain an academic position, particularly as the private sector in Canada appears to be adverse to PhDs. I am way past the 5-year mark, but will finish. However, to decrease the anxiety and angst, it would be worth universities looking at the source of that as well. And some of that will be found in the conditions under which we are provided with financial support and exploited as cheap labour as a result.

  4. Socrates / April 18, 2012 at 23:12

    A few comments to the idea that “Studies consistently show that graduate students are very satisfied with their programs.” To use a innocent analogy, if you ask a child in a theme park what his/her experience is, you’d invariably get the answer that it’s all fine, actually quite fantastic. However, if the kid sticks around for a few years and at a certain point (s)he’s forced out, facing the somber reality outside, then anxiety & depression may be the least of the troubles (s)he’ll be confronted with. What I mean to say is that we live in an age of almost completely useless statistics. A more rational person would also try the following: design a questionnaire which asks Phd holders (only) a few years AFTER they’ve finished the degree how happy they are with their academic past and decisions. Then, one should also inquire into the ratio between alumni and job openings in the academia in their respective fields. Then one should also correlate this data with how many Phd students are enrolled at that time in the program and see whether the number varied in any way in comparison with the previous years. Here, the truth might be utterly dismal and not because corporations demonically conspire to wreck smart people’s lives but because the government financially rewards departments with higher and higher numbers of doctoral students without ever asking what those poor schmucks will do after they get their doctorate. One should also note the high rate at which university professors endlessly protest against exploitation, while daily profiting from cheap labor. More exactly, the latter comes from underpaid TA’s or disgruntled instructors eager to do pretty much anything to teach a couple of courses just to stay afloat, irrationally believing that one day they’ll get that much-envied tenured position. One should coevally ask why is it that the market is reluctant in hiring PhD’s, especially from the field of Humanities (for I’m not so sure that a Phd in computer science will get one nowhere these days). A possible answer is that Humanities have become so lofty, self-assured, utopian, insulary, sublimely speculative, militantly ideological, impenetrable in their jargon, and generally irrelevant concerning life out there, that no one in their right mind sees any point in hiring any of these guys. And they might not be entirely wrong. Relevant statistics in this regard do not exist just to protect a status-quo, formed by university administrations, a callous professorial apparatus, and a government eager to spend someone else’s money with absolutely no fear that, should they waste it, the price they have to pay (i.e., being fired) is null. Meanwhile, graduate students or alumni face a increasingly bleaker world, constantly battling their shattered selves, broken families, intellectual exhaustion, and a society who could not care less for their (childish) hopes and ordeals.

  5. dr.doinglittle / April 19, 2012 at 11:41

    In my experience, there comes a point in doctoral studies when a student learns the truth about how higher ed works – namely that there is no job market, the degree has little value outside academe, and most research is done for the sake of tenure. That is when student attitudes begin to turn sour.

    It mostly happens in the latter stages of the degree, such as after one starts teaching classes and gets a sense of how poorly depts treat and pay sessionals. Attending depts meetings also can be a shock to the system – where there is exposure to just how unprofessional and petty dept politics can be.

    Regardless, I’m suspect of any studies of this kind, having been surveyed for several myself. There always is a fear that the participant can be somehow identified, and saying anything critical of your program might come back to haunt you in job hunts, peer reviews, etc. There also is a large amount of delusion among grad students, especially those just starting out – grad school is a kind of cult afterall.

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