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Speculative Diction

“My grief lies all within” — PhD students, depression & attrition


From November to March is prime time for academic burn-out in graduate programs — I’m convinced of that. Perhaps it’s a seasonal thing; it can be easy to sink into a trough of exhaustion and stress, and not climb out of it for months. But rather than just the seasonal doldrums, my sense is that clinical depression, extreme anxiety and other mental health issues are becoming more common in graduate programs as well as in undergraduate education.

I asked one fellow student her opinion of this, and she replied, “it seems like everyone I know in academia is depressed.” On another occasion when I was very unwell, I was told that “everyone” has some kind of breakdown during the PhD; my troubles were nothing to worry about!

Is this a serious structural (and normalized) issue rather than an anecdotal one, and if so, why is no one discussing it? When I sampled the Twitterverse, I received many replies reinforcing and elaborating the impression that yes, this is a problem — perhaps now more than ever — and that it can’t be reduced to students’ individual propensities and “weaknesses.”

In the current context, there are plenty of structural issues that contribute to the PhD as a time when students are vulnerable to stress.

Within their programs, students face a more intense workload than in their undergraduate degrees, and they may for the first time be around students with as much academic aptitude as themselves. These factors can contribute to “imposter syndrome,” the sense that one is about to be “found out” for not really being smart enough. As adults being placed in a subordinate position, some PhD students experience a sense of infantilization alongside the conflicting expectation that they develop a professional identity.

In terms of the student’s academic experience, the PhD emphasizes a transition to autonomous work that is often a new challenge. The lack of structure, and unclear boundaries about responsibilities, mean that some students are unsure what help they “can” ask for from supervisors. This is compounded by the lengthy isolation from peers that often occurs in the later stages of research (in the humanities and social sciences at least).

Career-related pressures in academe have intensified in the face of recession and long-term political economic changes that have affected the university and its governance. Graduate programs in Canada and elsewhere have increased enrollments often without proportional increases to the tenured faculty who provide supervision, or to non-repayable funding. The shortage of funding can lead to student debt and other financial difficulties as well as more intense competition for grants and teaching positions, and pressure to “complete” sooner. Fewer tenured faculty means that students may need to compete for academic mentorship and support as well. And all these changes have helped to feed further competition in the form of a tightened market for academic (i.e. tenure-track faculty) jobs; this kind of competition can be depressing and stressful.

While only a relatively small proportion of PhD graduates obtain permanent faculty positions, in many PhD programs there is still a deeply-held assumption that students can or should strive to engage in research-oriented academic careers. Thus the definition of success tends to be rather narrow, making it easier to feel like a “failure.”

The culture of academic replication — the inculcation of certain academic goals above all others, in spite the “reality” of the larger job market for PhDs — has been roundly criticized, even compared to a cult. Taking on an awkward double stance, many students are engaging in a process of translation and re-valuation of themselves and their work that continues until long after the degree is over; some must overcome a long-held sense of exceptionalism with regards to their academic chances.

And of course, alongside the professional pressures there are also the so-called “personal” issues and events that affect everyone, and which can throw one’s entire degree (and life) off-track if they occur — a break up or divorce, for example, which can itself result from relationship problems triggered by the academic lifestyle.

A larger problem is not only the context described above (and its effects), but also the thickly oppressive silence that surrounds it. Not coincidentally, I think, there is a parallel silence around the issue of attrition. Considering the high rate of attrition from PhD programs and the cost of graduate education, you’d assume there would be a plenty of research on the reasons why students “drop out.” But according to Chris Golde (2000) we still don’t have much information on why students leave PhD programs, partly because PhD attrition “looks bad” for everyone involved (responsibility for this “failure” is usually transferred to the student). I wonder how many students simply leave due to mental health and related issues brought on or exacerbated by the psychological minefield of the PhD process — and how much of this is preventable.

Melonie Fullick
Melonie Fullick is a PhD candidate at York University. The topic of her dissertation is Canadian post-secondary education policy and its effects on the institutional environment in universities.
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  1. Lucy / December 14, 2011 at 12:44

    This has made me feel so much better! I suffer from isolation frequently as I commute into university. I’ve also had severe personal and PhD-related issues this year which has led to a complete meltdown on the work front. Fortunately, I think I’m dragging myself back together but it’s reassuring to know that this isn’t just me.

  2. Terry / December 14, 2011 at 15:00

    Melonie, thank you for posting this. I have struggled with depression for a few years now, and I think a lot of my fellow students suffer from anxiety and depression. Although my depression started before doing my phd, doing a phd hasn’t helped. As has been mentioned, grad students are often working alone, and I feel best when I’m working with other people. There is also a lot of competition involved– for teaching, TA, and RA positions, for scholarships, and for jobs (if you get through!). I’m sure there are many things that universities can do to improve the situation. I’m also wondering if there’s any connection with age and experience. I’m doing a second phd at the age of 50, and my experience now is a lot different than for my first phd.

  3. Grasshopper / December 14, 2011 at 16:58

    Lovely, pointed article Melonie with some good insights.
    I also attended York. If you are still in a PhD program there I will assume you still aim to graduate and that you are getting sufficient support to be able to do so. I hope so. Kudos.

    I think all of the factors you mention are right on the money.
    I also think the most important factors are those you’ve just scratched. You mention a “thickly oppressive silence” – wonderful phrase. But there are different qualities of that, and several contributing factors I believe. Which certainly does lead to frustration, doubt, depression and attrition.
    That is, in my experience the elephant- in-the-room was the biggest causative factor leading to incompletion, and I recognize that there are many related types of elephants.

    I also recognize that the process of working through a PhD is MEANT to change a person, as a social rite of passage, and also as a personal growth experience. I suspect many students may not fully appreciate that (how could they, until they are through it?). AND that many faculty, alternately don’t appreciate that students are struggling with something MORE than the expected professional changes. In being unable or unwilling to relate to that, many faculty thus opt, like the Emperor with his new clothes, to honor the elephant in the room rather than their fellow human beings they are supposed to be mentoring.

    Now, some students obviously do succeed in gaining their degree. And that certainly has something to do with their own unique abilities, including ability to navigate the particular stresses and circumstances of their personal PhD path. It also has to do with external circumstances, such as the quality of relationships that are in place with faculty which underlie (undermine) their ability to succeed in that particular situation.
    On the other hand (just as it is not true or humane to conclude that people who struggle economically are poor because of some assumed, inherent character flaw or laziness, etc. without recognizing situational factors), students who don’t succeed in gaining their PhD degree (or choose not to succeed at that task) also have various factors shaping their own unique outcomes.
    Each project is unique, requiring different research, financial and faculty resources that may not be as available for some students as for others for many reasons (only some of which are ethical or valid).

    But relationships – that is, political alliances – are the elephant in the room that NOBODY ever talks about totally honestly or entirely openly.
    Some students simply will not enjoy access to faculty relationships and associated benefits that are healthy enough, substantial enough, and consistent enough to enable their success in the PhD completion task.

    Structural problems? You bet. Cultural problems (i.e. the ‘cult’ mentality you mentioned) .. you bet.
    In my department, for example, here were faculty who would not speak with each other, let alone work together – even though (in my case) they were the appropriate and best people to have together on a supervisory committee. The result was that I spent several years in the program without HAVING a supervisory committee (with same expectations of progress) before I became too exhausted to cope with that dysfunction any longer. When I met privately with the Grad Director and mentioned the issue of depression, his response was to look away and not respond to the statement. The fact that this type of thing has become ‘normalized’ and certainly not confined to one ‘rogue’ department indicates a much deeper malaise.

    How about the fact that tenure is a hangover of medieval times, reflecting theological structures when cleric-academics were assumed to provide an important social function, and protected from political reprisals, etc.
    The only other profession I know of with such tenure today is the judiciary, and for the same reasons. But academic tenure today has become the raison-detre for most professorial work – even though it carries little of the same risk as before, and provides social benefits that are often quite dubious (depending on how arcane one’s life work becomes). And it has skewed and deformed the entire process for both students and would-be career academics.

    The fact that tenure – and indeed Departmental Reviews – are so heavily reliant on peers only worsens the fish-bowl effect and lack of accountability. How often have PhD students wanted to jump out of their chairs and scream about their ACTUAL experience of their program to external reviewers – yet for so many reasons find themselves bound by that invisible code of silence (even though it ends up facilitating their own marginalization further)?
    Very, VERY often I would wager.

    None of this of course even takes account of pre-PhD experiences and relationships that provide the right kind of educational and social foundations, skill sets, persona & attitudes that best position people to adapt, survive and thrive in typical doctoral environments.

    Anyway, it’s very sad.
    Five or six of the original eight in my own cohort have fallen away through the years and not finished … all good people, all good minds … left licking their wounds.
    Indeed, I think many good, otherwise healthy people end up becoming much less healthy by trying to adapt to what is too often a dysfunctional social environment that appears to be inherent in many doctoral programs.
    And that is more than a matter of challenging circumstances, healthy competition, or character-building experiences – it is a hidden scandal … a conspiracy of silence around corruption, ethical misconduct, conflicts of interest, and in the worst cases, breach of expectations/contract, and misappropriation of public resources.

    Would be nice to see it cracked open one day.

    The best to you; thanks for opening the window to let some air in 🙂

  4. Erika / December 14, 2011 at 16:58

    Unfortunately, it doesn’t improve during the postdoc stage. There is a brief period of euphoria during the writing, submission, and defense stages, but then it is a huge plummet from there.

  5. Bethan / December 14, 2011 at 17:45

    I can identify with the worries raised in this a lot. I have a history of depression, am at the start of my second year of a part time PhD and am working full time while studying. I already feel worried about the state of my finances, whether I’m smart enough to do a PhD and whether I’ll get a job in academia at the end of it. But given my previous mental health issues I’m also just waiting for the (inevitable?) breakdown. It’s kind of terrifying.