Achieving better mental health for PhDs (1/2)

27 Jan, 2020

Improving the Academic Environment for PhD candidates

Many PhD candidates (PhDs) experience negative thoughts related to their work. In order to significantly raise the mental health of PhDs the academic environment needs to be improved.

Do these thoughts sound familiar? “I’m living with a constant sense of impending doom”, “My problems are reasonable responses to the pressures of academic life”, “Sacrifices are necessary for success”? These are real life examples taken from the brave story of Desiree Dickerson about her stressful and anxious PhD experience, published this month in Science.

One of the biggest problems for PhDs is how to cope with chronic stress. A worldwide survey of PhDs, performed by Nature, showed that PhD candidates in 2019 were twice as likely to seek support for work-related mental health problems than PhD candidates in 2017. Notably, the job satisfaction of PhDs is more likely to decrease than increase over time.

Luckily there are things PhDs and universities can do to increase job satisfaction and improve the mental health of PhDs. In this blog I will discuss how the academic environment can become more supportive of the needs of PhDs. In a second blog I will discuss how PhDs can use emotional and psychological resources to develop better coping strategies for the stress related to their PhD.


Three improvements to support PhDs’ mental health

This table shows the five main ways in which the academic environment is negatively impacting the mental health of PhDs, taken from Nature’s survey. Shown is the percentage of respondents answering ‘Yes’ to the questions.

Question Yes %
My original expectations were NOT met during my PhD program 40%
I work 41+ hours per week 76%
My university does NOT call for long hours and sometimes working through the night 29%
I have experienced harassment or discrimination 20%
I have experienced bullying 20%




There is a mismatch between the expectations of aspiring PhD candidates and the reality of the PhD life. This was demonstrated by the fact that 40% of PhDs answered that their original expectations were not met. Clearly aspiring PhDs are too optimistic about working in research. This may be because their academic experience is still limited. Consequently they are not very well prepared for the harsh reality they will face during their studies.

Thus aspiring PhDs need an honest and complete overview of what it means to be a PhD candidate, before they make the decision to start grad school. Ideally they would also be advised on the best way to prepare for the challenges that lie ahead. Probably the best source for this information would be independent PhD associations, because universities have a financial interest in presenting PhD positions as amazing opportunities.

If you want to know what my advise to an aspiring PhD candidate would be, check out this blog!


Work-life balance

The academic environment places very high demands on the amount of hours PhDs put in at work. Indeed, more than 70% of PhDs work 41+ hours per week. Unsurprisingly, a similarly large group indicates that their university asks for long hours. Therefore it is to be expected that many PhDs struggle to keep up with the demands of their job. In fact, PhDs reported being unhappy with their working hours and placed ‘Maintaining a work-life balance’ at the top of the list of their sources of stress.

Henceforth PhDs should be awarded proper funding for their work, so they are able to pursue a better work-life balance. Additionally, graduate schools should open up the discussion about reasonable working hours and work-related stress. And an often overlooked point is the importance of on-campus daycare for PhDs with a young family at home. Portland State University is already thinking outside the box on this particular issue by creating a family room in their library!


Harrassment, discrimination and bullying

Another painful issue for many PhDs is bad behavior by supervisors and other (high ranking) academics. A shocking one in five(!) PhDs has experienced harrassment, discrimination and/or bullying at work. For example, the most common form of bad behavior was gender discrimination against women. Other common issues were racial discrimination and harassment, age discrimination and sexual harassment.

Under these circumstances there’s no question that academia should do more to create a safe environment for PhDs, so they can share their stories. For this reason universities should help PhDs to break through the lopsided power balance. With this in mind, they should encourage PhDs to unite on these issues. And of course universities should actively propagate the message that such behavior is unacceptable, encourage PhDs to share experiences of bad behavior by high(er) ranking academics, and prevent any negative consequences for them.


In summary

On the positive side, the mental health of PhDs is receiving more attention, as shown by the recent publications in Science and Nature. On the other side, universities could do more to achieve lasting improvement of the mental health of their PhDs. To sum up, there are three things they could do. 1- Inform aspiring PhDs about the realities of PhD research. 2- Offer all PhDs proper funding and reasonable working hours. 3- Create a safe environment for PhDs to speak up about harassment, discrimination and bullying. Because PhDs deserve a safe, healthy and pleasant working environment!


Next time

How PhDs improve their mental health


Get in touch

Contact me via the website or leave a comment on Twitter.


Featured image by TeroVesalainen @ Pixabay

PhDs deserve a safe, healthy and pleasant working environment!

Share This