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.