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

By MELONIE FULLICK | December 14, 2011

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. Shay Bankston / December 30, 2014 at 1:50 am

    This article has helped me to better understand some of the emotions and challenges that I face as a student in the proposal development phase of this process. I quit a full time job, employed in a blue collar city within the mid west, as it was apparent that my organization was on the brink of experiencing massive lay offs and restructuring. I was admitted and received an assistantship into a three year doctoral program. The program is scheduled to take three years to complete(2 years of course work, 1 year for completion of dissertation) but at the end of the two years I was offered a full time position as an instructor. I accepted the offer without consideration as the money received as an assistant did not equal that of minimum wage. In hindsight, transitioning from administration into teaching was much more difficult than I anticipated and I learned that behind the ivory towers was not much different than being employed in other sectors. A great deal of posturing exists and as an African American woman very few people resembled me. It has been a very isolating and lonely experience. I have experienced increased anxiety alongside bouts of depression. Until reading this I thought I was alone. I am in my third year of teaching and often consider if this is worth the stress. I have two master’s degrees and would be considered more qualified than most. In my first two years I’ve leaner end more about the culture of higher education than I care to know. As a student I perceived the institution of higher education as very selective and prestigious. My perception has changed. I have experienced weight loss, depression, an inability to sleep, a feeling of inadequacy, and isolation. Hopefully I’ll finished but I believe I’m experiencing a very high level of burn out. But at least now I know I’m not alone.

  2. samir sinha / July 10, 2014 at 1:22 am

    I am an international student who completed a PhD at a Sydney university in mediaeval history. Till I went to Australia, I was considered a strong person with an iron-will. As an international student who was a high achiever, my supervisor could not brook that I spoke good English. In order to deprive me of a teaching position, he gave me an unsatisfactory annual progress report. Yet despite all of this, I singlehandedly resisted supervisory pressure and submitted my PhD and passed in flying colours. But troubles with former supervisor have not ended. My supervisor keeps telling me that I suffer from anxiety and depression to put me down. I am afraid he is writing negative letters of reputation that will tarnish my reputation. I am without any kind of support. I have applied fifty places worldwide for a postdoc but nothing has materialised. I feel like committing suicide.

  3. Em / February 24, 2014 at 1:36 pm

    Thank you for writing this excellent, thoughtful piece. Every bit of this (as well as reader comments) rings true for me, and for years I’ve been too burnt out to put it into words on my own.

  4. Bea / December 12, 2013 at 3:00 pm


    I’ve read every post above yours, but only yours resonated with my situation and made me feel a lot less lonely.

    I’m almost 33, in the 2nd year of 1+3 programme and feeling quite depressed lately. I’ve left a 35k job to do the PhD. In my Masters year I was basically bullied by both of my supervisors and found one that is extremely supportive of me. My new partner has a PhD too, so I’m well placed in terms of support to reach the finishing line. Yet I keep feeling that I don’t want to any more…I’m depressed, from what it seems. For the past few months I sleep 8 hours, never have problem sleeping, yet I wake up extremely tired. I’m anxious and on the edge, see problems in things that I would never in the past.
    The politics are too much for me, I’m waiting for this big guy to let me have data that will enable to publish in a good journal. But because he is my ex supervisor, he chooses not to respond to my emails. I think to myself that I deserve better than this, cause I’m worth more than what the big guy thinks of me (which is very little).

    I’m giving till after Christmas to see if I want to continue.

    May I ask what you are up to these days? Is there hope in doing something else? I truly believe there is, but as a person that likes evidence, I’m curious how it turned out in real life for you?

    Best wishes,

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