Skip navigation

PhD education and mental health: A follow-up

By MELONIE FULLICK | January 3, 2012

As my first post for 2012, I want to provide a bit of a follow-up to my previous piece about PhD students and mental health issues.

Though I always had the sense there was a problem with mental health in grad school and especially during the PhD, I was still surprised by the intense reaction to my post. As I write this, there are 38 comments (not counting the one I left myself). Some of these comments are very moving and all of them are refreshingly honest, and I’m extremely thankful that so many of you shared your experiences and insights. Throughout this post I will link to your comments directly.

Through Twitter, Facebook, and the comments on my post, many relevant points were raised. Some people discussed an assumed “ideal” for PhD students, and a sense of guilt and self-doubt they felt when they “failed” to live up to this, which in turn can be exacerbated by the isolation of the process and by the apparent lack of structure in advanced academic work. Others mentioned the persistently gendered (masculine) nature of the scholarly ideal, with women being affected by systemic biases that implicate them differently in academic work as well as in parenthood and family life. Bumblebee wrote that the effect of PhD problems on intimate relationships could be disastrous, particularly without institutional support.

I focused on some of the structural issues in PhD education because I think they contribute to a “pluralistic ignorance” — the fact that a student may believe that she is the only one with a problem, and blame herself for it as well, even while others are experiencing the same thing. Several people commented that compounded by insecurity and isolation, the lack of acknowledgment of and open discussion about depression and mental health issues — the “silence” associated with stigma — is actually the most significant problem because it prevents students from seeking help either from the university or from their peers.

Another effect of silence is that prospective students cannot necessarily make an informed decision about whether to enter a PhD program at the outset (and which program and supervisor to choose). Marketization of higher education is problematic because it encourages institutions to persuade students to enroll rather than informing them about their “best fit” for the program or department. A PhD program tends to be a “black box” in terms of information about problematic aspects of the course and/or the negative experiences of students. This is only compounded by not asking students who leave about the reasons for their departure (reasons that are not always negative—as noted by Alex O).

In another comment, Lil makes the crucial point that accessing support services on campuses can be a trial in itself. Students need somewhere else to turn for support and perspective when significant academic relationships begin to turn sour. But it can take time — sometimes weeks — to land an appointment with a counsellor, and in some cases students will be speaking with a trainee rather than an experienced professional. Usually they will be speaking with someone who is not familiar with the PhD process and the kinds of issues that can arise during it. Often there are a limited number of appointments available to each student in a given period, and since these services tend not to be covered by available health benefits, the student may not be able to afford to go anywhere else for help. Some students may feel too uncomfortable even to seek out professional assistance, which requires a kind of self-exposure that can be off-putting.

Of course not everyone who enters a PhD program will suffer from mental health problems. Students with a lack of social and academic support and/or past histories of depression are more likely to be vulnerable (and this applies to other high-level forms of education as well). But it’s important to consider carefully the nature of academic environment and the ways in which it can affect students’ experiences, both the good and the bad. Graduate students, like all students, are not only learning but also becoming different people; they are “changed” by their experience, and this includes the psychological and the emotional as well as the academic and professional.

Many of the comments I received thanked me for being brave enough to write publicly about this issue. On the one hand it’s disturbing to me that there is such a lack of public discussion in spite of the apparent pervasiveness of the problem. Then again, if my posts can be used as a way to open the door to that discussion, then I’m happy about it indeed.

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.
Post a comment
University Affairs moderates all comments according to the following guidelines. If approved, comments generally appear within one business day. We may republish particularly insightful remarks in our print edition or elsewhere.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. Nadine / May 3, 2014 at 12:35 pm

    Thanks Melonie

    I honestly was unsure whether my thoughts and feelings while working on my PhD was singular until one evening ago a friend, also working on his PhD, told me that we should speak more because his friends do not understand since they are not enrolled in PhD programs. Also, I knew that I needed the support even though most of my friends are already PhD holders or currently enrolled in PhD programs.

    For me, the lack of social support, a stable spousal relationship (whether married on unmarried) is important even though you have great friends. It has truly been a challenge for me, especially studying in a location 24 hours away from home by flight, not having a community of persons from my side of the world, a academic environment that does not meet my social, emotional and spiritual needs also contributed to a person I did not recognize. Sadly, none of my feelings had to do with my academic skills and abilities; just the externals. But it took a toll on me. I am working on rebuilding myself and finding me again. The joyful and driven person I use to be, before my final defense in the next two months.

  2. Ed / October 13, 2013 at 9:13 am

    I’m nearly at the end of a long and tortuous DPhil process at Oxford University. It’s certainly been an eye-opener in terms of how poor supervision for graduate students can be, and how little the academics care for either your health or well being. Unfortunately it seems that at this level supervisors are a law unto themselves. My supervisor has been confrontational about the research, has not responded for months at a time to work sent and sent me in directions which have basically been a waste of time. In hindsight I realise my supervisor was never really qualified to supervise me since I do modelling and he is an experimentalist.

    The worst part has been the social isolation, because I had to move back home to continue with the course. As a result I am basically unknown to fellow students in my college and department. The whole process has left me feeling bitter, but I’m glad it’s nearly over. One thing’s for sure – I won’t be leaving any of the code or other intellectual property I created with him!

  3. […] effort as physical health from both sexes. The prevalence of mental health issues in academia – even if only publicized for grad school – are staggering. Several of my friends have been crippled by mental health issues both in grad […]

  4. C / March 19, 2013 at 9:37 pm

    A great resource for graduate students in Ph.D. programs and early career stages is PhinisheD:

    It is
    “a discussion and support group for people trying to finish their dissertations or theses, and those who have been there.”

    A vitrual community of us.

« »