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

Posted on December 14, 2011 by

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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

About 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.


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

  1. Lucy says:

    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 says:

    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 says:

    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 says:

    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 says:

    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.

  6. Alex O says:

    I wish we could find a replacement for the term “attrition.” There are lots of reasons why people leave courses of life, apartments, marriages, countries, sports, etc. Of course there are awful conditions in some departments, but there are also positive reasons why people move on, because they themselves develop in new ways, or decide that the sacrifice isn’t worth it, or shift interests, or for personal reasons. These are all legitimate. For those who have left and found satisfaction in other careers: more power to you. All the rest of y’all who want better conditions. Time to stand up and fight!

  7. Bumblebee says:

    Thanks for the article and Grasshopper, I think your points are right on. (Forgive the grammar that is to follow: I’m typing on an iPhone and also I ain’t no academic.)

    I have a BA. My partner has just finished a 7 year Phd that brought him past the brink of mental health and over the edge and that almost caused us to get divorced. I’m an intelligent and well-read person, but I don’t have firsthand experience navigating the very real fifedoms that control the academic process, and I don’t have clinical or crisis counsellor training. I was therefore wholly unprepared and powerless to help him when the bottom fell out. I didn’t know what to suggest about the failings of the supervisor , or the fact that the department secretary would routinely lose grant application papers. I couldn’t suggest a course of action when it appeared that only members of a certain coterie were being hired for certain plum sessional jobs. And when the days in bed started, and the anger and raging at me, and the attempts to physically harm himself—– there was nothing I could do. There was no one I could call.

    I don’t mean to suggest that I as the partner had anywhere near the amount of stress that my partner did, or that any of you have, merely to chime in that the unhealthy amount of stress that the average Phd student experiences also places a tremendous amount of stress on the family unit. And there are no institutional supports whatsoever.

    It doesn’t get easier once the degree has been granted. In our case we’ve both worked very hard to repair our relationship and that part of our lives is strong and healthy, but the process of finding work that pays a living wage is now the engine of anxiety. Sessionals with doctorates make less money than the TAs they are supervising.

    I’m a published writer, a thinker and a person who at one time considered a graduate degree, but after experiencing the second hand doctorate there is no way in hell that I would ever put myself through that.

    And we can’t voice these things to anyone with the power to change it. And I can’t sign my real name to this post.

  8. Anna says:

    Thanks for writing about this common problem. I would add that there are similar issues within the British system, where I’ve recently finished a PhD in the humanities and suffered from depression. The pressures of finishing (here within four years, or your institution gets a black mark against it from funders) combine with a range of the other factors you mention, like the uncertainty of roles and limited availability of supervisors, to provide an excellent breeding-ground for depression and other mental health issues. I too was told ‘it is common’, especially during the writing-up phase, though I found this somewhat reassuring. Like in Canada, in Britain mental health amongs PhD-students seems to be a well-known but little discussed issue.

  9. InternaltionalStudent says:

    It has been very useful to read this article, thanks! I would say that the effects upon international grad students are even higher.

  10. I find this is a common problem for research students. That is because they are inadequately prepared for the tough program. Most of such students, especially when they have to repay their educational loans, feel they are driven to the brink. I too felt when I came to the University of California that it was an uphill task. But gradually I got into the proper rhythm and finished my doctorate in much less time than I planned.I received enough money through scholarship and I had wonderful hosts who treated me like their own daughter. Of course, family support goes a long way towards success.

  11. Not quite Dr. Spock says:

    Thanks for writing this. Your title “My grief lies all within” captures the extreme loneliness of the process. On top of being locked into our own little intellectual islands, there’s a corresponding ‘locking out’ of the kinds of connections that help to sustain us emotionally. Family and friends, those that are closest to us, are mystified by the PhD process and feel helpless when they see their loved one floundering. As Bumblebee points out, a lack of institutional supports and cloak of unspeakability compound the problem. BTW Bumblebee, kudos to you for hanging in there with your partner and working through it. Peace to all of you.

  12. Sabrina says:

    Thank you, Melonie, for having the courage to write this article. All of what you wrote resonates so with my own experiences as a graduate student and with my reasons for almost leaving the program (but for the exceptional support of two senior professors). My experience suggests that the silence you speak of is not only at an institutional level, but that it trickles down to the student level such that peers cannot seek support even from each other (which causes problems stemming from academia to leak out at home, as was noted above). I know for myself that the others in my cohort have treated me like a leper for fear that they be associated with someone like me, the one who created problems for herself in the program. And so even though they all seem to agree with what I have to say, no one is willing to speak out about it. I wonder if you would consider contributing this article to the CPA student magazine, Psynopsis? I really think reaching a larger audience might stimulate the open discussion you call for, and open doors to the kind of change that would benefit all graduate students, their loved ones, and academia in general.

  13. Margo says:

    Thanks Melonie – I needed to hear all of this right about now!

  14. pete langman says:

    An interesting and acute post, to which the responses speak volumes.

    In my experience, a PhD is a process, and a lot of it is down to the student fighting their way through it. Yes, you need to be smart (ish), but bloody mindedness is at least as, if not more, important. There will be long dark weeks of the soul. It’s what makes the final award all the sweeter.

    When you change your nectar card to ‘dr’, you know you’ve earnt the title. And so does everyone else with it.

    But yes, managing your supervisor is as important as managing your work. That way, when you need support, you can ask for it.

    My PhD almost beat me.

    But I beat it. On my own. Supported by partner and supervisor. So will you. Why? Because you acknowledge the problems inherent in the whole process.

    Good luck. Not that you’ll need it!

  15. Sarah says:

    I am just heading into my first year of my PhD this fall, and my anxiety is pretty intense. Another big issue is trying to do this with young children – the infantilization is even weirder when you are supposed to be a full fledged adult, a PARENT (what’s more grown-up than that?) and yet you still can’t break through the barrier between yourself and the self you are striving to be. The whole process seems designed to make you constantly question your ability – “imposter syndrome” is perhaps the part of this article that spoke to me the most, because it puts words to that sick sick sinking feeling. So many times, I wake up in the night, thinking, “What am I doing? Who am I trying to fool? Are you kidding yourself?” I really wish there was more security, especially when you are constantly told how brutal the job market is…

  16. Sylvie says:

    I have not started my PhD yet, but I am really happy that you shared your thoughts on the subject. I believe that mental health issues are the biggest problem in today’s business world.

    However, having worked on the market as a public relations professional for six years, the situation is not prettier on the practitioner’s side. A lot of academics will never step on the practitioner’s side, so it will be hard for them to understand this reality.

    Competition is very high, especially with the economic downturn. I saw my husband putting in 80 hours per week (for many months in a row) to make sure that he is nowhere close to be on the next short list of layoffs. Ironically, one of the reasons I chose the academic path is because I had enough of the BS of the business world.

    Because one who is doing a PhD is actually “working”, it is normal that issues similar to the business world appear. Loneliness can become a problem even for professionals especially when you work for a SME or in a small team. The lack of ability for networking of should I say the lack of time investment for internal and external networking can hurt both the professional and academic. I view networking as a solution to break isolation. Become member of a board, participate to church events, join the students’ association, etc.

    Keep in mind that it isn’t greener on the practitioner’s side since mental illness touches both the practitioner and the academic. Mental illness is a taboo that must be broken. Thank you for bringing it up!

    • Lesley says:

      Hi Sylvie,

      I left a lucrative public relations career, not of my own choosing–I was fired, but that turned out to be the best day of my life. I have gone on to complete a PhD and am perfectly satisfied with my life. I have worked hard, at least tried to maintain a positive attitude, and would gladly live under a bridge doing what I’m doing (working as a sessional) than return to the “sandbox” of a sick work environment. As an older adult (over 50), you kind of learn that “these things too will pass” and, despite the uncertainties of the academic job market, I wouldn’t trade my current circumstances for anything.

  17. Dee says:

    Couldn’t agree more. I took forever to finish. Supervisor thought that I was “not a serious academic” throughout. Made clear that lack of progress was fatal to tenure track future and thus, to achieving happiness. I internalized all of this and believed that he was right – after all, he did have 50 publications and edited a big journal in my field. My other problem – I liked teaching, and still do. Double fail.

    Discovered after graduating that I had fairly severe ADHD. Now trying to forgive myself for not being a perfect doctoral student – like my supervisor felt he deserved – and am glad I never had the courage to act on years of suicidal ideation.

  18. JudithR says:

    Melonie, thank you. I should be marking term papers as I engage with all of these wonderful and rich responses to your article, but somehow, and it’s no big secret, this topic is much more compelling than the grading looming ahead of me. @ Pete Langman, I think it’s no co-incidence that yours is the last posting before mine. Thank you for the encouragement. I wonder what your doctorate was in?
    In the social sciences and humanities, many people do feel beaten by the “system” and an increasingly impossible funding body (i.e. SSHRC). I know of many, many wonderful scholars whose work isn’t funded by SSHRC.
    As for me, I’m in the throes of many of the personal issues that can beat a PhD student down: third career, divorce, living in two cities while my ex sits on my equity and prevents my children from moving with me…but fortunately, I have a new partner who is calmly with me through the highs of grant submissions and project proposals, as well as the crashes that happen with various disappointments.
    We do need encouragement and support from those around us. We need to work almost as hard at counting whatever blessings we can find as we do at pleasing profs, writing proposals, and papers. One of the women in my cohort has told me that she is often lonely…it is my hope that as an academic community, forums such as this one can assist us to support one another, even if it is in cyber space.

  19. Matt W says:

    Ironically, I am writing this comment as a way to procrastinate from my thesis proposal work. I think this article is a very important part of the dialogue no one seems to be having about mental health issues in doctoral programs. As a fourth year candidate myself, I know that there is a lot of stress and hardship that comes with doctoral programs. I have learned a great deal about the “other side” of academia since entering my program and no surprises, many of aspects of it are not pretty. I have often harbored thoughts of abandoning academia before ever really trying an academic career, but on the other hand, I have never considered leaving the doctoral program.

    Part of it is that I have come too far already but part of it is because I really, really want this degree. I want to be able to look back on my life one day and said that I reached a level of expertise in some intellectual pursuit. Whatever happens to me, my PhD can’t be taken away. I think that outlook has helped me a lot through the rough parts of the program or times when I doubted myself.

    But it’s not been a one-man-show either. I have benefited enormously from having a supportive cohort who entered the program with me and who have become my friends over the years. Sure we often complain (a lot) about academic life, but having that outlet makes such a huge difference when many of my friends “on the outside” have no idea what we do, why we do it, or what we’re going through.

    And the last thing that I think helps is that I have a great supervisor. I never realized just how valuable this was until I started to see how friends were treated by their supervisors. Mine is awesome and has helped me immensely. I feel awful for students with unsupportive supervisors and worse, in dysfunctional departments. This stacks the deck against you in so many ways.

    Good luck to the other doctoral students out there in finding whatever it is that you want!

  20. Morag says:

    Really well-observed post. Everyone, every one, of us in our department had enormous pressures on them and everyone was patently suffering from depression and were all extremely anxious. For such a wonderful, bright bunch of people to ALL suffer insomnia, anxiety, allopoecia, depression, night-time bruxism, self-harm, relationship-breakdowns (and so on) seems insane. And I think we were.

    I think depression/anxiety/stress/overworking in a PhD student is not only ‘normal’ but, to some extent, expected of them. So, one month I was in the lab working from 9am until 11pm every night, travelling home, reviewing the data and sending in reports at ~2am, when I was finished. My supervisor commented on how pleased she was to see me working so hard, as she’d really had to suffer long hours for her PhD too. It’s normal for a PhD she said. Post-docs told me it was normal. My personal tutor told me it was normal. Technicians: normal. Other, more senior, PhD students: normal. But my family, friends and boyfriend didn’t think so.

    • xuan says:

      Agreed! I am no PHD only MSc, but I remember spending one whole month stay indoor working on my really tough complex analysis paper, which I would wake in the afternoon, working on it until midnight and then eat then keep working until dawn—– For one fricking whole month!

      My ex-gf left me (we’ve had a huge fight over this issue), and my mother doesn’t understand me at all.

  21. River says:

    I am reading this article as I am in my second year as a PhD in the humanities and am currently on medical leave. The silence you mention is pervasive and needs discussion. Working 7 days a week non-stop with no hopes of ever completing my work and the crushing self-doubt and destructive competition made it so that I physically could not continue. The stress aggravated health issues I came here with. This is not at all what I expected when I worked for years, bright-eyed and eager, to get that almighty degree. I’ve looked around at my friends who are healthy but become unhealthy, the rampant alcoholism, and dismal job prospects and have decided to cut my losses. I want some semblance of a work life balance and to see my family. I have realized it just isn’t worth it.

  22. Lydia says:

    Thank you Melonie, for having the courage to write about the many issues that surround both undergraduate students and, graduate students but, the bigger impact being felt by Phd students. It is a well rounded article that outlays both the struggles faced by those in the programme itself and, at the same time deeply analysing the structural and, systemic challenges that stand in the face of a student going through the whole PhD process. It is very sad that one has to go through such a long gruelling and, ardent process and, be tested in such a manner to come out successful on the other side. I begin to ask myself the question are those students who are not able to complete the process, any less suitable to earn the PhD, than those who complete and, get a doctorate degree? I think not. As you have mentioned in your article, I have witnessed many a brilliant minds, having to abandon the programme or, put it on hold due to not having any kind of support system either in the way of their departments, the university, professors, the supervisory committee, peers, partners, extended family, community etc. as they go through many of life’s many various moments. When I read all the responses to this article, I see the same issues and, challenges that you have written in your article Melonie. When we put all the threads together, it is necessary to see that there is a change that is needed in the whole structure of the system within the whole graduate studies process, and, this can only be achieved if we are all able to stand together and, support each other as peers, professors, supervisors, partners, families, community etc. I wish you Melonie, and everyone, the very best as you all continue to work towards your dreams, in getting your doctorate degree.

  23. Bex Hewett says:

    An excellent, excellent post and just spot on.

    I have a generally very positive disposition, and no history of mental health issues to speak of. I am pretty optimistic most of the time and normally fine to take what life throws at me but there have been times over the past 2 1/2 years of my part-time PhD, particularly of late, where I feel as though I am on the verge of some kind of breakdown.

    I think you’re right that it is more difficult at this time of year, generally. The days are short and the weather is miserable. I spend 4 days a week sat in an office earning money and the rest of my week sat in an office trying to grapple with the myriad of new challenges that my PhD throws at me. I don’t see daylight apart from at weekends.

    I wouldn’t give it up for the world, and I will get through it, but there are times when I just wish I could have a rest…

  24. John says:

    This is a very interesting, and I think accurate, account of what many of us face (or have faced) in PhD programs. I do think this an area of inquiry worthy of study, by the way. Without restating many of the excellent comments by others, I would like to add a few of my own, as someone who received a PhD many years ago, and who now supervises some dissertations and sits on many more..

    First, obtaining a PhD is a challenging, daunting task. It is not enough to be smart and curious. One also has to be a closer. Ultimately, this profession is about writing and publishing. If you cannot complete your work and see it to print, you cannot survive in academia (aside from teaching and admin postings). Quite a few of the people who quit their study had this problem, and suffered frustration, anxiety, etc. Unfortunately, I don’t think there is much that we (collectively) can do to change this, aside from helping students realize this problem as early as possible and suggesting they consider alternative paths to personal success.

    Second, those of you calling for change are likely to be disappointed. Academia is highly structured, and the problems you describe have endured centuries. It is not really clear who should or can make changes, or even what those changes should be. Having said this, I agree that understanding the problems and getting them out in the open is a good first step.

    However, I believe that we each must take a personal stand to make things better, both for ourselves and for others. For those of you in murderous programs, did you try to really understand the nature of the student – faculty relationships at the institutions you chose? Did you ask existing students how it was to work with the people you were considering for advisor? Did you even consider this aspect? Far too many people choose a place of study on the basis of University prestige or faculty publishing success.

    At one of the places I have worked at, I was the PhD coordinator for our department, and every year I would interview students who wanted to work with a highly successful, driven colleague. I knew (from my monthly experiences in talking with and calming them down) that every single student hated working with her. She brought many to tears, and even the normally stoic ones were frustrated. I therefore strongly encouraged the applicants to talk with those students about what it was like to work with the faculty member, but they always discounted the information. Until they arrived and were in turn frustrated … so, step one for all of us is to help potential PhDs see the importance of choosing a place that will be both challenging but also supportive.

    I care a great deal about the PhD students in my department, and just those whose dissertations I chair. I regularly ask rack student

  25. John says:

    (Sigh … Stupid iPod issues …)

    … I would ask each student on a regular basis how it was going. I did not wait for them to come to me, but instead sought them out. This is step two. At the local level each of us can make a difference. We can also step asking for perfection. I try to help a student make the most of every piece of research they do, but I would rather get a rough, somewhat flawed piece of work than nothing at all.

    Standing back from my personal experiences, the key point I want to make is that we can make difference at the personal level. For those of you currently studying, I wish you the best, and ultimate success.

  26. John says:

    One final clarification (I should have my iPod license revoked …) … I was trying to say that I care not just about the students I chair, but all of them in the department. I think it is very easy to not worry about the students that work with colleages, but that may leave serious problems uncovered. Without encroaching on the research itself, I try to find out how each student is doing.

  27. Melonie Fullick says:

    Firstly, I want to thank everyone who has commented on this post for contributing to this discussion, your posts are amazing and revealing, sometimes upsetting, and always generously frank–exactly what we need in this context.

    I had a hard time writing this post, partly because I felt overwhelmed by the amount of information I wanted to present (the literature on graduate education is used in my dissertation work). Also I have had many personal experiences and heard so many stories about PhD students’ psychological/emotional distress, that I wanted to be able to reconcile that research with the vividly affecting things that seem to be happening all the time in the PhD process. I know there are some researchers already trying to do this, thankfully.

    I think John (who commented above) is correct that a lot of these issues have been around for a very long time. When I reviewed about 50 years’ worth of articles about graduate education, some of the same things were coming up. It’s also remarkable how a kind of assumed “ideal” for graduate students (which was also mentioned on Twitter) is similar now to what it has been in the past–but as I argued in my post, the issues affecting the academic system at the moment, such as marketization, privatization, and rapid expansion, are also affecting graduate education in new ways.

    I’ll be writing a follow-up post next week about some of the things that have been raised in your comments, and in conversations on Twitter. Thank you all again for taking the time to highlight the importance of this issue by adding your words here.

  28. Dave K says:

    Great article Melonie – and surely a topic of great interest and concern for those keen on improving the higher education process.

    I wonder how much of this is due to the length of a PhD in North America – have similar studies been done in Europe or the UK and are the problems as bad?

    It strikes me as funny that most PhDs will move into non-academic jobs yet all seem to be pushed through to a 5-7 year PhD in order to get those letters behind their name. With shorter PhDs, those who are sure they don’t want to be academics can get out sooner and not be as worried about the unknown number of years ahead. Perhaps I’m describing a Masters program here, but it does seem to be a source of frustration for people who do not want academic careers.

    One argument often raised is that 3-4 years is not enough to get PhD research done in order to be successful in academia. Why not have all people graduate at the 4 yr mark and those who want to stay in the academy go down the postdoc route (either in their current location or elsewhere) until they build the reputation / CV to be competitive. Seems to me that we’re holding people inside the university fold for too long when they’ve clearly decided that they want to leave, but feel required to stick around for the degree which by necessity seems to be a longer and longer process.

  29. Thank you very much for this piece, Melonie. While it is very disheartening to hear of the struggles of Ph.D. students, it is also a relief to realize we are not alone. I am glad to see more attention is being paid to the issue. While completing my masters (also an arduous process for myself and my peers), I started to wonder why so many people seemed to be struggling. I agree that the problem has become normalized to the extent that it is invisible. More research needs to be conducted on the role of mental health in attrition. My own doctoral research will look at the role of student support services in graduate student persistence. Now, with rising enrolments, lengthy times to completion, and high attrition rates, it is time to recognize the need for institutional and structural change.

  30. pete langman says:

    @ judithR

    Glad to be of help – though I fear I’ll only give encouragement to those already capable, if beleaguered.

    As for my PhD, well, a little research … Francis Bacon (philosopher not painter) … Good luck.

  31. Judi says:

    Fantsatic poat – and really interseting. I am currently in year 4 of a Professional Doctorate in the Uk and struggling to manage 4 kids and a full time job – over the last couple of months I have really stuggled with working alone and no-one understanding what the Dictorate process involves – I have limited access to other researchers and although my supervisor is extremely supportive I struggle with self doubt and anxiety contsnatly. I had my interim eveluation yesterday and haven’t slept for about 2 weeks worrying about my lack of knowledge about my subject area – Somewhat reassuringly one of my examiners said ‘it is perfectly normal to have more questions than answers even at the end of the process but you will still know more about your subject than most other people’ – but the doubts and anxietys are still there and will be, I fear, until I stand at graduation.
    I often question my motives for doing this – as I already have a successful career – my only answer to compare it with a new love affair in that it is adictive and all consuming, at times filled with passion and excitement coupled with dispair, loneliness and anxiety with fears of rejection and failure – the hope being that the turmoil and torture lays a base for a long and happy relationship with research

  32. Lil says:

    I was happy to see this post and the many comments on an issue that is so serious but surrounded by silence. I would like add to this conversation by mentioning up the very real difficulties grad students face when they try to seek professional help for depression, anxiety and other issues. Assuming that your institution has a dedicated mental health unit or counseling center, it is often very difficult to get a first appointment within a few days (or even weeks) of your call (unless you have already reached the point of suicidal ideation). Once you have secured an appointment, you are likely to be assigned to a counselor who is not experienced in dealing with grad students and the particular issues they face. In addition, there often are limits placed on the number of appointments one student can have in one academic year at such facilities; in my university, this number ranges from 6-10 visits, depending on the individual student’s circumstances. Obviously, if you have developed situational depression related to grad school, the “situation” will last for years, but financial pressures and poor insurance policies make seeking private counselors and/or psychiatrists very costly. These costs are increased for those who have reached the point where they need to be in an extended treatment program (either inpatient or outpatient/daytime programs). Enrollment in such programs also generally means that the grad must take a leave of absence from his/her program for some length of time. While this is necessary and can ease the immediate pressures the student is facing, it may also mean that the student loses his/her funding for the period of absence. It also means approaching one’s advisor and chair/DGS about your problems–and as some posters have noted, they aren’t always understanding–and having to explain (or curiously not explain) your absence to your peers. In the longer term, this absence just adds to the time it takes one to complete the PhD, since you won’t be telling search committees that you spent one-half or one of your years in the program having a mental breakdown.

  33. Nina says:

    Thank you for posting this. I am not yet at the PhD level, but the idea of being “found out” is a daily reality for me. Great Job!

  34. Anelie says:

    If I could sum up the PhD experience of numerous friends across several disciplines it would be ‘disillusioning’. PhD programmes attract idealists, people dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge and hoping to contribute some great discovery/idea to their field; the realisation that their PhD will be far more limited in scope and impact than they dreamt can be very deflating. Some deal with this by re-framing their goals – hoping the Big Idea/Discovery will happen in post-doc or later positions – and some by giving up on the academic path and finding work elsewhere (which has worked out well for many – despite the way one is often made to feel on Planet Academe, this is not necessarily intellectually unrewarding or ‘second best’!).

  35. marymonsta says:

    Thanks so much for this article. It really helped me accept my decision. I was just starting the 2nd year of a PhD program but made the drastic decision to drop out. I was feeling like a total loser and didn’t want to continue feeling this way for another 2-3 years. I’m in my early 40s and only foresaw doom and gloom (depression, menopause, and unemployment) as future prospects. All around me I saw younger, energetic and confident women who had everything planned out. (I have a difficult time planning out my weekly schedule much less my life!).

    Despite what people kept telling me, how accomplished I was, not everyone can get in, etc., etc., I still felt like I was not good enough. I kept asking myself why was I doing this if it didn’t make me happy?

    I know I’m not the “weakest” student in the program, and I’m aware there are other factors at play that Mellonie mentions in her article. But I also know that I don’t want to continue on this road of depression and unhappiness.

    So I did what many others have probably done, but nobody likes to acknowledge, i.e. I’ve dropped out.

    • Bea says:


      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,

  36. Anar says:

    Is there any gender based difference in this phenomena of lonliness and isolation? I am agree that higher education establishment should provide structured attention to this issue but don’t you think it is designed this way to keep more resilient minds in the loop and deal with depresson and anxiety as a mental health by product?

  37. onestepatatime says:

    I agree – this post is right on. We need to be talking about these issues more openly and honestly. As the above comments make clear, if we had these discussions more often, we would all feel less isolated and less like imposters since most of us are experiencing the same thing. That was powerfully demonstrated at a month-long seminar for grad students this past summer. I was a little intimidated when I arrived and met students from Yale, Harvard, Cornell, etc. However, once we all got to know one another, everyone revealed that they had been equally apprehensive and insecure about their writing abilities. Through sharing such things with each other, we created a safe, supportive space in which to work and learn.

    I, like many of the others, have also suffered from depression as well as significant physical illnesses brought on by stress. Recently, I wrote about some of my own experiences and how I’m working through them (see

    I am a PhD student in history, and isolation is definitely a problem. Now that I’ve made it through coursework, I actually miss my classes, the opportunity to discuss what I’m reading, and the sense of camaraderie. Another problem in my department is the pressure to complete a PhD in 5 years. I came in without a master’s degree and had to learn two languages in addition to history coursework. When that is combined with international travel for dissertation research and an advisor who can’t understand that all of these things necessarily add time to one’s degree, it is a recipe for disaster. I am still working through my degree as quickly as I can, but I am learning to give myself a little grace and TLC along the way since no one else seems so inclined. I’ve discovered that when I lose my health, everything else goes too. Best of luck in the trenches and to those of you who have climbed out!

  38. Ann says:

    Excellent attention to a topic which comes close to home. I entered the Ph.D. program 5 years ago with awe that I had actually made it. This was on the heels of having emigrated to a new country, recently entered a late-life second marriage, and celebrated my 60th birthday. Since then I have had many ups and downs but the small program in the small university I attended is full of caring profs and students (for the most part). The major difficulty has been the lack of structure in my particular program, the lack or orientation (I did not even know the exact procedures to reach the comprehensive exam until 18 months into the program) and the difficulty in getting a supervisor and forming a committee. It was like being thrown into the deep end with no swimming ability – and there were sharks in the water! After 2 years the worst possible happened – my supervisor died suddenly and unexpectedly – on my birthday! I came very close to dropping out. We had become close to a certain degree and I felt I was finally getting somewhere. A very kind retired prof agreed to take me on, the department head stepped in and helped me complete the comp exam, and at the same time some of my work was accepted for publication in a major textbook, a real boost to self-esteem.
    BUT -
    None of this really helped the issue of stress, depression,and loneliness. I began to feel very useless and retreated into an earlier career, taking on a short-term, full-time position in my prior profession ( after having retired) as an attempt to bolster my sense of worthiness. That failed, too, only putting me further behind in my research. When the position was over I was clinically depressed, impaired, and suicidal. Monthly conversations with my nurse practitioner, medication, time off, and a fresh start back on the research, along with a very supportive spouse and a close friend, saved my life. I’m better now, but really have nowhere to go to process all this with academic peers. I have been fortunate to always find helpful people along the way because I sought them out, I have a strong spiritual grounding, and I have a proven ability to write well. Nevertheless, I still struggle with feelings of inadequacy, and the invisible depression, and often isolate myself from the university community. Being invisible is sometimes easier, and I’m fortunate in some ways that my work is so solitary. But it would be helpful to have a self-help group at the university where I could both give and receive support. I expect to complete my dissertation and will graduate within the year if all goes well, but something tells me I’ll be processing this for the rest of my life.

  39. Ken Mitton says:

    Myself and many of my PhD student colleagues had both good and bad times in graduate school. The research and traveling to scientific meetings was positive, as was my mentor’s effort on our behalf. The difficulty always finding full funding for stipends over a five year period was one of the stresses. We adapted by working on projects that were not part of our own PhD thesis work, but also provided additional coauthorships. After three post-docs I find myself a professor with tenure in a US school. One way to handle all the crappy bits, is to be certain you are honest with yourself as you enter and progress in training. Everyone won’t walk into an academic job. MOST wont. PhDs mostly DO NOT work in academia. That is fine though. The right post-docs, right timing, and some luck have a heavy influence on a new PhD having material to take into academia. But there are other places to take your ability to compile, analyze and add to new knowledge, and those are skills common to actively working PhDs in all fields. If a PhD is reviewing your CV, they already appreciate that you survived a lot of stressful,l almost insane moments, and thus have the most important thing they will need on their future team: someone who can simply show up. Thus, surviving grad school is sort of a test of fire of the toughest kind. One of your spirit and motivation. This may be a blessing, for you surely will find out if you do not love what you are working on and move to another path. I know people who bailed out and eventually did something else, or left with an MSc. Some of them have been paid more than a typical professor and certainly got into more executive roles. Sometimes their companies vanish and they scramble for something new. They, and I, are mostly ok because we seem to like what we do just enough to hack it out when times are bad as well as good. Do, talk about these feelings and stresses with other students and your mentors. Mutual suffering in coffee shops worked well for me and my fellow students back in the early 90s. good luck.

  40. Julius says:

    Right on, Melonie. But, why a number of responders have focused so much on a job in the academia and a tenured job at that? How about realizing that you can serve the society with your capabilities in other venues which can make your life as rich as you want to make it. Please consider also how such a different outlook might also change your predisposition while you are working to the noble standing.

  41. Jock says:

    This is a very insightful article. I dropped out of a PhD program 20 years ago after feeling a sense of isolation and a general lack of support. When I decided to return to my study years later I had a successful full time career and went back part-time, with the resolution that a full time career in academe was not crucial to my sense of success. I simply wanted to prove to myself I could do the degree. A strange thing happened: much of the drama that surrounded my first run disappeared. The reality is that there are very few full time careers in academe and far too many PhD candidates in the humanities. My first run through the program was so difficult because I wondered where my degree would lead me, since there were so few university opportunities at the end of the line. I believe it is important for all prospective candidates to think this through carefully before applying.

    My program also encouraged us to be very competitive. I would urge any candidates to take the opposite approach. My first round I got caught up in this competition and it took a toll. The second time around I vowed to cooperate with each and every student and to help anyone who seemed to be in need. I won’t say that I never got stressed, but the truth is, that this collaborative approach took a lot of the pressure off of my shoulders. I learned a lot more from my fellow students as well. In the end, I got my PhD because I loved my subject. I kept my original full time job and teach part time at university. I would love to say that I had a tenure track position, but part of a loaf is better than none. The full time job allows me to pay my bills.

    University doctoral programs do have a responsibility to provide more support to their students. They should probably cut enrollments, especially in the Humanities, and they should be upfront about the long term full time job prospects in academe. Most PhD grads in the humanities will likely not get a tenure track position. Indeed, far too many of my fellow students have struggled financially since finishing. No wonder so many students suffer mental health issues during the process: they give so much and see so little waiting at the end of the tunnel. Think carefully about the commitment and the cost, and make sure that you have a passion for your subject- it will help you get through the mental anguish and suffering. All the best to those of you in the trenches.

  42. Dr. D says:

    If you are in a PhD program, you are smart enough to complete it! Don’t feel like an imposter.
    Really, as this article points out, and as I found, the major challenge is the mental anguish, not your intellectual abilities. I felt really depressed during the last four months of my PhD. I was excited to be finishing soon, but the pressure of trying to find a job and deal with the endless revisions after several years of social isolation took a toll on me. Things got much better after I submitted and even better after the defense. I stuck it out and now feel I can better empathise with depressed people. It seems like forever until you finish, but you will and you are absolutely smart enough to do it.

  43. Gabriela says:

    Wow, I’m so surprised about the post because it voices so many things I’ve only thought after realizing how many of my friends who have gone through a PhD program do have mental issues (from depression to schizophrenia).
    I’m from Mexico and I’m myself a PhD student (hopefully for no longer than 2 months as I’m just waiting for the date of my final exam) and I too can say a great deal about how the doctorate takes a toll on your health, and on the health of those closest to you.
    I was so lucky to be in a university with very supportive professors and colleagues who made that part of the program just wonderful. The economic part and the future job were not an issue for me either, since I got a 70% scholarship for the university fees and I already have a position as a professor in another university here. Nevertheless, working on a PhD is far from easy, and reconciling a full time job (with all the demands of teaching, preparing exams, publishing and helping my own students) and a full time PhD program is nearly impossible. The two years of coursework I had to take have been literally the hardest of my life, since I had to teach my classes from 8 am to 1 pm and then take a 2 hrs trip to the other end of the city to take my courses from 5 to 9 pm. I would have never made it through it without the incredible support of my mother (a retired PhD herself), whom would wait for me to come home at 12 am with a nice, warm dinner on the table. I swear it was heaven on earth to me!!
    Yet, the amount of work was so hard that in those two years I literally didn’t have a rest: I now realize I only went to the movies once in two years!! Needless to say, I was so stressed that not only I started to resent the effects, but also did my mom, who had her own depression story (probably developed in her doctorate years) and my stress was the cherry on the cake: by the time I was in the first year of the research part of the program, she had a horrible breakdown that made her stay in a psychiatric hospital for three weeks.
    It was as if I had my mental hard disk replaced: I used to sit by the computer and stare at the monitor waiting for the words to come… only that they didn’t come. I no longer knew what to write, all of a sudden it was as if I didn’t remember what my project was about. From July to December of that year I wasn’t able to read one single book, I would start and drop them ’cause nothing made sense to me. I was diagnosed with depression too and started medication, but I kept on feeling bad, now mostly physically: my whole body would hurt as if I was getting a cold, I gained like 15 pounds in two months, I lost my hair and, the worst for someone who depends on reading, I couldn’t see well, I saw things double and I couldn’t see what was at my sides. Finally in February I got a new diagnose besides the depression: ophthalmic Graves disease, a kind of hyperthyroidism that attacks not only the thyroid but also the eyes. It took me and my doctor a whole year to find the correct dosage of the thyroid meds that would make me feel well. And feel well in this case means to be able to concentrate and understand what I read and what I write, for as strange as it may sound to some of you, if your thyroid is not working well, your brain won’t work well, no matter how hard you try. The endocrinologist told me that Graves disease usually appears after a traumatic event or a period of extraordinary stress, and I had had both…
    Right now I’m on the verge of finally get the magic letters before my name, but after reading Mellonie’s article, I wonder if I didn’t pay too much for them since my kind of thyroid problem means a life-long treatment…

  44. Susan Meindl says:

    Thank you for writing such a wonderful and insightful article and generating all the collegial conversation. It is so important and de-pathologizing to break the law of silence around this subject.
    I am struck nonetheless by the fact that almost no person above appears to have ever sought out (or is willing to admit) having sought the help of a psychotherapist despite the fact that every institution that offers a PhD program will also have a free counselling center for their students.
    As a psychologist/psychotherapist who works in private practice with grad students (and loves them) I feel strongly that having a focal point outside the candidate/supervisor relationship where the strains of the situation and the roles can be explored safely is very important.
    Family support is good and deeply necessary, but as so poignantly illustrated above, intimate relationships themselves often suffer under and are de-stabilized by the transmitted emotional burden.
    Another point not made above is that deeper emotional and psychological problems in the background may play a role in the dysfunctional insistence on over-achievement that so often contributes to the stress of the PhD process.
    On the plus side, it is fascinating to me how often, when examined, the thesis project itself is an attempt to heal old wounds… not just by becoming “a success” but by the light that the research itself shines on painful human situations…which may be all too personally relevant….say in the extended family experience.This adds an emotional and psychological burden to the research which can sometimes confound all good sense.
    These are issues which very very few supervisors are trained or equipped to support or contain. In fact, since most PhD students work with supervisors who are expert in the same field, and may also have sought out that field for unconscious personal reasons, there can be a dangerous psychological collusion.
    But when a thesis subject is recognized to have a psychological or emotionally reparative task to do, it can add inestimable value to the experience… whether or not the individual continues on into an academic position.
    Further, for those who decide to put that academic dream aside, there is a grief process that should be well as help being needed to re-orient and re-evaluate or create new plans and goals.
    Psycho therapy is a great help in all these matters , as it is for any other challenging life transition.

  45. Susan Meindl says:

    Thank you for writing such a wonderful and insightful article and generating all the collegial conversation. It is so important and de-pathologizing to break the law of silence around this subject.
    I am struck nonetheless by the fact that almost no person above appears to have ever sought out (or is willing to admit) having sought the help of a psychotherapist despite the fact that every institution that offers a PhD program will also have a free counselling center for their students.
    As a psychologist/psychotherapist who works in private practice with grad students (and loves them) I feel strongly that having a focal point outside the candidate/supervisor relationship where the strains of the situation and the roles can be explored safely is very important.
    Family support is good and deeply necessary, but as so poignantly illustrated above, intimate relationships themselves often suffer under and are de-stabilized by the transmitted emotional burden.
    Another point not made above is that deeper emotional and psychological problems in the background may play a role in the dysfunctional insistence on over-achievement that so often contributes to the stress of the PhD process.
    On the plus side,iIt is fascinating to me how often, when examined, the thesis project itself is an attempt to heal old wounds… not just by becoming “a success” but by the light that the research itself shines on painful human situations…which may be all too personally relevant….say in the extended family experience.This adds an emotional and psychological burden to the research which can sometimes confound all good sense.
    These are issues which very very few supervisors are trained or equipped to support or contain. In fact, since most phD students work with supervisors who are expert in the same field, and may also have sought out that field for unconscious personal reasons, there can be a dangerous psychological collusion.
    But when a thesis subject is recognized to have a psychological or emotionally reparative task to do, it can add inestimable value to the experience… whether or not the individual continues on into an academic position.
    Health problems seem to be endemic among PhD students. Stress caused, yes, but so often exactly those which are most triggered by emotional and psychological experiences. Instead of looking for psychological help to deal with them, students tend to apply to the medical system instead..perhaps because it is less shaming than admitting that they need emotional help, yet when the problem is essentially driven by ideas and feelings, pills will not help all that much.
    Finally, for those who decide with good reasons to put the academic project aside, there is a grief process that should be well as help being needed to re-orient and re-evalute or create new plans and goals.
    Psychotherapy or counselling is a great help in all these matters, as it is for any other challenging life transition. Do not rule it out as an option.

  46. Susan Meindl says:

    Oops! Clicked the post twice.. sorry

  47. Dr.Doinglittle says:

    Grad school has its challenges – but these struggles pale in comparison to what one faces after graduation – at least for the majority of those who cannot find an academic job and must start their careers over. There is more silence around that.

  48. Vanessa says:

    Great job, Melonie! It is good to read about a problem that has been “invisible” in Academia.

  49. eternal (grad) student says:

    Thank you for bringing the light to the issues that we all feel (or understand based on observations of the close others) but rarely speak up about! I am on my second PhD degree, pursued consecutively, and the difficulties highlighted above resonate strongly with my experiences. The expectations of the graduate programmes, the unspoken code of over-performance and a sense of un-entitlement for work-free time is oppressing, stressing, and depressing. It becomes even more so suffocating when you try to balance career as a PhD student with being a partner and a parent!
    I can also relate to the issue of “a deeply-held assumption that students can or should strive to engage in research-oriented academic careers.” Little time, if any, is spent to educate the students about the applicability of their education and degree beyond the walls of academia, indeed creating a “definition of success [that] tends to be rather narrow”. This, also, often results no sense of direction once the PhD is finally completed and one is out in the “real world”. Simply put, students are so used to being students, that beyond this role and academic setting there is little sense of where and how to apply oneself adequately. In my case, it is such feelings and circumstances that led to another PhD…. for better or….?

  50. Edward says:

    You can tell we are all academics by the long responses… ;o))

    I want to say I have bi-polar II and this article fits in exactly with what I have been feeling and experiencing.

    I am fortunate to have excellent medical care and have for the last six years and I am very pro-active in my treatment.

    I would encourage anyone with a mental illness and who is involved in a PhD. program to make sure you are working with your doctor to achieve the balance you need under such stress.

    Thanks for the article!!

  51. Anon says:

    I want to add my voice to the ones saying kudos, Melonie, for posting this and the great research you are doing. I just completed my PhD in the Social Sciences and had what one would consider a very ‘successful’ PhD. Finished in less than 4 years, fantastic & supportive supervisor, no major bumps in the road, solid publications (I know all this is more luck than personal abilities). And yet, I still had all the same isolation, moments of depression (in the non-clinical sense) and extreme self-doubt throughout the process as many other commenters.
    The infantilization is what really killed me. I could have been out in the ‘real world’ with my masters making a good living, having people work under me, with real responsibility, and yet I get publicly called out by the department head for misunderstanding a complex bit of bureaucracy from time-to-time. It’s so bizarre.
    Part of the problem with academia is that we’re taught to believe that all of our successes and failures rest within us as individuals and the skills we develop, whereas many other careers allow people to externalize these things to an extent.
    And sadly, I can say it doesn’t get better afterward. I had hoped to go down an academic path, but my husband got a t-t posting in his dream city at a great school, with no spousal support offer (I was only half way through my PhD when he got the job). I managed to find a peri-academic research position in which I’m still publishing and grant-writing, which is pretty rare in the social sciences. Yet, I still feel judged by all his colleagues at social functions, even though I make a heck of a lot more money than a first year t-t.
    Not that this post isn’t already long enough, but I also want to say that we should try to reframe ‘attrition’ to recognize that many peoples’ lives are substantially improved in terms of stress, finances, mental health and countless other ways by quitting the PhD. No shame in making the right choice for yourself.

  52. Anon says:


    I suspect gender plays a role in specific ways in specific circumstances, though I doubt it could be generalizable across all disciplines. E.g., if a woman is in a male-dominated cohort, or vice versa, she may more isolated. Personally, as a woman, I feel I benefited from having a young-ish female supervisor who I could talk openly about things such as babies (a big concern for many grad students). I don’t think it’s generalizable in anyway, but I’ve had friends suffer by having male profs who were much more impersonal and distant in their relationships.
    Best advice for any potential PhD: meet your supervisor before entering a program. Make sure your personalities click.
    Also, my suspicion is that financial support is one of the biggest variables. I was fortunate enough to have good funding for my project and for my stipend. But students who had to ‘find’ their own research money spend at least 6 months to a year on that piece alone, and met huge amounts of uncertainty and frustration. How can you complete a PhD in four years (which is pretty much all you can get a stipend for) when a year of that is dedicated to finding funding for fieldwork?

  53. Anon says:

    My entire life I have been driven, passionate, positve and resilient. The last 2 years of my PhD I have felt increasingly less so, at times feeling skilless, unconfident and depressed. I am not sure why I am still doing it while my peers live their lives, persue their passions, earn an income and gain experience! Haha, the dissonance.

  54. Maybe says:

    Thank you for opening up this discussion. I wanted to share that the thick silence is an experience I share. I lost my son recently and cannot muster the energy to make dramatic changes. I continue in my PhD program because I need to keep moving but find that a PhD program is an extremely emotionally unsafe place to be. The competition that is instilled makes it very difficult to connect to people I see every day. I fall outside the realm of normal human experience – the people attracted to this activity are in no position to offer support. I cannot imagine a worse place to be than in academia right now. Maybe Wall Street comes close.

  55. Mike says:

    A never ending treadmill and cycle of abuse, lonliness, and dysfunction in academic departments? How to stop the madness and get off the train? Those of you who are now going through the mess that Melonie mentions, realize that you are part of the solution. When you get your chance to become an academic (if that is what you so desire) DO NOT BECOME YOUR PROFESSOR. Realize how you can be what you needed – for someone else. Be the example, the solution, not the common problem found in academe everywhere. OR, like some of us, get a job with your degree in the real world, enjoy the heck out of it, and counsel graduate students or aspiring graduate students in your chosen field. You do not have to become an academic to be successful. The teachers you deal with may see it that way, but that is because that is THEIR goal. You can be very happy both professionally and financially (especially finanically) outside of the academy, yet have great influence on young minds who desire to enter your field.

  56. 2Rax says:

    When will people finally figure out that graduate school is nothing but an exercise in continual gaslighting and mansplanation? To succeed, one must mansplain (in seminars, conferences, private conversations, etc.,) to the best of their ability, and then gaslight colleagues, students, and professors if/when they object to one’s mansplanation. In turn, one must suffer the gaslighting and mansplanations of countless others. It’s no surprise, then, that everybody ends up feeling as though their perceptions and thoughts (especially about themselves and their intellectual abilities) are not correct. It’s a common symptom of that kind of emotional abuse.

  57. 2Rax says:

    To clarify the terms of my previous comment, I’ll provide definitions from one of my most trusted intellectual resources (Urban Dictionary.)

    Gaslighting: an increasing frequency of systematically withholding factual information from, and/or providing false information to, the victim – having the gradual effect of making them anxious, confused, and less able to trust their own memory and perception.

    Mansplain: to delighting in condescending, inaccurate explanations delivered with rock solid confidence of rightness and that slimy certainty that of course he is right, because he is the man in this conversation

  58. John says:

    Late, as always, to the conversation but felt compelled to add my two cents. I think what is often missing from this is an acknowledgement that “dropping out” is not inevitably a bad thing. I think there is far too much emphasis on “completion at all costs”. Completion of an education? It speaks to a larger philosophical issue about education in general that celebrates “advancement” – the language is rife with this: degree, grade, primary, secondary, teritiary, graduate, etc. etc. The decision to leave a graduate program then becomes an admission of weakness, a declaration that one is not equipped to complete this thing arbitrarily assigned, a failure. No wonder some get depressed. It is no sin to leave a graduate program and pursue something else. Perhaps it is often the case that one has gotten what one wants from part of a program and that is good enough. One thing is certain – it does not mean an end to education.

  59. Ann says:

    Interesting letter and so many responses probably means that most if not all phd candidates feel the same way. I also feel I am not smart enough to be in a phd program, being older I am surrounded by brilliant and hard working young people with quick and more flexible minds and after all, experience will only take you so far. I find ex curricular stuff gets in the way of the studying, but I suspect that is the same for all of us.
    I find there are 2 things are get me down in particular – the feeling that I have lost my support team (I was so lucky with my MA at a different university), and the feeling that I can’t keep up.
    I was looking forward to finishing courses, and getting into “real” studying, I never thought about isolation, but I did worry about finding compatible profs to work with.
    is everyone happy with their phd university? has anyone else thought about changing location? Is it permitted?

  60. T. says:

    No one is forcing you to do a PhD. If you don’t like it go do something else with your life. Life is too short. A PhD is not for everyone. Every university I have attended has FREE counseling for all staff and students. Find it and use it. As a single person living overseas the support is great. At my university we have a workshop series for PhD students and each month PhD students in my faculty have a get together and talk about any issues. There are loads of great ‘self-help’ books written about getting through a PhD. If you need too, get different supervisors. Change departments or schools. If someone in your dept. is incompetent go to their boss and tell them so. Make an appointment with the Dean! Take charge of your PhD. Personally, I suspect that many people who complain about office politics, work load, lack of information and lack of support would probably have the same complaints if they were working in a corporate environment. Because many PhD students have never ‘worked before’ they complain as if such issues are unique to the graduate student experience. In my experience these students haven’t taught themselves how to navigate ‘the system” and are waiting for someone to tell them what to do. I really don’t believe that a PhD has ruined someone’s mental or physical health or ended someone’s marriage in a way that would not have occurred if they were involved in other employment or other life circumstances.

  61. Jane says:

    T, I worked in the corporate world before my PhD, as have many PhD students. The issues you mention might not be unique to postgraduate research, but students are more vulnerable and exposed to them due to the reasons outlined by Fullick above. For example, you don’t often have the boundaries between work and leisure that most workers in the corporate world have. Poor communication, and many people fighting over the crumbs of esteem that are doled out, can make office politics particularly toxic. But you are right to advise people to use the support that’s available (it might not always be within one’s own department).

    I had a major case of impostor syndrome and lost faith in my work, but finished the thesis thanks to the support of my supervisor, counsellor and books like ‘Finishing your dissertation in 15 minutes a day’ by Joan Bolker.

    I decided that I didn’t want a traditional academic career, and started retraining while writing up. But I have ended up as the manager of a research and development team within my sector. Funny how things work out. I hope things turn out well for all the PhD students who are reading these posts.

  62. NYA says:

    Thank you for starting this very important dialogue. As a supportive spouse of a PhD student, the daily struggles of intellectual isolation and lack of structure can definitely be contributors to serious mental health problems. Having programs in place to address not only the gravity of the effects of a PhD program on one’s mental health but also acknowledging just how difficult it is to complete a graduate degree would go a long way. A great place for Universities to put their dollars!

  63. Josée says:

    Thank you for publishing this article. We need to talk more about these issues. I finally felt like I was not a failure for having taken a medical leave during my PhD…. Any studies done on the subject?? It would make a great thesis subject :)

  64. MsEng says:

    Thank you very very much! When I read your article, it felt like someone is actually reading my mind. Although I am in a Masters program only, but I would like to tell you the students feel the same way even in masters.

    I graduated from a very good engineering school here in Canada and now continuing my masters at the same school in the same discipline. You would imagine that things would be easier…but boy easy is not the word to be said in grad school. My supervisor is a very renowned prof in his field with numerous contacts in industries, research papers, great labs, enormous funding…but the one thing he doesn’t have is time. This is my second year, and my supervisor has changed my project FIVE times. I meet with him only once a month, and I am scared to enter face him because I don’t know what he would say or if he wishes to change the project. Following a meeting where I laid out my experiments and methods to him, I showed him some positive results…instead of appreciation, my IQ was questioned and was called not fit for the program. My enthusiasm for the subject is almost over…now my only aim is to “complete” the program.

    One thing is for certain – I would never ever advise any of my friends to get into grad studies. I agree with you more studies need to be conducted and published regarding the mental stress grad studies put on students and their family. Great article! Best wishes for your studies!

  65. Brittney says:

    Your self worth is not based on how “others” treat you. You are wonderful, you are not the weak link and no self-respecting person would think less of you if you decided to “drop out” of a PhD program. Earning an advanced degree is a good thing, but is it really worth loosing your mind over it or destroying relationships? How much is it worth to you, really?

    And, how will the skill sets you build during the PhD process benefit humanity? Will you simply become another useless, tenured, academic/professor or are we actually thinking about how our skills can improve our society? Or, do we just like the look of having letters behind our names (i.e. PhD, EdD, M.A. etc.)

  66. [...] 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 [...]

  67. RhetorA says:

    A big surprise to me was the freedom of the advisor to take as much time as convenient in providing feedback. I assumed the advisor would be on board and engaged but yes, realize this was a rather naive view. I appreciate that advisors have competing demands on their time, but the lack of engagement (defined as unjustifiably lengthy turnarounds on drafts and revisions) has very real impacts on the student (an extra year of tuition and student status, in my case…so far). Yet, this aspect of the experience is completely “off the record.”

  68. The part that caught my attention in the above was that of attrition. My PhD was a Science and Engineering-based one based in the UK, and I can assure the author (Melonie) that the pressures faced by Humanities and Social Science candidates also affect technical disciplines. And yes, the end stages (write-up) are the worst for us too. In fact, I created a website / blog for the simple reason that I felt there was a lack of available information about what potential PhD candidates might face. I wanted to explain in simple terms what a PhD involved and what pressures they were likely to face (

    The author’s comments on attrition caught my eye. A supervisor / advisor can have an apparently good record with few or now failures, however, such records in many cases seem to be based on people who reached viva voce / exam stage. Only successful PhD and MPhil (whether by directly doing an MPhil or after being downgraded from PhD) are remembered. Those who fail are often just a statistic in the graduate school office records and there is often no record of those who for various reasons drop out. If the failures and dropouts are looked at more closely and their experiences also recorded, then the PhD and graduate school process could be evolved into one that truly reflects academic ability.

    As things stand with both the North American model and the UK / European used round most of the rest of the world, there are so many other factors that can affected a candidate’s performance. Academic politics and variability in the supervision and graduate school process should not be amongst those. Unfortunately, the lack of information on why people fail or drop out and failure to create a feedback into the system as a whole, means the system cannot be looked at as a whole and improved for all those involved.

    The issue of there being too few tenured positions following PhD is another one that will continue. Yes, funding and the lack of it is a major issue, however, the above misses a further important and possibly related point. One reason this statistic continues to apply is simply because it is cheaper to hire a new PhD student than it is to retain a tenured researcher.

    Ian (Mackem_Beefy)

    Ian (Mackem_Beefy)

  69. Just to add, in answer to Susan Meindli, whilst we may be made aware of University Counselling services when we are enrolled, PhD candidates and others often think their (often) work-related problems are not a subject that is dealt with by the counselling services. Concelling services are often seen as a body to deal with student personal problems only. This is wrong and this is a point that needs to made during the induction process.

    Ian (Mackem_Beefy)

  70. Vincenzo Politi says:

    I agree that “academic replication”, with its standards of success, is a dangerous cult. No matter up to which point I can adhere or not to such a cult, however, I really don’t know what I can do with a PhD in Philosophy outside of the academia. I am meant to finish my PhD this year, it’s just a joke to think that I am going to be able to find an interesting non-academic job. Surely, this consideration does not help with anxiety.
    Beside, even if I cannot consider myself as “depressed”, I must say that the company of other PhD students may be very very boring and I hate when every conversation becomes a competition for “who is going to win the argument”. This may be psychologically unbearable for a non-competitive person as myself.

  71. [...] mental illness and the prevalence of depression shared amongst graduate students that has become normalized, especially in competitive academic environments. More funds, including those from private sectors, [...]

  72. [...] is a lot written about student mental health issues (a couple of excellent blog posts on this are here and here), but seemingly rather less discussion of the issue at ECR level. This might well make a [...]

  73. Lisa M says:

    I’m currently in a masters program and this article rang true for me too. I’ve noticed this with myself and most of my friends within the masters program. I don’t think this is just a PhD problem, but a grad student problem in general. I do think mental health issues affects all levels of graduate school and universities in general.

  74. "Quitter" Talk says:

    I left my program around 99/2000. The issues you raise so well are not, I think, new. There were workshops on it in my university (also York) organised by students and faculty; the stigma still exists, though, as it did then. Most of us thought even as we attended the workshops that the “non-academic jobs” or the “what you can do with an unfinished doctorate” discussions were about everyone except us. :)
    There was a literature on the PhD experience building at the time, and it has been the subject of regular articles in higher ed over the decade and a half I’ve been watching. I feel like the great resources that can help those who actually do want to stay (there are often GREAT reasons to leave, so we should destigmatize that) are not getting into the hands of the students and supervisors who need them. I’m thinking of work in the Journal of Graduate Student and Professional Development, some tools and theories pioneered in New Zealand and Australia (like the Kiley-Cadman questionnaire for supervisor and supervisee), and several books. I’ve approached my return to my own dissertation in a much more intentional and thoughtful way, some dozen years later, and I really appreciate the time spent looking at all this stuff (in order to help others — my current role) as it has helped me to return with way more emotional and mental health. Thanks for raising this.

  75. Avicenna says:

    You have hinted on one important issue but forgot to analyze it in dept. Grad student\Professor ratio being to high is a much deeper problem than just Professors having many Ph.D students. If in a university there are 1 professors and 5 Ph.Ds that means roughly that 4 of those Ph.D students will be having lots of difficulty finding positions. When a student enters grad studies s/he is in the hopes of conducting a research of his/her own interests and enjoy every moment of it. You then around 2nd-3rd year face the fact that if you dont produce something that is above “others“ you will have a difficulty of finding a job. Now your research no longer can be something which you enjoy doing. You literally beat yourself up to produce something which is the highest level possible, not because you really like what you are doing but because you are worried about your future. In short this system is pushing people to do their best in the wrong way, by causing fear in them. It is simply capitalism* at its best, compete fiercly or perish. When you start to compete, Ph.D life becomes full of emotional breakdowns. You start literally tearing yourself apart when you realize you have made mistake in your project/experiment etc. And the list goes on.

    *capitalism and plus too much human population that earth can possibly support.

  76. First off I want to say awesome blog! I had a quick question which I’d like to ask if you don’t mind.
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  77. Dragonseye says:

    I’m in my third year of a PhD program and struggling with a weird depression that comes and goes. I’ve been in school for a decade (this year is my tenth). I’m tired, burned out, emotionally depleted. I’ve been through all the self-doubt and impostor syndrome and made it through the other side but now I find my friends who I thought were there through thick and thin are starting to criticize me for doing a PhD. My biggest fear: Graduating and finding that no one I know and love can relate to me anymore or me to them. I have encountered a lot of resentment from old friends who haven’t pursued education and one friend’s mother straight out asked me ‘what the hell are you doing? An MA is good enough! You’ve been in school forever, just get a job already.” I didn’t mention that I work two sometimes 3 part time jobs at the university (TA, Disabilities Resource Centre, occasional editing for journals), have two kids and a husband to worry about- groceries, laundry, housekeeping, AND struggling to work my program through. Sometimes I think she’s right. It takes a special kind of crazy to attempt this. Yet, last year, I attended our commencement ceremonies and watched a fellow student walk across that stage and receive her Doctorate. I felt so much longing to reach that moment that my eyes welled up and I had to take a minute to breathe. What the hell. I feel like and tell myself I should be quitting every second day and then I drag my sorry butt out of bed and teach a class and everyone cheers at the end or I write something and a prof looks at me with a certain respect and somehow these little wins push me on like a little ship in the middle of the ocean taking whatever breeze wanders into my sails. Will I reach that shore? Not sure. Supplies are running low and the water is getting brackish. Fights are escalating with the hubby. Kids are getting frustrated. Funds are low. Debts are overwhelming. C’mon little breeze!

    • iunderstand says:

      Dear Dragonseye,

      I know that feeling of longing . . . I’ve had it since I was a little girl accompanying my parents to various graduation ceremonies, including their own for Master’s degrees which they received on the same day from two different universities! I remember that day as one of the highlights of my growing up years in the 50′s and 60′s. I have always loved the music (War March of the Priests), the beautiful colors representing different fields of study, and yes, even the funny little hats. There was an excitement in the air of knowing that every color, every hat represented a job well done.

      That feeling of longing remained with me until years later, after marriage and motherhood, divorce, post-graduate work, two full-time careers coupled with one part-time career, I embarked on the PhD journey by taking my first Master’s class at night in 1996 (at this point I was still working days). Eventually, I took daytime classes, completing my Master’s Degree in Dec 2002 and my PhD in May 2011. Altogether I was in school for fifteen years. I loved being in school, both the coursework and the times of independent study. There I found a much needed respite for my soul, one that I didn’t even realize I needed.

      I am grateful for the support and encouragement of professors and mentors along the way. I am grateful for encouragement from the graduate school colleague who, when I got tired, reminded me of how far I had come whenever she told me “you don’t have far to go.” This became my mantra. Sometimes I’d walk around the house encouraging myself, rhythmically chanting. “I don’t have far, I don’t have far, I don’t have far to go.” Simple as it sounds, it always cheered me up. It always seemed to help me see the forest, not just the trees.

      Looking back I realize that too much of this journey is either unspoken or learned “on-the-job” and it would be better if this part was talked about and written about more than it is. It helps to understand that these moments are part of the process and that I wasn’t the only one who experienced them. Yes, I too have felt the loneliness of having no one to share this important part of my life with, especially not on a regular basis. Colleagues have moved away and though they’re only a phone call away, that’s just not the same as having them nearby for an unplanned spontaneous time for lunch/dinner and conversation. I too have felt that my friends, though they love me, don’t really understand. I love attending the conferences, they do energize me. Yet, these are annual, not ongoing events.

      I looked for a teaching position until December 2011. I have continued to work full time in a related field, but with a nagging sense of disorientation and discontent, even though my work is quite pleasant. I remember the wonderful feeling I had when I went back to school, the feeling that I was home. My work is enjoyable, but it doesn’t feel like home. I remember what it felt like years ago when I loved my job, long before I began to want to do something else. I want that feeling again of being home, of loving my work.

      Just in the last few days, I decided to resume my search for an academic position and continue working on various writing projects, etc. that I had put on the back burner. I could retire from where I am, but it feels like settling for less than what I am capable of. I know that I will never be satisfied until I put my fifteen year investment to work. I don’t want to die with my work undone, or the books and music still inside me. I want to share my thoughts, my work with a larger audience and it won’t happen if I stay in my current job.

      I realize now and reading this post (yes, I read every comment) confirms that for the last two years, despite being an upbeat positive person, I have been perhaps mildly depressed. If I had to give it a name I would call it “post-PhD depression.” I have been living in the unsettling transitional space of liminality which carries with it the hope and expectation that the best is yet to come. That is very good news, since I thought I was experiencing burnout, which carries nothing a a sense that the best is behind us. Writing this has helped me put it in perspective.

      I am glad to have completed my PhD, not only for the knowledge I have gained, but for the experience itself and the friends I’ve made along the way. I would not trade my PhD journey for anything, regardless of what the future holds.

      Yes, life has continued along the way. My son-in-law and my beloved father have gone on to glory. My finances are nowhere near what I would like for them to be (due to factors out of my control I had to file bankruptcy). Along the way I had to deal with several health issues. I spent 3 weeks plus in the hospital and nearly died due to complications from a surgery, had cataract surgery on both eyes, plus had thyroid issues, so I had it taken out and now take thyroid med daily. I am still trying to lose the pounds I gained along the way. I check in with my spiritual director whenever I can (read whenever I can afford it). Through it all, I thank God, and as the song says, “I Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey.” I can’t wait to see what lies ahead!

      So be encouraged. Remember, every waking moment doesn’t have to be spent on the PhD! Tell your husband everyday that you love him. Make time for the kids and let them know how special each one is to you. Consider bankruptcy if it will give you some needed relief. (I wish I had taken time to pay more attention to my finances. I thought I was in good shape, and studying always took precedence whenever I had free time). As my Dad would say, “Hold On.” I can feel the breeze coming your way!

  78. Em says:

    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.

  79. samir sinha says:

    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.

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